It’s More Than Just ‘cat Calls’: People Who Walk Downtown Often Encounter Street Harassment

Maureen McMullen, Multimedia Journalism, MSUM

During a walk home from Downtown Fargo one weekend, two men in a truck pulled up next to my friend and me. The men began yelling vulgar comments about my appearance and their, shall we say, “reactions” to it.

My male companion was quick to tell them off. As they screeched away in their rusty pickup, we shrugged off the incident and carried on walking, thinking they’d disappeared to whichever grim corner of existence they’d crept out of.

We were not, however, that fortunate. The cretins took it upon themselves to park their car, hide behind a corner and confront us in an empty parking lot. After a nauseating series of chest-bumping and name-calling toward my friend, I’d had enough.

I thrust my can of mace into the more outspoken aggressor’s face and (foolishly) threatened him with a face full of the fiery liquid. Before I could react, he kicked out my knee and threw me onto the asphalt.

I got up, furious and ashamed as I picked gravel out of my bleeding palms.

As I stormed away, they hurled death threats and a half-empty beer bottle at my back.

What is street harassment?

The terrifying situation I was thrust into, unfortunately, is one that people—a majority of whom are women— have become far too familiar with. This publicly confrontational behavior is known as street harassment.

Daria Odegaard, education coordinator for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo, defines street harassment as, “when anyone experiences a situation in which they feel like they are the recipient of unwanted attention or unwanted comments in a public arena.”

“So that may be cat-calling, it may be comments that are made about a person’s body, it may be if you’re sitting in, say, a bus or in a subway and someone rubs your leg or puts their arm around your shoulder. It’s basically harassment that takes place in a public setting,” Odegaard said.

Street Harassment from Doing It Downtown on Vimeo.

Street harassment remains legal gray area

In North Dakota, harassment generally only pertains to stalking, and abuse over the phone or online. This creates a complex legal situation when it comes to street harassment. In many instances, the behavior that Odegaard identifies as street harassment falls through the legal cracks.

“Cat-calling,” which is shouting or gesturing at someone in a sexual way, is a good example of behavior that falls into this gray area. However rude, abusive and dangerous it is when it escalates, it is a right protected by the First Amendment, and is not illegal in North Dakota or Minnesota.

While street harassment is not legally defined or recognized, escalated incidents which cause a disturbance in public or involve inappropriate touching or grabbing may be categorized as disorderly conduct.

“We do have a law that’s kind of a catch-all law that’s called disorderly conduct,” said Sgt. Marc Baetsch, Minnesota State University Moorhead Public Safety. “Disorderly conduct is basically a nuisance law; someone that’s hollering, yelling or making a general nuisance of themselves, they can be arrested for disorderly conduct.”

Harassment jeopardizes safety

Though street harassment often doesn’t break any laws, it violates victims in a way that surpasses being pitiable, annoying or unflattering.

“For the person receiving that abusive behavior, it puts them in a situation where they may feel vulnerable, they may feel fear, they may feel inferior,” said Odegaard. “It takes that power balance, in a situation where people are interacting on very balanced, equal level; it puts that balance out of place.”

When I was accosted downtown, a gamut of feelings bombarded me. I felt violated when they shouted perverse things about my appearance. I felt their disregard for my bodily autonomy when I was kicked and shoved to the ground. I felt, and still do feel, scared for my life when one of them told me he’d slit my throat if he ran into me again.

It was more than offensive, more than scary; it was dehumanizing. Though the situation happened late at night in the midst of post-last-call downtown, similar situations can, and do, happen anywhere and at any time.

“Right at the start of the school year, there was a young lady who was walking across a (parking) lot on campus, and two guys pulled up behind her and were making very lewd comments about her physical appearance and started following her in the car as she was walking,” said Sgt. Baetsch. “Obviously, she was scared. This was the middle of the day, but who knows who those guys were or what their intentions were.”

The liklihood that someone should expect to be shouted at, groped or assaulted in public at any point creates a threatening environment that can interfere with daily life.

“Thinking about what it’s like for young people who experience this on a very regular basis, I think about how unfair it is to be going about your daily business living your life and have someone so abruptly mistreat you like that,” said Odegaard.

Social norms fuel hostile environment

One root causes of street harassment identified by Odegaard is what she calls “limited definitions of masculinity.”

“We have these stereotypes in our society of what a ‘real man’ is or what a ‘real man’ does,” said Odegaard. “Some of those ideas are that real men have that prowess and they go after women, and they’re very sexually aggressive, that that’s just how men act.”

Working in tandem with this train of thought, Odegaard says, are limited roles for women. While it is certainly true that both men and women are victims of all forms of harassment, women have traditionally been the target of street harassment.

“Women are supposed to be looked at as sexualized beings, looked at as individuals whose only worth comes from their sexuality,” said Odegaard. “So, when we have these messages being given to men and women, you can see where street harassment fits into this.”

Taking control of unfair situations

Harassment is never the fault of the victim, nor is the victim responsible for making sure they’re treated with respect and dignity. However, like a disease, people suffer from harassment whether or not they “deserve” it. But, like a disease, harassment can be combated.

With the prevalence of street harassment in America and on a global scale, it is, unfortunately, likely that most women will encounter a situation in their lives that could be categorized as street harassment. Knowledge of how to confront situations of street harassment can not only be a powerful safety tool, but can also grant peace of mind.

“Ninety-five percent of self-defense is mental; it’s being mentally prepared. Being able to recognize the risk,” said Sgt. Baetsch, who teaches a Rape Aggression Defense class at MSUM.

Sgt. Baetsch offered advice for dealing with a variety of situations:

  • Verbal Harassment: often happens when people shout out of their car window, or in passing, but occasionally happens face-to-face.
  •  “Rather than to stand there and go back and forth with a person, the best thing to do is to find a safe spot to go,” suggests Sgt. Baesch. “I’m not saying that if you ignore it, it will go away, but don’t feed on it.”
  • Being followed: In situations where you feel you are being followed home or are suspicious of someone nearby, Sgt. Baetsch suggests:
    • Find a safe place: First and foremost, find a building or place where there are other people and where you will be safe.
    • Identify them: If possible, try to determine what the suspicious person looks like, or make note of the license plate of a suspicious vehicle. This is best done subtly as to not engage them.
    • Walking home: Walking home late at night can be a nerve-wracking situation. There are precautions you can take that could be useful.
      • Cell Phone: While walking home, keep a number of the police or a friend pulled up on your phone to make a fast call. If it makes you more comfortable, keep a friend on the phone with you until you are at your destination.
      • Know your surroundings: Know different locations that are safe wherever you are.
      • Pepper Spray: Carrying pepper spray comes highly recommended, not only for safety, but for peace of mind. Sgt. Baetsch warns, “it’s not a silver bullet”. However, when used correctly, pepper spray can be an excellent tool of defense if you feel physically threatened.
        • How to use it: spray into attacker’s eyes in a back-and-forth sweeping motion. Don’t stick around to see the effects; now is your chance to exit the situation.

  • Do not threaten someone with it: As I learned the hard way, announcing that you have pepper spray gives the attacker a chance to grab it or knock you down. Be prepared to use it once it’s out. Also, make sure you only use it when you are being physically threatened.
  • Make sure it’s accessible: “I’ve known girls who buy pepper spray and keep it at the bottom of their purse,” said Sgt. Baetsch. “When you need it, it may as well be on the moon at that point.” He suggests buying one with a key ring to carry with your keys.
  • Where to buy it: Pepper spray can be bought online from vendors, like SabreRed or from sporting goods stores like Scheels or Gander Mountain.
  • Kubaton: Sgt. Baetsch also suggested a Kubaton, which is a metal or hard plastic rod that is generally about the length of a pencil and has an attached key ring so it can be kept on the keys. This can be used to disarm attackers through tactical jabs and blows to pressure points and soft spots such as the eyes, throat and collarbones. It can be purchased online, and instructional videos can be found online. Like pepper spray, a kubaton is legal to carry.


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