Unwelcome Attention Toward Girls

Chumani Chamberlain and Nicole Kiama

     It’s 8:15pm and you’re walking back to your car after shopping at your neighborhood grocery store. You walk past a group of middle-aged men who quickly lay their eyes on you and make sexual comments about your body and appearance, laughing loudly. You instantly feel ashamed, embarrassed, terrified, and uncomfortable all at once. They think it’s a joke, something of entertainment to them, and they continue laughing and making comments as you speed walk away from them, hoping things don’t escalate. You try to ignore them, as you focus on just getting home safely. However, your mind continues to fill with fear and shame as you continue to be harassed by these men.


     In a recent study done by Cornell University and anti-harrassment group iHollaback, 13% of women are exposed to sexual harassment by the age of 10. Further, a recent survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization, found that 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. Additionally, the report showed that 77% of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 51% have been sexually touched without their permission. In another study by ELLE, 84% of females have been catcalled by the time they reach age 17, and females aged 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual harassment.


     In the U.S., this scenario is a reality for every one in three women, and often times a frequent one. Here, the statistics are at a distance, things that only happen to other people. However, these statistics have the possibility of hitting you closer to home; perhaps in your own neighborhood or school community. Perhaps it’s a friend, or maybe even you, who experiences sexual harassment daily. 

     One anonymous student at SSSAS says she was sexually harassed in 8th grade for almost the entire year. As she stated, “reporting a sexaul assault or an instance of sexual harassment would be like admitting you weren’t in control of your situation, even if it’s for an extremely short amount of time,” and that’s why so many cases of sexual harassment don’t get reported. 

In an interview with senior, Liliana Dowling, she stated how in “seventh grade, I started getting more unwanted attention in public, especially at the beach with people catcalling and coming up and talking to me for no reason.” As the years go by, she says she’s “gotten better at dealing with it and handling it, but it increases even more as the years go on.” 


     When asked about how her experiences have evolved over time, she stated that her experience with sexual harassment is “around the same, not more not less. I can avoid situations like that now that I know how to walk away and stuff like that and pretend I’m on a phone call or something.” However, she did explain the ways sexual harassment has also played a negitive part in her life: “ [sexual harrassment] definitely plays a role in how I live life. I have had experiences with guys stalking, and police having to get involved and it has a lot to do with how I act alone or when I'm walking alone. I dress differently than if I'm out with friends because I know there's always gonna be the chance of someone seeing me showing skin and approaching me, so I have to try not to go to places alone at night.” 

Liliana continues by describing an experience with sexual harassment:

     “When I was fifteen years old, I was walking to the grocery store in my neighborhood. A man was standing on the sidewalk. I walked past him and I noticed he was following me. I go into the grocery store and when I come out, he’s still there and basically following me back to my house. So I ducked into a Right Aid, but I didn’t say anything to the cashier because I was 15, I didn’t know what to do. As I continued to walk home, he continued to follow for like a mile and then at that point I was on the phone with the police, because my parents weren’t answering. Thankfully, someone driving by noticed the guy following me and yelled at him and he ran away.” 


     In her own personal experience, one anonymous SSSAS student explained her discomfort during times when she is alone. Whether that is when she is shopping at a store, or working out at her local gym, she often “feels uncomfortable by the number of harrowing stares she receives from males.” In one instance, “I had made a mobile order before heading to my local Starbucks, and when I arrived, a group of middle-aged men were sitting at the outside tables and abruptly ended their chatty conversation to stare at me as I walked in. Their stare was quite questionable and forced me to take an even closer look at my surroundings. While I was in the Starbucks, I could see the men continue to stare at me through the window, and as soon as I received my order I made an effort to exit as fast as I could with no other disturbance.


     However, by my guess, those men continued to stare at me until I arrived in my car. This experience was not the only one for me, and every time something like this happens I feel more and more frightened, because truthfully I am most afraid for one event to escalate into something that could possibly become more traumatic.”


     Another anonymous SSSAS student had to deal with sexual harassment every single day for almost 2 years. A group of boys in the SSSAS middle school would make sexual comments at her and some other girls every time she was in their line of sight, to the point where the student planned her routes to her classes in a way that would avoid them as much as possible. This resulted in her taking the long routes to her classes, which often resulted in her being late to certain classes, but according to her, “I did it because I chose to face the consequences I got from being late rather than have to deal with their catcalls and harassment in the public hallways every single day. It was terrifying and humiliating, especially because of how many people would hear them say these things but ultimately did nothing about it.” 


     According to this student, a concerned teacher picked up on what was happening when the student would get stared at by another student for the entirety of classes, to the point where the teacher of that class got involved. Three teachers had to get involved when the student reluctantly admitted to what was happening. She never mentioned any of the times the boys would attempt to try to get physical, though, and to this day, only one friend from outside of school knows about those. According to the student, “I was terrified of telling an adult about the verbal harassment thing because then I’d have to say who was doing it to me and as much as I would have loved to get them in trouble, I knew the guys would figure out it was me who ‘tattled’ and it would just make things worse.” The student ended up informing the dean of students of all of this just one week before her 8th grade graduation ceremony. 


     We had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Davis to learn more about her perspective on unwanted attention toward girls and how she thinks this issue should be combatted within our own school community. Ms. Davis stated how experiences of a male giving unwanted attention to females can be hurtful and sometimes traumatic but can also have the ability to become “learning opportunities...so that we don’t pigeonhole someone into being a misogynist....I like to say for young people today there is still an opportunity to change.” 

Ms. Davis also expressed how there is a lack of purpose behind inappropriate comments towards females, explaining the issue behind it all: “What is your purpose? If it's to make me feel good, you decided that what you're saying is supposed to make me feel good. You feel that you have the right to make that decision for me and by doing this, you’re taking my power away from me. I don't need you to validate me, I don't want you to be like, ‘oh you look good today’. I didn't need you to show me that I look good in a way that makes me uncomfortable. That's one-sided because usually catcalling is not a conversation. It's not like, you know, ‘I think you look really nice today’ ‘Oh thank you Joe I got a new outfit’. It’s usually like ‘hey Mama you look hot’ or whatever. It's not a discussion. When someone comes up to you and makes a statement like that, it's not taking into account how I feel or what I want to talk about or what I want to hear. You’re making all those decisions for me.”


     We also interviewed senior Ryan Vuono to get a male perspective on the issue: 

“As far as catcalling goes, I don't think I've ever seen it in our school community. I have no doubt that happens in the real world but as a man, it’s just never directed at me. I haven’t heard anything like that at school in a while but I definitely remember examples of it freshman year or sophomore year where some kids would say stuff and I would just be like, dude, like what are you doing. And I think kids have matured as they reach Junior and Senior year so that’s I think why I haven't seen any of that in a while. So from what I have seen, the issue has gotten better but I also understand that my peer group is older than they were, and more mature, and they make better decisions. I think it may be an aging thing, and I think Freshmen and Sophomores do it and then they grow out of it. But a lot of girls who I know have talked about their experiences,  especially at public schools because kids just don't care what they say and I have heard of some really hurtful stuff that was not thought about before it was said. I think it's a lack of empathy because the people that catcall don't know how it feels to be at the receiving end of end of comments like this. And that’s not to excuse them, but I think that at a lot of the time, sexual comments and catcalling and harassment are things done and said to try and be funny while not having the awareness and empathy to understand that what they are saying hurts other people.”


     Finally, we sat down with Associate Dean, Mr. Dodds, who stated that though he has “not experienced [sexual harassment] at our school in the administrative capacity that I serve, I am utterly confident that this type of behavior exists. I think students do a very good job at hiding that type of behavior from someone like me, so although I think it exists here I have not seen any specific instances nor have I witnessed any.” 


     Mr. Dodds also expressed how he believes sexual harassment, cat calling, and unwelcome attention towards girls is “unexceptable in every way,” he also stated that “as a male it’s very important to understand perspectives when trying to approach issues such as these. In order to understand these perspectives we have to have conversations about it.” 


     In response to combating these issues, Mr. Dodds stated that “as a school, we are taking positive steps in the right direction but these are problems not just within a generation but across generations, and it takes a lot of conversations to try to reverse that tide. I think in today's day and age we are doing a better job at actively combating those issues, the only way to continue that trend is to have more of those uncomfortable conversations.”


     If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual harassment or unwanted attention. Please know that you are not alone and that Dean McGuire encourages victims of sexual harassment to “seek out any administrator, faculty member, or adult.” She also emphasises that victims should be “acknowledged, and not feel minimized” further, she stated if the initial adult does not acknowledge a victims story, that they should “seek out another adult.”