When she lived in Houston, designer Lucy Bonner hardly ever experienced street harassment that 99 percent of women surveyed experience at least once in their lifetimes. But when the Parsons School of Design student moved to New York City last year, that drastically changed, so much so she created a virtual realty experience that puts users in the shoes of a woman being catcalled.
She named it Compliment.
"Multiple times a day, as a woman, I am forced to endure comments about my appearance, what men would do to me, how I should act, and how I should respond. Not to mention those who bark, whistle, making smacking sounds, or simply leer at me without words," she wrote in a blog.
Though what she endured clearly made her uncomfortable, she explained that no one who didn't experience the harassment themselves seemed to understand what she felt enduring it. She built Compliment to help remedy that.
"Perhaps if they experienced [street harassment] themselves they would be a little less quick to dismiss this constant and pervasive intrusion on women’s lives," she wrote.
Users wear an Oculus Rift, a device that her subjects use to immerse themselves in a virtual New York neighborhood similar to her own, to feel like they're walking through the streets. As they do, they encounter men who shout typical catcall-like phrases at them as they walk by — phrases such as "Can I have your number? No? Why not?" to "Look at those fat *sses" — and even approach them. Bonner deliberately made the height of the person wearing the Oculus Rift smaller, so they'd have to look up and feel vulnerable the way many women smaller than their harassers do.
"Participants are unable to respond to the harassment except to walk away, as in the real world with concern for safety, and are forced to constantly hear and navigate unwanted attention," she told A Plus.
She then had both men and women participate in the immersive experience and their reactions lined up with what Bonner feels in her everyday life.
"It was very uncomfortable," one man who used Compliment said. "Walking in the digital world, I had to crane my neck to see these people ... I felt threatened. And that's something I never could have experienced.
A woman who used the simulation said it was a successful way for people who don't ever feel on edge because of this to get them to see what it's like.
"Generally people have been thoughtful and want to talk about the experience of street harassment, both in Compliment and in the real world, and how we can create change in our society," she told A Plus.
Bonner is still working on perfecting the project, but hopes she can help raise awareness for the issue.
"Compliment conveys the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced in order to raise awareness and effect change," she wrote.
Watch the full simulation and responses below: