Street harassment creates unwelcoming environment
I was 12. It was midsummer in rural Ohio and I was jogging along the side of the road, training for my middle school cross country team. At first, I was puzzled as to why the trucker, passing through our pin-prick town, had honked at me, but, really the message was clear. “I guess this means I’m a woman now,” I remember thinking.
For many women, and in fact for many members of minority groups, the big bad wolf of street harassment has become that same nonchalantly accepted reality: Part of what it means to identify as an “other” in public spaces.
Those who don’t personally experience harassment may brush off the catcalls, whistles and obscene gestures being broadcast throughout communal areas as harmless flirting or fleeting annoyances.
They’re not, and we all need to realize that street harassment is a serious threat to our campus.
The website Stop Street Harassment defines it as being “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening, and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation.” Actions that constitute street harassment range from catcalls, whistling, honks and kissy noises and escalate to more serious offenses like groping, flashing, stalking and public masturbation.
In studies by Northwestern and Indiana University, it was found that nearly every single woman interviewed, out of 54 and 293 respectively, had been the target of a street harasser.
The “so what” is huge.
A major problem with street harassment is that, like assault, it assumes or disregards consent. It’s an unasked for sexual evaluation.
According to Dr. Monica Casper, Department Head of Gender and Women’s Studies, street harassment is closely tied, in this way, to the rape culture we hear mentioned ubiquitously. “[Both] rely on normative understandings of sex and gender, in which women are perpetually framed as sexually available to men,” Casper said.
Another buzz term, “victim blaming,” can be linked to street harassment — the harasser assumes that their target is asking for comments or attention based on some aspect of their person.
Megan McKendry, Violence Prevention Specialist for the UA’s OASIS program, said street harassment is part of a continuum of violence that also includes rape, assault and relationship based violence, and thus has much in common, and can even contribute to, the other members of its spectrum.
And of course, harassment doesn’t take into account the personal histories of those it targets. Because of that oft-repeated statistic that one in six women are victims of rape in their lifetime, the context in which comments and gestures are received could very likely include a history of sexual violence.
None of these factors make for a healthy campus on which all feel welcome, but even more specific to the college environment is the inclusivity that street harassment creates.
The threat of being harassed can limit participation, movement and behavior for less-privileged groups in public spaces. Not only does this go against the university’s priority of creating a diverse campus, if allowed to continue, this behavior discounts the value of all to receive a proper education and contribute to society.
“Just like men, women are here to learn and to grow as human beings, to prepare themselves for graduate study or the work world,” Casper said. “They are not here to be sexually assaulted or cat-called or bullied or otherwise maltreated.” Casper added that she’s met too many women forced to leave college after an assault.
Current education on street harassment leaves much to be desired, which perpetuates the problem.
“I’m just paying her a compliment; isn’t that what all women want?” One friend gave me as his motive for yelling at a woman in another car. Over and over again, the word “flattering” comes up to describe the nature of the harassment, and how the harassed should feel upon receiving it.
McKendry said that instead of sex or appearance, as is so often assumed, street harassment is about power and performing masculinity in a society with a constrictive definition of that quality.
This is often why harassers attack in groups: there is a degree of social capital, McKendry said, that comes with the insinuation of having a large sexual appetite and the means to fulfill it, regardless of the feelings of the harassed.
The solution is accountability, not for the victims of harassment, who are tired of being asked what they were wearing or how they were acting, but for the perpetrators. It is the very presence of women and other minority groups that triggers harassment, that makes their bodies the new public space, ready for projection, while taking away their access to universal resources.
Ensuring that this blame is properly assigned and the issue eradicated at its root is a burden that Casper says should fall on everyone, but is often best accomplished in peer education programs.
The university already has an extensive policy on nondiscrimination and anti-harassment which includes a system for reporting complaints, but there are even simpler steps to take.
The first: speak up next time you see street harassment occur, because being a woman shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive with receiving unwanted sexual attention in any 12-year-old’s mind.
Katelyn Kennon is a sophomore studying journalism, creative writing and anthropology. Follow her @dailywildcat.