The Problem of Street Harassment is Bigger than You Think

Please check out this news article: Group forms to kick off fight Against Street Harassment, Iowa City Press Citizen, September 5, 2014

Men and women of all ages met Wednesday to discuss street harassment in Iowa City, with multiple people in attendance calling on area law enforcement and the University of Iowa president to address the issue locally.

The event was organized by Stella Hart, 24, an Iowa City resident who works for the Patient Education Institute in Coralville. Hart said she plans to investigate forming a local chapter of Hollaback, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting street harassment, which the group defines as sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces.

Hart said people should be aware that street harassment is not limited to a particular gender or sexual orientation.

“I think street harassment can happen to anyone, and male or female, they can be concerned about it,” she said.

More than a dozen people attended the forum Wednesday night at the Iowa City Public Library, including Harry Olmstead, a member of the Iowa City Human Rights Commission. Olmstead, who lost his right leg during a botched surgical procedure, said he was harassed by someone panhandling a few months ago while on the pedestrian mall downtown.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you get your (expletive) out of that chair and start walking?’ I was just shocked,” Olmstead said. “It was the first time anything like that has happened to me.”

Olmstead reiterated that street harassment is not limited to any particular group but said the topic is part of a larger issue that should be addressed throughout Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

“This goes along with the transparency of sexual abuse and rape that have been occurring, particularly on campus,” Olmstead said.

The University of Iowa has had three cases of sexual assault reported since Aug. 22, two of which were reported as having happened in a residence hall. The third reported incident occurred Monday in an “on-campus residence,” according to a notification sent to students this week.

“The statements that Sally Mason, president of the university, have made have basically belittled women and belittled what’s happening,” Olmstead said. “So I think that’s something we make sure we change, too, because they’re a part of our community. The student body makes up a large part of our community during the school year.”

Guests in attendance also questioned why the university’s “Nite Ride” program, which offers after-hours transport around campus for student safety, is available only to women, and how local police responds to reports of harassment.

Cedar Rapids resident Colette Saindon, 27, moved out of Iowa City last month. Saindon said she frequently feels forced to avoid the city’s downtown the weekends of UI football games after experiences wherein she was harassed about her weight.

“That’s seriously what I think now,” Saindon said. “(That) I better not be here on that Saturday (or) I better not go downtown on that Saturday.”

Susan Junis of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa City said she hopes the group Wednesday can reduce the presence of street harassment in Iowa City by targeting people who aren’t necessarily directly participating.

“When we’re addressing bystanders, the message is that silence makes the situation worse. And silence sends a message that what that person is doing is OK,” Junis said.

The broader goal, however, will be to change the public’s attitude toward street harassment by addressing broader cultural issues before focusing on “bystander intervention,” she said.

“So it does have that component to it,” Junis said. “We do want people … to step in and say something, but it’s also about changing community norms so that it becomes something that is not acceptable.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the age of Colette Saindon. We regret this error.

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