Hunter Williams said she experiences verbal street harassment every day while walking in the campus area.
“People mumble something or say something that might sound like a compliment, but they’re alluding to more,” said Williams, a fourth-year in strategic communication. “I can’t walk down the street without someone saying something.”
Verbal street harassment has made its way to the forefront of national conversation after a YouTube video of a woman enduring more than 100 catcalls while walking through New York City for 10 hours went viral.
But for some students at Ohio State, street harassment isn’t just a topic of conversation — it’s an ever-present possibility that has created a threatening environment for them around the campus area.
Williams said continual catcalling has made her more cautious during daily commutes on foot, and that she now walks with mace ready and her keys clutched between her knuckles.
“I don’t want to have to be scared,” Williams said. “I live here. I’m forced to commute up and down the street, I’m forced to go to class, things like that … I just want to be able to get where I’m going without worrying about someone saying something to me.”
She said her friends have shared similar harassment experiences about their daily commutes, and they now discuss instances of street harassment as being routine.
Williams said her experiences with street harassment occur off campus, and said the stretch of High Street between 12th and 17th avenues has harassment “hot spots” with several regulars who are middle-aged men who first ask for change but then escalate to “creepy” comments or shouting.
Emily Kathe, a 2013 graduate of OSU with a degree in operations management, said she also experienced street harassment during her time at OSU, citing several instances occurring on and off campus.
She said her experiences walking in the campus area made her less sociable and less outgoing over time, and that she eventually took to riding a bicycle in an effort to bypass harassment.
Brady Costigan, a first-year in linguistics, said he has witnessed enough catcalling east of High Street to consider verbal harassment commonplace in the area.
“It’s a blatant objectification of women,” he said. “The guys who do it try to justify it by saying that they’re just giving compliments, but in almost all cases, those kinds of compliments from strangers are creepy, unwarranted and unwanted.”
Jesse Fox, an assistant professor in the School of Communication, said verbal harassment can cause short-term feelings of immediate threat, as well as long-term effects, such as paranoia and rumination.
She said the threatening nature of catcalls is derived from its suggestiveness, and that when a harasser points out a woman’s attractiveness, the harasser is implicating that woman’s sexuality.
“Since a lot of catcalling is framed as being positive, some people seem to think it’s a compliment. It’s not a compliment,” Fox said. “It’s an act of aggression. A woman doesn’t lack a sense of humor. She’s not oversensitive if she feels threatened by that behavior.”
MacRorie Dean, a graduate student in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said she has also been the target of street harassment in the campus area, and to her, even complimentary comments on the street can carry an undertone of violence.
Dean said she views street harassment as being a symptom of larger societal problems, specifically rape culture (society blaming victims of sexual assault and normalizing male sexual violence) and patriarchy, which allow appearances to gauge women’s value.
She said this, in turn, allows some men to believe it’s their duty to openly comment or offer appearance-based judgments of women.
“I’m not trying to interact with people on the street. I’m trying to get from point A to point B,” she said. “When someone says, ‘Hey, I’m viewing you as a sexual object only. Enjoy that on the rest of your walk to school,’ it doesn’t feel good. It’s a reminder of the vulnerability that women have because of their position in society.”
Dean said it is difficult to judge how best to react to harassers and that confrontation could lead to an escalation and aggression. She added that a lack of acknowledgement could result in harasser frustration or a sign of successful gender subordination and encourage more catcalls.
Fox said understanding that a woman’s actions don’t merit verbal harassment is the first step in collectively understanding the inappropriateness of verbal harassment.
She also said that one can speak out in certain situations or amongst friends when verbal harassment is observed to encourage respect for women.
“Try not to be a bystander,” Fox said. “When you see that, be the person who speaks up … That is the best way to break the cycle: conveying a social alarm that this isn’t OK and this isn’t acceptable.”
Williams, Kathe and Dean said they did not attempt to notify University Police or Columbus Division of Police concerning their respective incidents.
“It happens so often, it would take me a week just to report,” Dean said.
Kathe said she viewed her verbal harassment experiences as harassers “just being jerks.”
“They were a bit aggressive, but not threatening us with bodily harm or following us,” she said.
Columbus Police Sgt. Rich Weiner said if catcalling does not cross the line of being menacing, which would dictate a threat, then it is not a criminal act.
“Catcalling is not illegal,” he said. “Can someone be offended? Absolutely. Does that mean a police response is appropriate? Not necessarily.”
Weiner said if someone is being followed by a harasser, that person should seek out a well-populated, public place. If the harasser persists, he said to call the police and officers will assess the situation.
Dean said addressing verbal street harassment alone wouldn’t fix the problem of harassment in a broader sense, but that recognizing that it is part of a larger culture of sexual violence would be most effective.
“It needs to be a big part of the national and local conversations that we are having right now about rape and about women’s safety around campuses,” Dean said.
Michelle Bangen, sexual violence prevention coordinator at OSU, said students who have experienced street harassment and wish to seek counseling or other healing resources can access support services through Student Life’s Student Advocacy Center.