The hidden enemy

Sexual Harassment and Assault In Communities

Catcalls, being followed, assaulted or worse are all things that many women worry about on a day to day basis. At least 81 percent of women in the United States will experience this at some point in their lifetime — or already have. 

This past year, these experiences were further realized by the world as a whole, in response to the murder of Sarah Everard, a woman who was kidnapped and murdered on the streets of London. In light of this, many have taken to Instagram to voice their concerns about violence against women, including sophomore Jillian McLeod, who felt the anger had long been present in society. 

“I feel almost kind of mad thinking about the public outroar after her murder,” McLeod said. “Horrible things other than murder happen to women every day, and no one ever really had said anything about them. The fact that a woman had to be murdered for people to start talking about sexual assault and harassment and women’s safety is just disappointing.”

However, the news did surprise McLeod — and not in a good way. 

 “It left me feeling depleted, because she took all of the precautions that a lot of women take if they are worried about their safety,” McLeod said. “She was on the phone with her boyfriend and walking on main roads, where there were others nearby. It made me ask myself, if she was still murdered when she had been taking all the ‘right’ precautions, then what is there for the rest of us to do?” 

These sentiments were also echoed by an anonymous sophomore girl.

“I found the news of Sarah Everard’s murder in the U.K. really disturbing,” the sophomore girl said. “Men should be expected to be respectful and not violent, but instead, I have friends that I’m planning on taking self defense classes with, at least for before we go off to college.” 

The sophomore girl also said that she felt not enough people were talking about the issue. 

“I feel like violence against women is just so normalized to think about at this point, at least for a lot of women, and people were mad about it, but then a few weeks later everyone just stopped talking about it,” the sophomore girl said. “My main reaction was just wondering why some people weren’t speaking up about the problem to begin with. It was terrible to see.” 

Senior Paige Dillon would agree.

“Many may not want to focus on a problem or engage with it by posting a story or talking about it, but you’re going to have to engage with it somehow for the problem to go away and for it to be something that you don’t have to work on,” Dillon said. 

A variety of people, particularly men, did however, post the hashtag #notallmen onto their stories in response, a hashtag that attempts to point out that not all men assault or harass women. 

“We know not all men do that kind of stuff, but it’s too close to it being all women that have experienced sexual harassment or assault for us to not be afraid of most guys,” the anonymous sophomore girl said. “I would be a little disappointed in whoever was supporting the #notallmen movement, because it’s obvious that it’s not all men. We know most guys are fine, but it’s the ones that do those things that we have to worry about.” 

Dillon had similar thoughts. 

“It’s not really an issue that women should be dealing with when the reason they’re feeling unsafe isn’t because of something that they’re putting on themselves,” Dillon said. 

McLeod also shared a comparison to help men, in particular, better understand the fears many women face. 

“I saw a great analogy that said ‘if you’re stung by a bee once, you will know not all bees are going to sting you, but you’re going to be afraid of bees from then on, once you’ve been stung.’” McLeod said. “Even if you just know people who have gone through negative experiences because they were women, you’re still going to be scared,” McLeod said. 

McLeod has also had a variety of negative experiences with harassment from men. 

“I was in a Giant in the seventh grade with my friend, at the age of 13, and a guy was really close behind us, and looking down at our butts, and went ‘damn,’” McLeod said. “We were in middle school. That shouldn’t be happening, nor should it happen to a woman of any age.” 

The sophomore girl also shared a negative experience. 

“At one of my sports practices a couple months ago, I was running, and some other teams were there as well to practice,” the anonymous girl said. “Some guys started yelling at me, saying something around the lines of ‘hey girl, hey, we love your hair.’ It was obvious that they were trying to get me to turn around and acknowledge them but I just pretended that I didn’t hear them.” 

Contrary to what some may believe, many women do not consider catcalling a compliment. 

“The whole situation just made me feel really uncomfortable, and I was also worried about what was going to happen next, because I knew I was going to have to be around them for the remainder of my practice,” the sophomore girl said. “It was weird to think that even guys at my school are okay with doing that, just really weird. It would have been better had they just said nothing.” 

McLeod is against catcalling as well. 

“For the men that say catcalling is a compliment, you try taking the compliment,” McLeod said. “You wouldn’t like it if we started commenting on your body, saying things like ‘your butt looks good in those jeans,’ because that would be harassment, and makes the other person uncomfortable. So stop doing it to us. What’s even worse is that most of my catcalls have been from men over 40.” 

Most women in the United States, like McLeod, will experience catcalling before adulthood, according to research by  ILR at Cornell and Hollaback!, a non-profit organization.

“‘Research suggests that 85 percent of women in the United States will experience some sort of street harassment before the age of 17…, with 67 percent of the incidents occurring before age 14,” the article said. 

As for what men, and people who have not catcalled or don’t plan on assaulting or harassing anyone in the future, can do, Dillon said that there are many ways to help. 

“If someone believes they aren’t a part of the problem, they can still better themselves by educating their friends who could be less exemplary,” Dillon said. “Just educating yourself on the general ideas of the movement and having an open conversation with female friends about it to see what you can do can go a long way… Looking at some of the Instagram infographics that have been going around is also a great place to start.”

There are many behaviors other than catcalling and assault that alarm or make women feel uncomfortable. 

“Men who look at me or my body for just a little too long, or stand too close, give me that feeling of fear, the feeling where you are wondering if that person could be dangerous or not,” McLeod said. “For instance, last weekend, I was in Georgetown, and not to judge a book by its cover, but there are just instances where a man or group of men look at you in a certain way, and you just get the feeling that they aren’t just an innocent person walking by you that wants to say hello. I think almost every woman knows that feeling.” 

To many women, it is concerning when people become overly defensive about the issue of violence against women. 

“I would ask them how their mother, or sister, or female friends would react to their defensiveness on the topic,” the sophomore girl said. “It’s so important to know what you might have done wrong and really recognize that you need to improve yourself to make others feel more safe in the future.” 

Some have become aggressive on Instagram about the topic, by arguing with others on public stories. When these topics are brought up, it has resulted in the confusion of some to see more defensive behavior come to the surface on disputes that are against the movement. For this behavior, however, there are likely a variety of reasons. 

“I think those who become defensive and don’t believe the statistics that they’re seeing have probably never seen it happen or haven’t experienced it themselves, or have assaulted or harassed someone and are ashamed to admit it,” Dillon said. “However, I think a lot of it has to do with the way everyone is taught to treat women in society, but thankfully the media has been covering these topics more.” 

A trend on Instagram recently surfaced where women were asked what they would hypothetically do if men did not exist for a day, to which the sophomore girl participated. 

“If men didn’t exist for a day, I would wear the clothes I want,” the anonymous girl said. “I wouldn’t be scared of random guys coming up to me on the street, and I would worry less about something bad happening to me. I could run at night, and I could walk around with my friends at night without having to worry as much about getting kidnapped or raped, or anything else.” 

McLeod, who often carries a personal safety device with her, had similar sentiments.

“If men didn’t exist for a day, I wouldn’t have to carry around the instrument I have that makes a really loud popping noise when I pull on it, like I would if I felt threatened or was in danger, in order to feel safe.” McLeod said. “Overall, I would just feel more comfortable walking around in public.” 

In city environments, catcalling and assault are often more prevalent, due to the larger population size.

“I would say that I don’t experience negative events like staring or feel[ing] uncomfortable in Arlington as much as I do in big cities like Pittsburgh,” Dillon said. “When I was there to tour a college, I noticed a man staring really strangely at my dog and I as we were just walking down the street, and it made me feel very uncomfortable, so I positioned myself in front of a large window in front of a restaurant so that if I were followed or harassed in any way there would be witnesses.”

A club at the school, known as Athletes of Action, has been formed to address these issues. Run by sophomores Tessa Muldowney, Reid Messman, and Grace Leonard, plus physical education and health teacher Ms. Kyle Petty, the club operates with the goal of educating and helping those in the community while providing resources for people have experienced sexual assault and harassment. Ms. Petty, who originally created the club, started it with a greater focus on sexual assault and harassment in sports. 

“I had been doing a lot of research and found a correlation between athletics and a culture that wasn’t representing my love of sports,” Ms. Petty said. “I felt motivated as a teacher and a coach to start a club about it four years ago, and some of my students and players were also really passionate about it, so we started Athletes of Action. Each year, the club would morph into something new based on however the member’s passions would lie.” 

After the seniors who had previously run the club graduated, the status and future of the club was unknown. However, Muldowney, Messman and Leonard soon joined and started leading the club after choosing sexual assault as the main topic of their passion project in Ms. Petty’s freshman health class. 

“Over the summer, Ms. Petty reached out to us and asked if we would want to take over the pre-existing Athletes of Action club, since all of the previous members were seniors and had graduated,” Muldowney said.”

Some slight changes have been made in the past year to the club.

“The club in the past was very focused on sports teams, and we’ve sort of taken it in a new direction given what limitations we had with COVID,” Muldowney said. “This year, we’ve had more meetings that helped to educate the members of the club, but once we’re fully in-person, we want to begin doing more outreach with the school and the county as a community, and continue spreading awareness outside of the club. We also hope to continue working with Doorways because they’ve been super great to work with, and donation drives and whatnot are a great way for people to help the community.” 

This year, Athletes of Action raised and donated over $500 worth of products to the homeless shelter Doorways, which provides a safe place to stay for women and families who have survived sexual assault and abuse. 

“We donated shampoos, conditioner, laundry detergent, soap and other supplies,” Muldowney said. “I’d say it was our most important event so far, just because the donations went directly to people in need.” 

Another project that Athletes of Action did was a student risk survey, which garnered 70 responses from high schoolers throughout Arlington. 

“Essentially, it asked questions about people’s knowledge of sexual assault,” Muldowney said. “It was completely anonymous with questions about statistics and if they knew where or what certain resources were. We used the survey as a basis for our club to start on, and began covering the topics that people knew the least about based on the survey.” 

The club, which meets on the first Wednesday of every month at 3:15 p.m., focuses on a different topic related to sexual assault each month. 

“We pick an activity to do surrounding the topic of that meeting, whether it’s creating flyers or infographics to spread to the public, or something else that will get the word out or help someone,” Muldowney said. “Essentially, the mission of the club is to bring awareness to the important topic that is sexual assault, and to normalize talking about it while helping our communities and providing the resources for people to get help if they need it.” 

In the future, the club has larger goals.

“I believe that in the coming years, the club will want to accomplish recruiting more members, and making themselves more known and try to get it to a point where a lot of people feel comfortable joining and want to participate,” Ms. Petty said. “A goal would also be to get representation from every athletic team so that it could be really widespread in the W-L and Arlington community.” 

Pre-COVID, Athletes of Action has done fun activities in the school, like holding a dance. 

“We’ve done dancing activities in the past, particularly with the football team, where you have to have a dialogue with the person that you’re dancing with, and it makes it so you have to look at them in the eye, and say ‘this is where I’m going to put my hand, is that okay’ and things like that, to make sure that the other person is comfortable,” Ms. Petty said. “A lot of times, the dancing activity also gets people used to knowing what it’s like to feel rejected, or to feel awkward, which is really important. The club really never fails.” 

Despite the club being at the school, the club was not formed specifically because of problems in the school.

“Focusing in on a small community, like W-L, because this is a W-L club, is important,” Muldowney said. “However, sexual assault is a societal problem, so therefore, it’s a W-L problem, as it is anywhere. A relatively small club at W-L isn’t going to change the world, but I think that if we can make a difference in our own community, that will go a long way.”

Although the club is mostly made up of athletes, it is open and welcome to anyone who wants to join. 

“The reason why the club was done through sports was because that’s my background, and a lot of data suggested that there was a high correlation between unhealthy or negative behaviors and athletes, so it seemed like a really positive pairing… but you absolutely don’t have to identify with sports to be a part of the club,” Ms. Petty said. “Even if you aren’t on a sports team, that shouldn’t stop you from joining our team in Athletes of Action.” 

People who identify as men are also welcome to join — and encouraged to. 

“In any conversation where you’re talking about healthy relationships, there needs to be people on the different spectrums of gender represented and present,” Ms. Petty said. “When there is an open dialogue to discuss abuse and harassment and how somebody feels, I think that’s the best way to educate people, so we definitely want more guys to join the club for that dialogue, and that way there will also be more people to spread the word and help us in our mission.” 

Some may view a club on sexual assault and harassment something mostly for women, who may be more likely to relate and be more passionate on the subject. However, in past years, the club has had some men from sports teams in the club, but currently have little to none, which Muldowney would like to change. 

“Statistically, women have a higher likelihood of being sexually assaulted, but I also think that people don’t talk enough about the men who do get sexually assaulted in their lifetime, because it’s just the norm to not talk about it,” Muldowney said. “Men are going to need help to overcome it and resources as well, so anyone is completely welcome to join the club.” 

With the uproar of change about issues of sexual assault and harassment and gender-based violence that is currenlty surfacing, the members of Athletes of Action believe now is a great time to join the club and learn more. 

“There’s a place here for you, and we want to hear your voice,” Ms. Petty said. “Currently, the club is kind of taking on a new life, so now is the time to really get in there because you can shape something that could be really awesome, not only for our school, but for the county.”

According to McLeod, taking action is necessary. 

“Once people open their eyes to what has been going on, I think they’d be a bit shocked,” McLeod said. “If more people, men especially, decided to act to make positive change, I think it would make me and a lot of others feel safer and just better about the topic.”