Women know this experience: A sidewalk encounter with a man who makes some kind of coarse advance or comment. It insults, it intimidates. It puts women on the defensive. Do I tell this moron to get lost? Do I ignore him? Will he assault me?
Shortly before 1:30 a.m. last Saturday, Ruth George apparently had such an encounter. Prosecutors say Donald Thurman, on parole for a robbery conviction, saw George walk by a Blue Line stop on her way to a parking garage at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was an honor student. Thurman "thought she was pretty," prosecutors said in court, and tried talking to her, the Tribune's Megan Crepeau reported.
George, 19, ignored him and continued walking. Thurman followed her and continued "catcalling" her, prosecutors said. Thurman became "angry he was being ignored," prosecutor James Murphy told the court. By her car inside the parking garage, Thurman choked George, threw her in the car and sexually assaulted her, Murphy alleged. Thurman is now charged with sexually assaulting and killing George.
This horrific act allegedly followed harassing behavior that's unwanted and inexcusable, but also common on city streets and subway platforms. It's not men being men, and it's not innocent. It's abusive.
The nonprofit group Stop Street Harassment describes the behavior as "unwanted comments, gestures and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation." A 2014 survey Stop Street Harassment commissioned found that 65% of women in the U.S. had experienced street harassment. Twenty% of the women in the survey reported being followed.
A 2014 video shot by Hollaback, an anti-street harassment advocacy group, depicts the pervasiveness of street harassment. Shoshana Roberts walked through New York City as a filmmaker walked in front of her, with a hidden camera in his backpack. In 10 hours, Roberts was harassed 108 times. "What's up girl, how you doin'?" "Hey, baby." "Damn!"
The killing in Chicago of Ruth George is shocking, and news that it began with catcalling felt like a gut punch to many women, who are all too familiar with trying to cope with invasive approaches.
Men need to recognize that catcalling isn't a compliment and understand why women bristle at the common request that they "smile." The fact that a male notices a female on the street doesn't give him the right to make a judgment or comment. And if she tries to lighten the mood with a smile or a joke, trust us: She's not flirting. She just wants him to go away without lashing out.
She wants him to let her walk away safe.
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