POSNER: A new frontier for sexual respect

Out of Line

Moving off campus for the summer didn’t involve much culture shock. I still picked up last minute snacks at G-Heav, ran into my friends on Cross Campus and waited a lifetime for mail to end up in my PO Box. I didn’t anticipate, though, that in spending my summer on Elm Street I would have to face regular catcalls and vulgar remarks. I didn’t fear for my physical safety when walking alone near my apartment, so much as I dealt with the unsolicited sexual advances that strangers yelled at me on the way home.

This kind of provocation isn’t a huge issue where I’m from: it’s certainly not inescapable — a startling 90 percent of women experience street harassment in their lives — but it goes generally unnoticed. But on the periphery of Yale’s central campus, women face wolf-whistles, obscene flirtations, lewd suggestions and ogling looks.

For students who choose residence off campus, street harassment might be the final frontier of a still-skewed sexual climate at Yale. Because the issue typically flares up beyond campus boundaries, it’s easy to excuse this kind of activity as not within University jurisdiction or concern. But many Yalies do engage with the surrounding neighborhood; of those who don’t, few make it through four years without a Stop and Shop run or dinner at Sally’s Apizza. Street harassment is essentially an issue of a woman’s ability — or inability — to comfortably navigate the campus area. That makes it a Yale issue.

Dealing with street harassment is tough at best; the challenge is gargantuan, omnipresent and interwoven with social norms in a complex way. Street harassment as a term attempts to describe a huge category of behaviors: the unsolicited and unwelcome evaluation and objectification of the female and transgender body in public spaces, with a particular gendered or sexual motivation.

That can mean anything from a honk directed at a female runner to sexually explicit, aggressive physical behavior. Bridging those two ends of the harassment spectrum may seem absurd, but both examples share similar motivations and results. Both treat the subject as a sexual item; both aim to reinforce the power of men to evaluate and comment on her physical form without consent. And they belittle, humiliate and disempower women from a young age.

Discussion of street harassment is made all the more difficult by demographic considerations. It’s certainly true that I encounter more street harassment in New Haven than in my hometown of Boca Raton, Florida. But that doesn’t mean harassment correlates to socioeconomic background in any meaningful way — we have to avoid making unjust assumptions.

Despite all of this, I don’t believe that tackling street harassment is a lost cause for the University and our student body. The burden of reform shouldn’t fall on the victims; the entire community must shape a culture of humanity and respect for women and transgender people in public spaces. For bystanders, this means communicating your intolerance when you witness an act of street harassment. For those of us who experience harassment, talking back — terrifying as it may seem — is a powerful way to communicate our refusal to be dehumanized and sexualized. Non-profits like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback! offer support and advice for both subjects and bystanders.

Yale still has a long way to go in repairing our own sexual climate, and the relationship between Yale and the New Haven community is complicated as-is — so addressing these microaggressions around campus will be no small task. But if we intend to make real changes when it comes to the safety and comfort of women and LGBTQ students, we can’t afford to leave street harassment out of the conversation.

Caroline Posner is a sophomore in Berkeley College.  Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu.

 

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