Richson: Catcalling isn’t harmless, it’s harassment


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If you are a woman living in a college town, or any city for that matter, chances are that you’ve been catcalled before. Some prefer the term street harassment. Whichever way you slice it, the attention is generally unprovoked and unwanted.

At the epicenter of activism against street harassment lies New York City, not surprisingly. Tales of harassment on the subway by complete strangers are common in the same city where to smile at a stranger in passing is a foreign social phenomenon.

An organization called Hollaback was founded in 2005 in response to the growing public conversation about street harassment. Since the organization’s beginnings as a blog that served as a public forum for people to write about their own street harassment experiences, Hollaback has also conducted research on college campuses and has expanded not only outside of New York but also internationally.

According to the organization’s college-based research, 67 percent of study participants reported that they had been harassed on their college campuses. Unfortunately, what recipients perceive as harassment is often dismissed by others as complimentary in nature or harmless.

This past summer, I lived in a residential, student friendly area of Boston University’s campus, a mere walk from the heart of downtown Boston. I quickly settled into my own niche in this major American city; when I wasn’t meeting with the professor I was working with or con-templating if I might be able to fit in my kitchen freezer to beat the heat, I was walking to the nearest Whole Foods store to get my coffee fix or pick up dinner.

It was on these sometimes twice daily walks that I repeatedly encountered the man who spurred me to make sure I never forget my sunglasses or headphones when I left to grocery shop … tools that, in my mind, blocked his inappropriate comments as much as they did the screech of the passing subway train or the July sun.

The worst part was, like many cases of street harassment, that I could count on this man, sipping some sort of massive, diabetes-inducing drink, to be camped outside Dunkin’ Donuts every day like clockwork, as I tried to scurry past on my way to the grocery store. I won’t elaborate on the things he would shout at me, because they aren’t worth any of my memory’s capacity, but I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling of lingering eyes wherever I went.

Other days, I was ill-prepared to encounter harassment in other areas of the city; being whistled at as I waited at the crosswalk outside Barnes & Noble, having “hey, blondie” yelled at me, or run-walking away as a nearly toothless man rolled his minivan to a stop next to me on the sidewalk.

If I look good, I probably know it. I don’t need you to tell me. But street harassment is generally not about attraction, as women who find them-selves still being harassed while sweaty and running will tell you. Street harassment is inherently about power. After my experiences this sum-mer, I cannot conclude if the power is in ignoring the harassment or in talking back.

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