Cat Fight: women in NYU and NYC speak out against street harassment

This article was originally published on May 11, 2014 as a final project for a class assignment.

Sirkka Miller wore a floral dress on April 27, 2014. It wasn’t much longer than a large t-shirt, and it was loose-fitting, moving around quite easily  with the help of the breeze on that windy evening.  Slits the sleeves revealed her shoulders.  Though she wore shorts under the dress to avoid an unintended peep show, her tan legs were bare under the dress, aside from a pair of brown-leather fisherman sandals.  It was roughly 55 degrees outside, so she wore a bomber jacket to keep warm, but her legs were left uncovered.  At around 5:30 p.m., as she walked westbound from at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park, she was stopped by a young man, a New York native attending college in Queens. He told her she was attractive, and that he had never seen anyone like her before. As serendipitous as it sounds, this was no Hollywood boy-meets-girl encounter.

“I was walking and texting and I was feeling self conscious because my dress was blowing around, and all of the sudden he ran up from behind me to next to me,” said Miller, a 19-year-old NYU Liberal Studies freshman. “He was very suave, which was scary,” she added.  He tried talking to her and followed her to the Washington Square arch. Before Miller was able to get rid of him, he asked for her number, to which she quipped, “Well, you’re probably an axe murderer,” and refused.

Miller’s experience is no anomaly. Women of the NYU community  – as well as other neighborhoods in New York City – are subject to street harassment, or “catcalling,” every day.  However, more and more women are speaking out and trying to make a change.

Street harassment is defined as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation,” according to Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit organization geared to end public, gender-based harassment. “Leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, gender-policing, and non-sexually explicit evaluative comments, to more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and murder” all fall under street harassment, the organization states.

“It’s an urban issue faced by the most disenfranchised groups—women of color and queer and trans populations. I don’t think anyone understands it who isn’t affected by it—and by its very nature, only disenfranchised people will experience it,” said Sonia Saraiya, creator of Catcalled, an online collection of women’s experiences being harassed on the street.

Stop Street Harassment reported that 99% of women have been victims of street harassment in their lives, and in New York City, 55% of women are harassed on public transit, according to a study by New Yorkers for Safe Transit.

NYU students do not fall short of that 99%, and the victims are not pleased.

I’ve been catcalled in ways where they’re whispering and snapping at me like I’m a dog,” fumed CAS senior Amy Wiener. “And I’m like, ‘F*ck you! You don’t deserve my attention.’”

Music Education major Devin McNulty has similar views. “There’s no way that cat calling isn’t aggressive,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that they’re a wonderful person, if they’re calling me hot, they’re seeing me as a sexual object, and I am a person.”

“People think that they have a right to comment on you and your sexuality,” Wiener commented. “I’ll compliment a person, but not talk at them. A conversation happens between two people, not at people.

Sophomore Social and Cultural Analysis major Margaux Aquino said, “Honestly, I think it’s pathetic, degrading, objectifying, and unnecessary. I just don’t understand why any decent guy would think that catcalling is an okay thing to do. The lack of human decency is appalling, especially in the city.”

Women and girls who share McNulty, Weiner, and Aquino’s feelings now have the ability to shed light on their experiences with the help of social media.  Through story-sharing websites or blogs like Catcalled, they can spread awareness on street harassment.

Why is sharing stories online the best route?  Saraiya, said, “It seemed like the only possible way to make anyone understand what street harassment feels like for a woman.”

Hollaback! is one of the more popular outlets. It’s a website and smartphone app made for women to share stories, with the ability to add photos or geotags.

Between Union Square and Houston Street, and First and Sixth Avenues – the general area of most NYU academic buildings and residence halls – there are 45 instances recorded on Hollaback’s “Holla on the Go” map.

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Jae Cameron, program associate for Hollaback! invites women to share their experiences and reactions. “There are many reactions to street harassment, and all of them are totally valid.  People write to us on the site expressing their feelings of anger, sadness, fear, or even shame,” she said in an e-mail.

Some of the anonymous submissions read:

“I was street performing in the Union Square subway station by the 4/5/6 trains, and a man reached out and squeezed my breast as he walked by. I punched him in the face and started screaming at him. He expressed surprise and shock and told me that he had thought I was a mannequin.”

“A man was masturbating on 14th street and ave A tonight”

One participant named Daniella even submitted a story about being harassed at the Anti-Street Harassment Rally in Washington Square Park last year.

“Everyone is completely entitled to their own opinion,” Cameron continued. “Sometimes street harassment won’t bother them, or sometimes a remark can trigger a very strong reaction, and that’s completely okay.”

When it comes to hot spots, busier, more populated areas total to more instances and higher risk of street harassment. “What we’ve found is that high-traffic areas have the highest rates of street harassment reporting,” Cameron said. “That makes sense – you’re more likely to be harassed on Wall Street than in a Wallmart parking lot – there’s more people around who are likely to harass.  In NYC, that trend follows – Times Square, Soho, Downtown Brooklyn, Wall Street, and Midtown all have high levels of reporting.

However, even in downtown side streets, catcalling is still prevalent. Margaux Aquino lives in NYU’s Second Street residence hall, located on the corner of Bowery and 2nd Street and commutes to work at a law office in the Upper East Side.  Both are located in less busy areas than Times Square or Wall Street.

“Nearly every morning on my way to work, I have to walk past a group of construction workers that work near my subway stop,” she said. “I can’t remember a morning where they haven’t completely stopped what they were doing to fire disrespectful comments at me left and right. One of them even had the nerve to grab my waist once. It’s always completely uncomfortable and humiliating.”

The two forms of harassment that Aquino experienced are actually the two most common. Reportedly, 57% of the scenarios are verbal, 29% included physical interaction, and 12% included groping or intended groping, according to a recent study conducted by Hollaback! and Cornell University. The team conducted research on the nature of street harassment, based Hollaback users’ submissions on the organization’s “Holla on the Go page.”

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On the night of April 17, 2014, a Thursday, 14th street was dark but not lifeless. A college-aged girl walked eastbound between Second and First Avenues with a large gray knapsack on her back, camera bag slung across her body, and a bag of Halal Guys in hanging from her hands. Two conversed while walking in front of her, and then stop abruptly, but she continues past them.

“Oh she can get it,” one man calls out from behind her. “She can get it any time, for free.”

She seems to hear them, but she doesn’t comment, but instead makes a face and continues walking. She’s not wearing anything revealing, either; a pair of jeans and a trench coat cover a lot of skin.

NYU junior Sarah Lee has had similar experiences; on days when she’s not trying to look made-up, she still gets called at on the street. “It’s always those days when you’re not even cute! You’re just wearing jeans and ratty-ass shoes and glasses!” she said.

Aquino doesn’t let the risk of street harassment get influence what she wears. “I can’t say that I completely change the way I dress because of cat calling because I won’t allow rude guys to completely control how I present myself. However, I always make sure to bring a sweater or jacket with me so that if I know I’m going to be walking alone, I can cover up to try to prevent street harassment. I also almost always wear sunglasses and plug in my headphones to try to drown out any unwanted attention.”

Devin McNulty had similar views. “I shouldn’t have to feel like a slut for wearing a dress that I feel confident in,” she said.

Freshman Tom Dziuba offered a college-aged male’s perspective on the topic.  “I think they ruin compliments for actual people. Sometimes a girl actually looks nice in a dress.”  Though he is sometimes tempted to make comments on attractive girls on the street, he chooses not to.  “It makes me look like I want to mount you like an animal,” he jokingly explained.  At a party he attended on April 26th, for example, he said he saw a good looking girl as he was leaving.  He was tempted again to say something to her, but refrained himself.  “And I couldn’t because they’d be like, ‘what a pig that guy was for calling that girl pretty.”

Aquino’s predictions for the future of catcalling are pragmatic yet hopeful.  “I don’t think catcalling will stop anytime soon until greater initiatives are put into action, and the men of tomorrow can learn by example that it’s cool to treat women with respect,” she said.

Saraiya similarly stated, “There isn’t enough awareness, especially from men.”

In terms of finding a solution, Cameron of Hollaback! says that criminalization is not street harassment’s antidote.  “At Hollaback! NYC we do not advocate for criminalization of street harassment.  We do believe that legislators should work with community groups to conduct safety audits, listen to concerns, bring educational programs into middle and high schools, and support workshops on respect and bystander awareness.”

Those bystanders could be other men, too.  Dziuba admitted that he feels sorry when he sees a girl getting cat called.  “They don’t need validation,” he explained.

“The most important action is knowing that it isn’t your fault,” Cameron continued. “It’s not about what you’re wearing, or how you’re walking, or who you love — you have a right to be you.”

McNulty admits that being catcalled makes her feel like a “bad person.” She stated, “And no one has the power to make me feel bad about myself.”