Smith Jackson, vice president for student life, sent an email Jan. 23 about an incident in which two males shouted racial and sexual slurs at a female Elon University student as they drove past her. The university sponsored two events to inspire a campus-wide discussion of racial intolerance.
The lack of tolerance demonstrated by this incident is an issue in its own right, and it fully deserves the attention it has received and will hopefully receive in the future. But there was another component to the incident: the Elon student was also harassed because of her gender.
The incident described above was a case of street harassment — an unwanted interaction in a public space between strangers motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression. These interactions can annoy, anger, humiliate and scare the victim and are ultimately a form of sexual harassment that takes place regularly on Elon’s campus.
This type of sexual harassment typically occurs between a man — or, more often, a group of men — in a car and a woman walking on one of Elon’s sidewalks. Sexual harassment happens regardless of what the woman is wearing or the time of day, though of course it happens more frequently on weekend nights.
Men shout anything from “Hey!” to profane sexual comments as they pass. The women are left on the sidewalk, probably giggling nervously to cover their discomfort because they don’t know how else to respond to a shameless act of male aggression.
That’s what this is: men forcing women to accept unwelcome comments and driving away before there can be any backlash. It’s cowardly, and it reveals that these men know what they’re doing is wrong. Safe inside their cars with their five best frat buddies, catcallers feel comfortable enough to say whatever they want because they know there will be no consequences.
There are worse offenses in the world than catcalling, but it is an issue at Elon that no one — including the university administration — seems to have made enough of a priority.
But a lot of people seem to recognize catcalling as a serious issue. According to a study by StopStreetHarassment.org, 99 percent of women have experienced some sort of street harassment.
If 99 percent of women got food poisoning from a bad shipment of meat, grocery stores, food distributors and the appropriate governmental agencies would take drastic action to solve the problem. It would seem that since there is little legislation protecting a woman’s right to walk down the street, 99 percent of women don’t actually need protection.
By not addressing the issue, we’re saying that it’s perfectly acceptable for women to be shouted and leered at. We’re saying that it’s expected. We’re saying that, by stepping outside their homes, women are exposing themselves to unsolicited and distressing comments.
My own experiences with catcalling at Elon range from the ridiculous — “You look like Taylor Swift,” — to the disturbing — “If I run behind you, does that mean I’m chasing you?”
Every incident leaves me feeling uncomfortable in a place where I should feel completely safe. Every incident makes me angry that there are people who think their opinion of my appearance is more important than my right to walk to Acorn without being harassed. I’ve been catcalled more here on my “safe” college campus than I have walking around downtown Atlanta.
Shouting, “Hey, girl” at someone walking down the sidewalk on Williamson Avenue may not feel like an excessively threatening act, but if it’s meant to be a compliment, why do you have to shout it from a passing car? There are correct ways to give compliments, and shouting them from a moving vehicle is not one of them.