One afternoon in September, after finishing classes for the day, Morgan Descoteau, 20, walked out of a Target at the edge of the University of Maryland at College Park campus.
As she reached the entrance of her apartment building, she said, a group of men in a car jeered at her: “Hey, where you going? … Why are you out here by yourself looking so fine like that?”
Caught off guard, Descoteau rolled her eyes and swiftly ducked into her building. “I was definitely shaken up … and I felt gross after it,” she said. “But unfortunately this is something that happens relatively frequently, so you sort of become desensitized to it.”
Later that week, she wrote about the experience, submitting it to Preventing Sexual Assault, a student-run organization she is part of that aims to support survivors and change rape culture on campus.
Descoteau, a junior majoring in criminology and psychology, is among the dozens of students who have submitted catcall incidents to PSA. Last week, some stories were chalked along the walkways of McKeldin Mall, a popular quad in the heart of UMD’s campus.
“He said me being attractive and smiling at him meant that I wanted to go home with him,” read one message in pink chalk.
“I was yelled at out of a car while walking to class to show more cleavage,” another one read.
The purpose behind the campaign — dubbed Catcalls of College Park — was to spread awareness and spur dialogue about a culture of catcalling that has long prevailed at UMD’s campus, said Hailey Chaikin, co-president of PSA.
“They were hard to read, and we didn’t want to trigger anybody, so we censored a lot of them,” she said. “But that shock factor is what gets people to make that change.”
Chaikin, a communications major in her senior year, came up with the initiative following PSA’s flagship event, Occupy McKeldin, last spring. One of its guest speakers was street artist Sophie Sandberg, who runs Chalk Back, a global movement where activists use sidewalk chalk to recount stories of harassment word for word in the locations where they happened.
“I kind of thought, ‘What if we do this at UMD?’” Chaikin said. After receiving more than 50 responses to the Google Form last month, “that was kind of a sign to us that this was obviously a big issue like we’d thought.”
Descoteau said she could have shared at least a dozen more personal stories: “And I know a lot of other people could have submitted more than one.”
Universities have long faced a reckoning over their handling of sexual assault allegations — from the Brock Turner sentencing in 2016 spurring renewed calls for accountability to more recent protests on campus. And though street harassment constitutes gender-based violence, connecting to issues such as harassment in the workplace or date rape, it’s been slower to gain the same attention and outrage, said Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment.
“Street harassment is a manifestation of the inequalities that exist in our country and in our world,” she said, adding that it not only intersects with sexism, but also homophobia, racism, ableism and more. “It’s all of those isms that exist in our society that are just acted out in public spaces between strangers as well.” Additionally, studies suggest it can have a lasting emotional impact on victims and trigger survivors of sexual assault in particular, Kearl said.
She also points to challenges at a systemic level that enable harassment to go unreported and unpunished. In the case of many state laws, there often needs to be a repeated offense before victims can report harassment, Kearl said. “Or there needs to be proof that the perpetrator intended harm, or that the victim felt threatened,” she added.
Ultimately, for a number of reasons, seeking legal justice for street harassment is often unsuccessful, Kearl said. In most cases, “our experiences won’t meet the standard that they require for you to even move forward.”
It is why she believes community action is the best course in changing attitudes, commending clubs such as PSA for applying pressure to college administrations. “It often is up to student groups to be the ones who are paying attention and addressing it,” Kearl said.
PSA’s efforts to address allegations of sexual assault in recent months have helped it grow a larger presence on campus, Chaikin said, culminating to a record turnout during their Slut Walk last Friday, an annual event the club hosts to rally against “slut shaming,” victim blaming and sexual assault.
As students marched across McKeldin Mall with their signs, the stories of catcalls were still imprinted beneath their feet. “It was nice that we were able to kind of step on them and read them as we went,” Chaikin said, adding that it empowered student activists to remain vigilant.
While reporting catcalling isn’t always a readily available option or a successful one, Kearl offers some suggestions on how to respond to it, emphasizing that people should first use their instincts to inform how they can remain safe in these situations.
“We are taught to just ignore it or maybe to yell profanities at someone,” Kearl said. “But there are a lot of things you can do that kind of range in between that might be more empowering.”
One of her own personal approaches is a simple phrase: “Don’t harass me” or “don’t harass women.” This can stun people who don’t expect their behavior to be called out as harassment, she said, adding that it has even led to stumbling apologies from some men.
On Stop Street Harassment’s website, Kearl said, people can find ideas for more calm and firm responses to try, along with a tool kit that analyzes harassment laws in each state and a 24/7 hotline where victims can find emotional support — a service that she said has seen an increase in calls this year.
Regardless of how you respond in the moment, Kearl said, taking some sort of action afterward can help victims process their experiences without internalizing them, “whether it’s just a tweet or doing something like putting up a flier to raise awareness about what you have experienced.”
PSA’s stories of catcalls have since faded and dissolved from UMD’s nine-acre quad. Chaikin said their inevitable departure represents “how catcalls are said to you and you’re supposed to kind of forget them or move on,” she said. “It was there. It made its impact and then it was gone.”
Now, she just hopes that the awareness the stories brought to campus “sticks around longer than a catcall will.”