Sexual harassment in NYC measuring mental illness?

An upsetting video (SFW) by Rob Bliss shows a woman being repeatedly verbally harassed as she walks the streets of New York City. The video is an edited sample of a 10 hour experiment. The actress, Shoshana B. Roberts, and Bliss were working on a project for Hollaback, an advocacy group trying to end street harassment. According to Bliss, who used a hidden camera and discreetly walked several paces in front of Roberts, the actress was harassed about 100 times during her 10 hour walk around the City (not all are shown in the video). In the video, one can clearly see Roberts simply walking and looking forward, minding her own business, not engaging or inviting conversation or interaction. Yet various men constantly vie for her attention, sometimes very aggressively, using a spectrum of nearly universally inappropriate strategies. This included many expressions like unsolicited neutral comments, catcalls, inappropriate remarks (usually about her looks), aggressive talking, shouting, following, and so on. The Washington Post has a good article summarizing the project and players. Here is the original video

A similar project was done on The Daily Show by comedian and correspondent Jessica Williams

I personally found the videos very disturbing and significant on many levels. They have helped me appreciate the issues women face while just walking from point A to B. Yes, as a man I have to navigate the occasional nuisance while walking along the street, but nothing like those shown in the videos. If these projects represent typical experiences for women, this represents a serious social problem. Even if it is atypical, a notion these videos do not support (the women in the videos seem “typical” — for example, no one is a recognizable popular celebrity whose presence might be especially socially disruptive), it is still upsetting. No one should need to experience interactions like that just walking around (including celebrities).

While emotionally impactful, it is important to realize the videos in no way represent a scientific experiment. There is no baseline measurement or control group. However, the video below might be a pretty decent effort as a control experiment:

In all seriousness, despite a lack of scientific rigor, I am willing to accept that the videos are broadly representative of the experiences many women have walking around. They demonstrate to me that the harassment is real, unsolicited, annoying, and occasionally terrifying. No one should have to put up with behavior like that and it is a terrible thing to be subjected to. We, as a society, need to figure out how to understand and manage this.

Other than the fact that all the harassers were men, one rather conspicuous thing jumped out at me while watching these videos: the men in the video seemed to be mentally and/or emotionally ill individuals. This in no way justifies their behavior and the harassment is clearly real. But seriously, what kind of person just starts randomly talking to another person about ANYTHING as they walk down the street, with no other context, demanding all of their attention? Someone who is mentally ill, practically by definition. Sure, talking to someone randomly on the street is occasionally appropriate. The annoying sales person can be given a legitimate excuse, even if frustrating. A panhandler is perhaps also in a special category (panhandling is not necessarily acceptable, but it is understood to a degree). Yes, the occasional “hello” or “have a good day” to a stranger might work when it is natural — which it usually isn’t while just walking down the street minding your own business. That they were mostly non-white men in Bliss’s video is likely a selection bias on the part of the editor. That they were men shows a clear testosterone connection.

In the videos, the perpetrators seem to be men who lack self control, who genuinely can’t manage their own impulses, physical and verbal, who don’t understand social conventions and basic etiquette. Self evidently, they are men who lack empathy or understanding of another person’s physical and emotional space. It is as if they have some kind of aggressive nervous tick they can’t control. The adult human mind is full of noise; there are impulses coming from many sectors of the psyche. However, most people, emotionally and mentally healthy adults, men and women alike of all walks of life, learn how to manage those internal impulses. Adults who can’t do that usually have some kind of brain damage, perhaps to the frontal lobe where impulse control is seated, or are not emotionally or mentally healthy in some other way.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation is worth doing. How many people does one expect to be in “interaction range” during a 10 hour excursion in New York City and what percentage is the observed 100 harassments of that number? This will help set the scale for the fraction of individuals harassing these women.

1) The population density of New York City: 26403 people per square mile ~ 0.01 people per square meter ~ 1 person per 100 square meters

2) 100 square meters might be regarded as a sensible “interactions zone” around a typical person walking around: +/- 5 meters in each direction

3) The typical walking speed of a person is around: 1.5 m/s

4) Imagine breaking New York City into a grid of 10 x 10 meter squares

5) The time to transverse 10 meters and move to one unique 10 square meter cell: about 6.67 seconds

6) There are 3600 seconds in 1 hour, so a 10 hour walk in NYC will sample about 5400 unique people on average in New York

7) If there were 100 harassment events/5400 persons during the walk in the video, this is about a 1.8% or 2% effect

That is, about 2% of the people Roberts interacted with during her excursion with Bliss harassed her to various degrees, violating her personal mental and emotional state. Again, this obviously isn’t scientific, but rather just a back-of-the-envelope. If I had to guess, I would say I underestimated the number of unique people per square meter one encounters on the street during the day in NYC. In other words, 2% is probably high.

If you asked me in advance “what fraction of people in New York City have mental problems involving a pathological lack of self control?” I would likely have guessed something like 10%. So, I could easily believe that the 2% number is looking at a subset of that that group, representing adult men whose mental illness, emotional illness, and excessive lack of self control is particularly aggressive and directed towards women. This 2% number then represents about 4% of the male population. This, I believe, is what these videos are measuring: a mental health problem specific to some men. It also explains the relative uniformity of the distribution across New York City, a point emphasized in William’s video.

The good news is, if it is a specific kind of mental health problem intrinsic to some population of men, and not some completely ill-defined problem, then perhaps this points to a strategy to help organizations like Hollaback end the awful street harassment many women experience.

Let me clarify that:
I’m in no way claiming that all harassment directed toward women across all social and cultural modes is due to mental illness alone; the causes of harassment are surely complex, perhaps involving trained dysfunctional socialized behaviors from early childhood, personality disorders, and other extensions of “healthy” mental states — but which are not a form of mental illness per se. I also hope that I have not given the impression that am I rationalizing away the effect or removing the element of personal responsibility from perpetrators. I’m merely proposing that one contribution to the problem — particularly in the context of aggressive street harassment of the sort shown in the video — may be a particular form of mental illness. I’m suggesting that scientifically exploring this contribution, by trained professionals, may be worthwhile.