Working to walk streets without fear

While catcalling isn’t a crime, it can have serious effects, experts say.

Meghan Holden

 

While walking down University Avenue Southeast on Saturday night, a group of men yelled at Colleen Jaskulski and her girlfriends.

Although shouting “cutie” at someone isn’t a crime, University of Minnesota students, professors and community members argue that it can lead to negative body image, emotional distress and sometimes violence.

“It starts with the cat-calling,” said Jaskulski, a theater freshman, “but you never know where it can lead.”

In a 2008 Stop Street Harassment online survey, 99 percent of women said they had experienced some form of street harassment.

“It can make the victim feel unsafe in their own body,” said Zenzele Isoke, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies.

Street harassment is “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary or insulting way,” according to nonprofit Stop Street

Harassment. As part of Anti-Street Harassment Week, several University groups held a panel  Monday to address the normality and dimensions of street harassment — and how to take action against it.

Isoke grew up in an urban area where she said she was harassed on a daily basis while walking to school. This is especially a problem for women who rely on public transportation, she said.

“For poor women, it’s a regular part of life,” said Isoke, adding that street harassment isn’t just restricted to urban areas.

University police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said he frequently hears street harassment during weekends in Dinkytown.

Because it’s not a crime, Miner said the police don’t know how often it actually happens on campus.

Some female University students said they feel unsafe walking around campus at night, especially on the weekends.

“When I’m walking at night I don’t want anyone to notice me,” mathematics freshman Clare Lawrence said. “I just want to get to where I’m going.”

Emily Mickelson, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering sophomore, said she usually tries to walk in groups at night to avoid unwanted harassment.

“I’d be more vulnerable, especially as a female, if I’m walking around campus at night,” she said.

More than just an issue for women

Street harassment is most commonly thought of as a problem for women, but it doesn’t confine itself to one group, said Paridise Valentino, who works for the Trans Youth Support Network.

Valentino is a transgender woman and said she and others in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community experience street harassment frequently.

When riding the bus, a man once yelled discriminatory comments about Valentino’s gender after she asked him why he was looking at her strangely.

“A lot of times when the LGBT community goes out and express themselves, it kind of brings a panic to society because they think we’re trying to rebel,” she said.

More than half of all transgender and gender non-conforming respondents reported being “verbally harassed or disrespected” in public in a 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report.

Because street harassment is common for members in the LGBT community, they’re not able to be themselves in public, Valentino said.

Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, said harassers often oppress people who are LGBT because they see them as a target to dehumanize.

“They have a need for power and control,” Eichele said.

Despite her negative experiences, Valentino is hopeful street harassment will end if people keep fighting it.

“Change is going to come one day,” she said.