Thursday, February 23, 2012

Catcalling crosses line into harassment

Visiting author offers tools to address unwanted attention

By Amelia Heath, Copy Editor

Walking to campus from off-campus housing or to local establishments from residence halls has always carried some risk. Now, Pacific Lutheran University is helping make students aware of the threat called “street harassment.”

Holly Kearl, author of “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women,” lectured to a room of 23 PLU students and community members in the Regency Room Feb. 16.

Kearl discussed the definition of street harassment, where it occurs, why it happens, to whom it happens and what society is doing to address it.Kearl said there is no official law defining or addressing street harassment, but defined it in her own words as “unwelcome sexual or sexist words or actions between strangers in public places, motivated by gender … [this] behavior feels disrespectful, startling, scary or insulting to its targets.”

When Kearl asked audience members whether they had ever experienced street harassment, eight of the 23 raised their hands.

Kearl noted that women are not the only targets. Members of the LGBT community are also often targeted, citing the case of Deoni Jones, a transgender woman who was stabbed at a Washington, D.C. bus stop Feb. 3 and later died from her injuries.

Kearl said disabled people, especially disabled women, are often harassed and viewed by their harassers as “asexual or nonsexual.”

Sophomore Kate Pritchard said she had never experienced street harassment before coming to PLU.

“Coming to college,” Pritchard said, “I’ve experienced a lot of it, and so this is something that’s relevant, I felt, to the PLU community.”

During the lecture, Kearl discussed techniques for addressing street harassment and emphasized telling harassers their actions are offensive.

Sophomore Katie Giseburt said she found these techniques for handling street harassment particularly interesting because “it just would be very startling and then you could follow up with, you know, ‘Don’t harass women.’ Just having those tools and knowing them already and being able to mentally prepare and visualize is extremely helpful.”

Sophomore Jessica Simmons said the lecture taught her street harassment can lead to sexual assault.

“It’s not just something that we can ignore and say, ‘Well, you just need to deal with it or buckle down or walk away as fast as you can,’” Simmons said. “It is something that we need to really confront. Everyone needs to take a stand and say, you know, ‘This isn’t okay. You can’t do this.’”

Kearl gained significant media attention when her master’s thesis research became the topic of an article on CNN’s website in 2008 titled “Catcalling: creepy or a compliment?”

“I was going to grad school at George Washington University in [Washington] D.C.,” Kearl said, “and I had to do a master’s thesis and at that time there were some new websites about street harassment and I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t really know what it was, but once I read the sites I immediately recognized it from my own life and stories I knew my friends had, so I did my thesis on that, and then from there I realized there was really a hole that needed to be filled.”

Since then, Kearl has authored one book, “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women,” and co-authored a second book with Catherine Hill, “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School,” which focuses on sexual harassment in grades 7-12. Her work has been cited by the United Nations and press agencies including CNN, ABC News and the Washington Post.

Acting Director of the Women’s Center Jennifer Smith said the Feminist Student Union plans to hold events for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, March 18-24.