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Half of female students report being catcalled at least once a month

Prevalence of street harassment affects how students get home at night, navigate campus

By and
Staff Writer and Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

In her first month on College Hill, Rachel Souza ’21 was catcalled for the first time in her life.

“I was just walking back to my dorm, and, out of the blue, a car drove by and (someone) howled at me,” she said. “It was just shocking.”

Souza’s experience is not unusual among University students. About half of female-identifying students reported being catcalled at least once a month on or near campus, as found in The Herald’s 2017 fall undergraduate poll. The same is true for 60 percent of students surveyed who do not identify along the gender binary.

“That is a disturbing number,” said Professor of International Studies and Anthropology Catherine Lutz. Catcalling is symptomatic of a patriarchy that encourages disrespectful behavior, she added.

For some students, the threat of a catcall influences how and when they get around campus.

Natalie Fredman ’21 said she avoids walking alone at night around campus when possible. Like Souza, Fredman was catcalled for the first time at Brown — but at age 15, as a student participating in Summer@Brown.

“I don’t really feel safe on Thayer Street at all,” Souza said. She always tells friends where she is going or shares her location when walking alone at night, she added.

“A lot of men know that it’s disrespectful, and they know that women don’t like it, but … they’re very oblivious to the fact that it’s actually threatening,” Fredman said. “If you’re in a car, and you’re double my size, and I’m walking alone at night, you have so much power over me. And that’s terrifying,” Fredman said.

This more than affects the emotional state of those harassed, Lutz said — it can prevent those catcalled from moving through the world freely. “It’s not just words you can roll off your back,” Lutz said.

John Cruz, a 23-year-old from Providence, who said he has catcalled frequently around College Hill, sees his comments not as harassment, but as a way to start a conversation.

“I’m not disrespectful, so I wouldn’t go and say disrespectful stuff,” he said.

“I do understand a lot of women hate that,” said his brother, Allen Cruz. “But at the end of the day if you don’t say hello, she won’t say hi back.”

Other students react to verbal innuendos without visible changes in behavior. After a car of four men yelled at Halle Vernon ’19 while she was walking between the Sharpe Refectory and MacMillan Hall midday, she understood for the first time that she could not prevent catcalling, she said.

“Even if you are walking between two campus buildings in the middle of the day in sweatpants and a giant puffy coat, you are still going to be screamed at,” she added.

Catcalling also affects many students who participate in activities off campus.

Quinn Bornstein ’18 (“Bornstein ’18: Don’t honk if you support equality”), who has written about her experiences with catcalling , said she and her cross country teammates were catcalled daily last spring while running off-campus.

Comments may simply consist of “weird noises,” said cross country runner Alexis Van Pernis ’19. Explicit comments on students’ bodies are also common, she added. But sometimes catcallers do more than just make noise.

“Multiple girls on the team have been followed by guys in cars for several blocks, especially when you’re running alone — and every turn you make, they make,” Van Pernis said. Last spring, she and her teammates believed one man followed lone runners several times, making “hissing” noises at them, she added.

When approached by full-grown men, she and her teammates tend to respond with silence. “They’re standing, you’re running, they can’t catch you,” Van Pernis said.

Lutz said that those catcalled should do what feels best and safest to them. She suggested that if men see catcalling, they should respond.

“Give (men) the responsibility, since they have benefited from the degree at which … women are intimidated or kept at home,” she said. “Ask men to say, ‘What the hell are you talking about? Back in your hole.’”

Of the 41.7 percent of students surveyed who have never been catcalled on or near campus, three quarters identify as male. Still, some male students have been verbally harassed on or near campus. Max Kozlov ’20 was walking back from Andrews at 3:30 a.m. when a car stopped next to him on Thayer.

“I was confused about what was going on,” he said. “They rolled down their window and were like, ‘You can walk right into my car.’ … I turned into Fones Alley because I knew cars couldn’t go there.”

Kozlov said he reported the incident to the Department of Public Safety.

Deputy Chief of Police Paul Shanley said DPS receives “a couple of calls per semester” related to verbal harassment and sexual innuendos on or around campus. Most of these instances occur on Thayer Street, and none in the last year have involved a University student as the catcaller.

When students come to DPS, Shanley and his officers file a report to keep track of patterns in the area or descriptions of verbal assault. They determine their next response on a case-by-case basis. DPS cannot always treat catcalling like a crime due to free speech laws, Shanley said.

“Whenever an individual starts to follow another community member, I think that rises to a different level,” he added.

In most cases, DPS will attempt to locate the individual reported, Shanley said. If a student wanted to make a criminal complaint, the individual could be arrested. A formal complaint in conjunction with the Providence Police could result in a disorderly conduct charge, Shanley added.

The percentage of students who have been catcalled on campus indicates the presence of other forms of harassment, Lutz said.

“There is this sense that Brown is a privileged place and therefore it is privileged for everyone,” she said. “But the race and gender differences in the Brown student and faculty body have similar kinds of consequences: people’s self-esteem and sense of safety and long term well-being.”