The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The Paris subway was standing room only, typical for a Friday night. A friend and I were deep in conversation when I felt a hand up my skirt. My head whipped around and the hand retreated, but not before I spotted the drunken middle-aged man who had groped me.

I wanted to respond somehow — to slap him, notify authorities or at least come back with a biting retort. I needed him to know his behavior was sickening.

Instead, I froze. My fury turned to a sense of helplessness as I watched him exit the train unscathed, behaving as if nothing had happened. Had I imagined the whole thing?

Gender-based street harassment is hardly a new or rare phenomenon. Nearly every woman I know has received unwanted verbal or physical advances, whether in the form of catcalls, whistling or groping.

The discussion surrounding street harassment is often framed in terms of traveling abroad. But street harassment is an equally routine occurrence in Chapel Hill.

My own experiences have ranged from mildly amusing (a truck filled with howling N.C. State fans) to downright threatening (being followed home by a car with tinted windows, whose leering male occupants ordered me to get in).

Our world tells women that self-worth should be tied to physical attractiveness, so unsolicited whistles and catcalls are supposed to be interpreted as compliments. At UNC, I’ve noticed a tendency to laugh off instances of harassment or to accept them as forms of flattery.

After two decades of internalizing this system of beliefs, I’ve often found myself reacting in the same way, shrugging and saying, “It’s fine.” Yet this attitude often masks a deep-seated anxiety about the gray area between funny and frightening.

How many of your friends carry pocketknives out of fear for their safety? How many have taken self-defense classes? How many are too afraid to walk home alone?

Instead of targeting rape culture as the culprit, women are told they are responsible for defending themselves. Even at UNC, which I view as a largely open-minded and accepting community, I’ve come across an all-too-common tendency to “blame the victim.”

“She was wearing a skirt — she wanted the attention.”

“She was wearing a tight shirt — she was asking to be groped.”

Following that logic, it’s a slippery slope to a word-for-word statement I’ve heard on UNC’s campus: “She was walking by herself at night — it’s her fault she was assaulted.”

These excuses seek to shift blame away from gender norms — which encourage men to “prove” their masculinity — and onto those who experience objectification. After all, street harassment is about one thing: power.

Since the incident on the metro, I’ve been cursed at in French and physically backed into a corner. Each time, I always just do my best to quickly walk away.

Obviously, ignoring harassment won’t solve the problem.

But what will?

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.