Dealing with sexual harassment

FREDERICTON (CUP) — These were the words I heard shortly before 9 p.m., walking alone on a sparsely populated Fredericton street on a night in mid-September. The sun was just retiring for the evening, bathing the surrounding apartments in pink light. It was one of the warmest days of the month and my dark dress cleared my knees. I wasn’t cold, but shivered when I noticed a white car slow down, coming up out of the corner of my eye.

“It’s a little cold out for a skirt, isn’t it slut?” the male passenger asked. I didn’t recognize him. He was partially hidden in shadow, only the whites of his eyes glowing in the half-light. He and the unseen driver laughed, sped up and drove into the night.

I stood there, dumbfounded. They were gone and I was a slut. What could I have done?

According to a Violence Against Women Survey completed by Statistics Canada in 1993, 87 per cent of Canadian women revealed they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A study entitled “The Joke’s Over: Student to Student Harassment in Secondary Schools,” completed in 1995 in Ontario also revealed that eight out of ten female university students were victims of sexual harassment on campus.

Sexual harassment against women happens every day, whether victims identify it or not. Incidents as simple as a “drive-by shouting,” when a car full of men shout things at women on the streets, to being grabbed by an unwelcome man in a bar can all be classified as sexual harassment.

Jenn Gorham, program coordinator with the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, an organization devoted to ending sexual violence against women and children, said the centre rarely receives reports from women about small incidents on streets and in bars.

“I think that for most women, that’s just part of being a woman and walking around,” she said, adding that she is “infuriated” by how commonplace sexual harassment of this nature has become.

“It’s infuriating and frustrating and sad too, the fact that it’s so commonplace, that we just say ‘Jerks’ or ‘Whatever’ and brush it off like, ‘that is just how some guys are’ or ‘that’s just what happens.’”

Gorham said that, because of the quickly passing nature of the incidents, it can be extremely difficult to get help or adequately respond to the harassers. Her advice is that women must evaluate the situation for themselves before responding, minding their safety should the harassers become more aggressive.

“You would never want to engage in a situation that could then put you in danger. You don’t know. It could just be guys driving by, thinking they’re having a laugh and they move on and if you called them on it, they would be like ‘Oh gosh, whoa,’ but you may have the flipside of this, escalating it to a dangerous situation,” she said.

Karlie Hanoski, a volunteer at the University of New Brunswick Women’s Centre, said that sometimes it is difficult to assess the situation while it is happening.

“Sometimes you don’t even recognize it as harassment until after the fact,” she said.

Sexual harassment of this nature is not considered a crime, rather a violation of human rights. It is not until harassment becomes assault or the incidents happen repeatedly and with aggression that the police become involved.

“As a person who wants to walk down the street unmolested and not have people shouting stupid stuff at me, yeah, I feel like that should be a crime,” Gorham said.

Kathleen Heaney, another volunteer at the Women’s Centre, recounted an experience during a residence pub crawl where a man was openly aggressive to her and had to be asked to leave the bar.

“A gentleman decided that he wanted to dance with me, so he grabbed my arms and tried to pull me off the bar stool and go to the dance floor, but we got him out of that bar pretty quickly,” she said, laughing.

“From my own personal experience, [sexual harassment] hasn’t happened frequently, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue. It certainly is an issue in the community.”

Both Heaney and Hanoski said they have experienced catcalls and honking from passing cars on the street.

Gorham said there are many factors that come into play when looking at why a handful of men choose to harass women.

“Power imbalances between men and women [come into play]; you know, you have a woman walking alone down the street and four guys in a car, you have a very distinct power imbalance here. She’s vulnerable. She’s alone. They have the power. Because they recognize that, they abuse it,” the program coordinator mentioned in her list that also included issues like gender stereotypes portrayed in the media and myths about what the true meaning of sexual violence is.

Hanoski attributed “drive by shoutings” to strength in numbers and stereotypes in the media.

“It’s never just the singular guy. It’s usually a truck full of guys when this thing happens.”

All of these women agreed the idea that women are “asking for it” if dressed in revealing clothing while they are out at a bar is laughable.

“I think my response to that is when we see a man at a bar dressed up in a nice button down shirt and really nice jeans, we’re not assuming they’re asking for it,” Heaney said.

Gorham likened the “asking for it” myth to a man who was robbed while wearing expensive clothes, an expensive watch and carrying a wad of cash.

“The idea that if somebody, male or female, was mugged or robbed and we blamed them for that because they had expensive clothes and expensive jewellery, it’s ludicrous. You would never do that, yet we do that exact same thing when a woman dresses a certain way and she is assaulted.”

Despite saying that harassment, especially while out walking, is not a frequent problem in their lives, Hanoski and Heaney said they do not feel comfortable walking alone at night in high-risk areas like the downtown core.

“I don’t think it’s fair. I think women should be able to walk wherever they want and feel safe. It makes me really sad to think some women feel unsafe walking alone at night. It can’t be very welcoming for the university community,” Heaney said.

Gorham provided the following advice to women who feel victimized by harassment: it is not your fault and you should talk about it with other women who have had similar experiences.

Sexual harassment happens every day in both its most serious and simplest forms. Not all men do it. Not all men approve of it. Hell, even women do it. The point is, it’s a problem and it has to stop. To all of the men who do this; next time you want to yell compliments at a girl, take her to dinner and say them nicely. If you want to yell insults, keep them to yourself.

//Hilary Paige Smith
The Brunswickan (University of New Brunswick)

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