One professor has no illusion of safety in idyllic, liberal Burlington and is taking action against cat-calling.
Cat-calls are loud and sexually suggestive calls directed mostly at people who are female-presenting.
There is no legal repercussion for cat-calling and no clear social consensus on whether or not it falls under the category of sexual harassment.
“Hopefully it won’t be legal for long,” said Marian Fritz, an adjunct professor at UVM who is working to pass legislation against street harassment.
“So many women are afraid to walk to their jobs in Burlington and something has to be done about it,” Fritz said. “Ignoring the problem is just not working.”
Fritz is working with police Chief Brandon del Pozo to make street harassment illegal and punishable by fine, she said.
As of now, The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment.”
“The law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious,” the EEOC wesbite states.
Even the women experiencing sexual harassment have trouble defining it, a December 2017 NPR article states.
“They understand sexual harassment is wrong, but no one has taught them what it is. That’s the problem: nobody quite knows that line,” the article states.
Though Burlington has laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, the police department’s data transparency portal doesn’t have a category for sexual harassment crimes to display statistics.
“Street harassment is often dismissed as ‘humor’ or ‘just a compliment,’ but compliments come from a place of respect, while harassment comes from a place of power and entitlement,” said Sarah Mell, education and outreach coordinator of the Women’s Center.
Burlington is perceived as a protected, family-friendly area where “in most instances, a majority of students feel safe,” sophomore Luke Belleville said, but the city is still not free of street harassment.
“Part of the problem is idealizing where we live, and the fact that Burlington is often portrayed as a safe, progressive area brushes over it entirely,” junior Jack Carmody said.
Carmody is a member of 1 in 4, an all-male sexual assault peer education club. The group teaches men about how to support survivors of sexual assault, and how to safely intervene in risky situations, the SGA website states.
“Most people don’t see [catcalling] as a big issue, but it’s a strong part of rape culture that people need to realize is not okay to do to someone, ever,” Carmody said.
Junior Emma Naprta has been followed more than once when walking alone downtown, and each time is conflicted on how to react, she said.
“I see myself as a strong and independent woman, but I’m also torn between calling my boyfriend to come walk with me or just sticking it out,” she said.
The law is not the only way to combat social ignorance surrounding street harassment.
Fritz also wants to offer a session about street harassment prevention open to everyone in Burlington, she said.
Clubs like 1 in 4 also take action against catcalling.
“We give presentations to primarily male-presenting groups, like fraternities and sports teams, and talk to them about how we are part of the issue but we don’t have to be,” Carmody said.
Beyond teaching men about sexual harassment and prevention, we must also work to teach women how to respond, Mell said.
“Feeling stuck, not being able to say anything or even accidentally saying ‘thank you’ are normal responses, even if they feel weird,” she said. “I know some women who whip around and retort, which is awesome.”
But this kind of response is not required of any woman facing harassment, she said.
“It all depends on the situation,” she said. “Do what feels safe in the moment and know that it’s never worth beating yourself up over.”