Sexism, Hate, Mental Illness: Why Are Men Randomly Punching Women?

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Before her trip to New York a few weeks ago, Lisa Pires, a South African living in Amsterdam, encountered a series of videos on TikTok in which young women had filmed themselves after getting attacked on the street in New York. Most were punched in the face — unprovoked, at random — in Manhattan south of Midtown and during the day. “I remember thinking it sounded so absurd that it couldn’t really have been a thing,” Ms. Pires, who comes to the city often, told me recently.

Many others appeared to share her reaction. Women were calling City Council members, wanting to know if the videos were part of a prank, social media having complicated the relationship between the reality of crime and the perception of its prevalence. The beauty of an accuser all too often breeds suspicion, however prejudicially, especially if the accuser is a TikTok influencer with more than a million followers. In this instance, the tousled blond hair, long nails and laugh-crying on view in one of the most watched videos surely helped sow doubt the take rendered in a bracing “Clueless” argot (“literally I fell to the ground and this giant goose egg is forming on my head and I’m like ‘oh, my God,’” Halley McGookin said into her iPhone). On March 27, the Council’s Women’s Caucus issued a statement confirming that reports of these attacks were not a hoax but instead part of “an alarming trend in violence against women.”

Despite her skepticism, Ms. Pires made a note to be vigilant when she was in New York. Heading to lunch on a bright and chilly afternoon at the end of last week, she was standing at an intersection on Delancey Street waiting for the light to change when she noticed a man, walking in the opposite direction “studying” her. She registered that he was “quite well dressed,” but almost nothing else made an impression.

Before she knew it he struck her with his fist, hitting her on the right side of her head. He fled uptown on Essex Street. She reported the incident at the Seventh Precinct, where a detective told her that these type of attacks had become “kind of a big deal at the moment.” She was left with swelling in her ear; her face turned black and blue.

What was provoking all this? Fourteen women have reported getting punched out of nowhere by strangers since mid-March, leaving at least one of them with a broken nose, according to the police and city officials. So far there have been two arrests: In each case the assailant was charged with misdemeanor assault, a category in which judges are generally barred from setting bail and one that has risen 13 percent over the past two years even as major crimes have fallen. The man arrested in the case of Halley McGookin, a 40-year-old occasional fringe political candidate from Brooklyn, has a criminal record and his own active internet presence, maintaining an Instagram page with provocative images of young women and pictures of himself standing in front of a “Trump: Make America Great Again” sign. He wears a baseball cap with an inscription that claims he is the great-great-grandson of Marcus Garvey.

Were women panicking needlessly? It was hard not to interpret these recent offenses within the broader context of a roving and seemingly ever-more-insidious misogyny. In 2022, the most recent year for which there is available city data, women were killed by intimate partners at a rate 30 percent higher than the previous year. Reports of domestic violence also increased during that period, and nationwide, between 2018 and 2021, incidents of domestic violence involving guns went up by more than 7 percent. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, a third of women under 35 report having been sexually harassed online. And this is to say nothing of the less manifestly aggressive if pervasive abrasions — the distillation of any middle-aged woman who complains about anything to the favored signifier of oblivious bourgeois entitlement, the “Karen.”

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