Junior Cassidy Snyder was walking home from the Galesburg Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning in August, crossing South Street toward George Davis Hall when a man in a passing car shouted out his window, “Hey, you have a nice ass!”
Snyder was struck not only by what she describes as the “bluntness” of the phrasing, but by the contrast between the kind of morning she’d been having and the way she suddenly felt.
“I had been just walking home enjoying a sunny Saturday morning with my sunflowers and my veggies and then all of a sudden I’m ‘you with the nice ass,’” she said. “I was tugging my shorts down all the way home, just to make sure, because I felt all of a sudden like a spectacle.”
Senior Maggie Dubnicka experienced a similar incident more recently, on the way to dinner at baked with her friends before Jazz Night. They dressed up for the event, and were walking toward Seminary Street when a car full of men drove by. “They started yelling at me and calling me a ‘bitch’ and a ‘whore,’” Dubnicka said. “I had this immediate fear that they were going to stop, get out and harass me. I felt extreme terror at that moment.”
What these women and many other students are experiencing is known as “catcalling,” which is defined by harsh calls or whistles expressing derision or disapproval. In slang terms, it typically means being shouted at or verbally harassed by a stranger on the street, often in a sexual tone.
Five incidents of catcalling were reported to Campus Safety in the past year, but Director of Campus Safety Mark Welker is confident there were more that occurred that were not reported.
Reports are scarce, Welker said, potentially because students do not deem their encounters severe enough to warrant contacting an authority. He discouraged this pattern of belief.
“The reason why we want that call is so we can respond in a timely manner and assist the complaint, and try to find out about as much information as we can get about what has occurred so we can investigate,” he said.
Galesburg Chief of Police David Christensen echoed Welker’s sentiments.
“What is very useful for us is the best description the victim can provide of the vehicle of the person that made those comments was in, and best of all is a license plate number,” he said.
Christensen acknowledged that the process of persecuting catcallers is complicated. Were an arrest to be made, the charge would be disorderly conduct. But even then, the ability to try and convict someone would be contingent upon the willingness of the victim to testify to the offensiveness of the comment, as disorderly conduct is what he calls a “broad spectrum offense.” If a catcaller does get charged, it results in a $75 fine.
But this is not widely known to students who have experienced incidents, and reporting may not always feel like an option.
“I don’t really know what the legal repercussions would be of reporting, I don’t even know if there are any laws about that,” junior Coral Weinstock said. “I think as a white college student I’d feel pretty comfortable talking to the police, whereas that’s really not the experience for a lot of people.”
Snyder’s reluctance to report took a different tone. “It just doesn’t faze me anymore. I guess I’ve just been broken, been tamed,” she said. “If I reported every incident I would be on the phone with the cops an awful lot.”
As to reasons for the prevalence of catcalling in the Galesburg community, senior Eden McKissick-Hawley said that, as a founding member of a collaborative community organization called the Galesburg Organizing Project or the GO Project, she has engaged in multiple discussions with both Knox students and Galesburg citizens about the issue.
McKissick-Hawley recalled an open forum held by the GO Project where both groups aired some of their concerns. “People in the community were able to articulate how they feel the Knox students can be elitist, how the word ‘townie’ is just not appropriate,” she said. “It was a really important, really powerful conversation, all the students in the room were listening.”
An older Galesburg resident proceeded to ask why Knox students are not often seen in the greater Galesburg community. “A Knox student, she stood up and she said, ‘You know, I speak from experience when I say that I feel really harassed when I’m in the community,’” McKissick-Hawley recalled. “Some of the Galesburg residents were incredulous at first. But person after person stood up and said ‘I don’t feel safe off campus.’”
Snyder, as a student, agreed that the firm boundary separating Knox from Galesburg contributes to lack of safety. “There is a huge cultural divide between campus and Galesburg proper, between students and ‘townies.’ There are a lot of problems, a lot of classism and elitism that goes into that divide,” she said. “I think the culture of not tolerating catcalling hasn’t really seeped out to the areas around campus.”
Christensen said that this misunderstanding is part of what the police seek to alleviate in their encounters with perpetrators.
“You give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that maybe they have not been raised in an environment where they understand that that’s just inappropriate,” he said. “Part of the equation for us, the police, is to try and convince them in the short amount of time we have with that person to knock it off.”
McKissick-Hawley proposed that a catch 22 exists, wherein Galesburg residents may be as reluctant to interact with Knox students as Knox students are to venture into the community for fear of being harassed.
According to Weinstock, dismantling the division of campus and town is imperative to creating a safer environment for everyone.
“I think this is part of a larger problem of how little contact there is between the average Knox student and the average Galesburg resident,” she said. “Why don’t we have any shared spaces? Why are we such an island?”
And while there are students who do venture into town, or, like McKissick-Hawley, participate actively in the community, fear is still a prevalent part of the experience for many Knox students.
“It’s hard for me because I feel very frustrated and very helpless. You know there’s the innate power dynamic of someone in a car versus me walking, and there’s also the inability to talk about it,” Weinstock said. “If I’m in a conversation with someone and they say something that hurts my feelings or feels problematic, I can engage with it. You can’t do that when someone is driving away.”
Dubnicka expressed her frustration at the apparent hypocrisy of catcallers. “It gets me so mad. I’m basically being punished for doing something that’s kind of expected of me. It’s like, you expect me to dress up or show off my body, but as soon as I do, you punish me,” she said.
She continued to say that the ever-present fear of being harassed impacts her decisions, especially about the way she dresses.
“That’s why I walk around in hoodies,” she said. “Because if you walk around in hoodies and you look sexless, people don’t bother you.”
Snyder, walking home from the Farmer’s Market with her sunflowers and vegetables in shorts, had made the decision to engage in a Galesburg community tradition as a Knox student, and was catcalled as she crossed back onto campus. And while she said these types of incidents are not going to sway her choices when dressing or interacting with the town, they are often on her mind as a small part of a larger societal problem.
“This is speaking very generally, obviously, and there’s a lot more that goes into it,” she said. “But women as a whole are scared of men as a whole, because every time we leave the house, we have to ask, is this going to be the day when someone violently assaults me on the street?”
Campus Safety and the Galesburg Police Department recognize these concerns, but agree that the best way to decrease what Welker calls the “frequency and severity” of catcalling in Galesburg is by encouraging those affected to report.
“If we never know about it we’re never going to take any action,” Christensen said. “Two or three of those reports and we’re going to see a theme, see the same description, and if we find that to be true we can be far more effective.