Yes, street harassment happens in Denver — here’s what Denverites told us and what we need to do

You too? Me too.
19 min. read
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) street harassment; illustration;

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

You too? Me too.

It's a conversation women and the LGBTQ community have been having forever. You'd be hard-pressed to find a person in those groups who hasn't experienced harassment or sexual assault. And since 2017 seems to be the year Americans are finally starting to hold men accountable for their bad behavior in this regard, it's a great time to address the issue on the literal ground level: street harassment.

It's the insidious, everyday manifestation of misogyny and homophobia. It's catcalling, ass-grabbing, slur-hurling, following and threatening, and it's happening all the time.

Is anyone listening?

We surveyed more than 50 people about their experiences with street harassment and in the results saw an unsurprising trend: straight men were more likely to believe the problem was far less serious than were straight women and LGBTQ Denverites.

One anonymous responder embodied the most frustrating attitude about street harassment — the kind you see from people on Twitter with an egg for an avatar — that people who complain about harassment are overly sensitive and want to be victims, and that what they say is harassment is simply men trying to be nice.

Here are that person’s sarcastic survey responses, paired with some responses of people who experience harassment.

Tell us about your experience(s) with street harassment in Denver.

Twitter Egg: A man said hello to me while I was walking.

Rebecca G.: Walking with my husband in broad daylight, I heard someone calling "hey girl" several times behind me. Thinking I dropped my wallet or something, I turned around. A man across the corner was holding his penis in his hand and yelled, "Get on this dick." My husband had believed but never witnessed that kind of behavior before. I think he was more surprised than I was.

Stefani K.: I rarely go out for lunch without some man catcalling. There are too many such incidents to recount. I've been touched unexpectedly and without permission. I've had men shout curses at me when I don't respond. I've had people ask me for the time just so they can ask for my number or a date, generally with little to no segue.

Wren P.: [When I was a teenager] a guy followed me, staring from his car, driving 10 mph, until he and I hit a corner at the same time and he jumped out and tried to grab me. I jumped back and was about to run, when he decided to try and pretend like he was just lost and asked me where the mall was. He drove around the corner and started following me again. When I got to my block, I passed my house like it was any other and not my destination until he was looping around the corner again and I ran as fast as I could back to the house. I changed my route to and from high school six times my freshman year alone from events like this. I was 14.

Erin B.: Denver has the potential to be a walkable city, but being harassed by groups of drunk men blocking the sidewalk on Colfax or approached for one thing or another every few blocks makes being a pedestrian unpleasant. And for women, the hassle and adrenaline rush of fear that being yelled at, grabbed or followed on the street is not worth the extra time and effort of making walking a regular part of a daily routine.

Anonymous: Living in Cap Hill, I was harassed pretty much daily. The worst was when a man told me to smile and I was in a bad mood, so I said, "Don’t tell women what to do!" He then followed me multiple blocks calling me a "stupid cunt" and other insults. One time a homeless man who harassed me regularly started following me with a switchblade in his hand.

Susan K.: It happens often. To the point where I'm more surprised when it doesn't happen. I've had random men slowly follow me in their car calling things out their window while I'm walking on the sidewalk. I've had a man walk up and grab my breast on the sidewalk. I've had men harass me on the bus. A friend and I were once followed home from 7-Eleven after a night out. A guy asked to borrow a lighter, we obliged, and then said goodbye and then walked off. He definitely followed as we took random turns to try to shake him. By the time we got back to her apartment we were running. We got inside safely and looked out the window to see him just standing out front staring at the window for a few minutes before he finally walked away.

How have you responded when something happens?

Twitter Egg: I cowered in fear, then never told anyone about it.

Wren P.: As a teen, my response to a whistle, honk or catcall was automatically a middle finger without even looking up because it was so frequent.

Anonymous: I called the cops on the knife incident, they said they would send an officer to the area to see if he was still there. Never heard back.

Susan K.: I usually yell back. The man that grabbed my breast got a good smack with my purse and I yelled at him. I've been lucky to never have anyone become overly aggressive when I've responded by calling them out. In certain situations where I feel threatened, I will remove myself from the situation. Like the guy that followed me. 

Stefani K.: I get upset, and I think of things to say back, but at the end of the day, I don't know if he's carrying a weapon or if standing up for myself will incite him to use it. It's better to be safe and harried than dead.

How do you cope/blow off steam?

Twitter Egg: Drink wine and complain on social media.

Susan K.: I talk to friends about it. It's comforting to know you aren't the only one.  I especially try to talk to my guy friends. I want them to understand the difference between unwanted/creepy attention and approaching a woman in a normal way, and how and why we feel in those situations.

Wren P.: I don't. It's just how I'm treated. I've been treated like this since I was a child. I know no different.

What do you want to know about street harassment and what should we write about?

Twitter Egg: Everything! It's just so unbearable! What a miserable horrible life of inequality I live!

Anonymous: How much of this gets reported? It's my experience that if I respond to harassment, it just gets worse.

Wren P.:  What is illegal and what isn't. In my 20s, there was some news story about a guy who had followed a girl home and police were called. I said, “But he didn't nab them, why call the police and the news?” And everyone looked at me like I was clinically insane. I said that happened to me all the time at that age and neither I nor any adult I told about it called the police. I always just thought that's how women and girls are treated, and you have to defend yourself because no one will help you.

Stefani K.: I want the writing to be targeted at men. Give men (especially straight men) tools to stop it. Tell them how to call out their friends. Help them realize that this is an epidemic, it is hurting women both mentally and physically, and it is their problem too.

What's your name and the best way to contact you?

Twitter Egg: I'm far too socially anxious for that!

Almost every single person who responded to our survey said they were willing to discuss it further with a reporter, and the people I reached out to were eager to share their stories. (Note: We received a handful of responses from people identifying as gay, lesbian and non-binary, but they did not respond to requests to share their stories.)

When Denverite asked men on the streets how prevalent they think the issue is, responses ran the gamut.

“On an average day you might see it happen — depending on where you’re walking or where you’re going  — you might see it happen maybe once a day,” Jerel Roberts said. “That makes it pretty common, I guess.”

“I hate to say it, but I bet it’s pretty friggin’ common nowadays,” Miguel Sandoval said.

On the other hand, some men believe it hardly happens at all.

Jonathan Cowell told us he thinks it’s “pretty rare.”

Jalal Aladdin said, “I don’t think it’s very common. I think there is a small percentage of men who do that. At least in the environment that I live in, I don’t see that happen a lot.”

“I don’t feel like it’s predominant as much as it used to be,” Seth Wiggins said. “I don’t witness it.”

But as many women will tell you, street harassment is so commonplace as to be considered just a part of daily life, particularly in a city.

In recent weeks, the #MeToo campaign and the daily outing of powerful men as harassers and perpetrators of sexual assault have been a resounding demonstration that women need to be believed — and that an unwillingness to listen to them in the past has allowed a culture of harassment to fester.

Still, if anyone needs data, there’s data.

A survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment in 2014 found that 65 percent of women in the U.S. have experienced street harassment. Among men, 25 percent reported having experienced street harassment (and a majority of them are LGBT-identifying).

“One statistic that I’ve seen is 85 percent of women were found to have experienced street harassment — 30 percent having experienced confrontational forms,” Apryl Alexander, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology, told Denverite.

Lt. Michael Wyatt, the Denver Police Department’s LGBTQ liaison, said there were 10 LGBTQ bias-motivated crimes reported in 2016, and nine reported as of September in 2017. Those numbers represent only those times when victims called the police. Wyatt this summer created a Safe Spaces program when he learned that though harassment was common in the community he protects, it was almost never actually reported.

The true extent of the problem is not well documented. Many victims don’t know when it rises to the level of calling the police or feel that doing so won’t help. They believe there’s nothing to be done, that they won’t be believed or that they’ll be blamed.

“People always blame the victim and there’s always an assumption that you must have done something — must have been scantily clad or been drunk,” Wren B. said. “People blame rape victims and harassment victims. ‘You asked for it.’”

Wyatt said it’s important for anyone who experiences street harassment to report it because it helps the police department know where and how to respond. Even if there’s nothing the police can do about a particular incident, no suspect to pursue, it’s valuable information.

“We as a police department, we can’t respond to something if we don’t know it’s occurring,” he said. If people report the things that happen to them “at least we know trends, what’s happening and where do we put our resources to make sure everyone is safe.”

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Street harassment takes a psychological toll and affects the way those who are targeted move through the world.

Many of the people who shared their experiences with Denverite described harassment as commonplace, part of their everyday lives. They describe similar tactics for trying to avoid it, like wearing headphones, putting on a tough face or going out of their way to avoid places where they know they'll be harassed.

"Ignore or avoid the harassment by being constantly on guard," Erin B. said.

"Men on the bus — I've gotten off at an early stop to get away from them," Susan K. told us.

Commonplace harassment and the threat women and LGBTQ people feel because of it forces them to live their lives differently. It forces changes in habits that make daily tasks inconvenient, and what's more taxing, it makes anxiety and even outright fear go hand-in-hand with simply leaving home.

As Alexander described it, harassment leads to fear and fear leads to avoidance behaviors.

"Some of the most common experiences that women report are fear. It’s being frightened, unpleasant feelings and ultimately fear of rape," Alexander said. "That threat of bodily injury, that threat of rape, is what’s most pronounced. And with all those things, it’s long-term because they’re experiencing it all the time. 

"So thinking about those experiences, [they'll think], 'Now I need to avoid a certain route to work,' when they go out at night because of the street harassment."

But — putting aside for a moment that the onus should not be placed on the targets of harassment — it's not practical or often even possible to avoid street harassment. That's exactly why Wyatt created the Safe Spaces program in June.

"I'm the LGBTQ liaison. In my work in that community, information came to me about youth LGBTQ folks being harassed coming to and from the [GLBT Colorado] Center on Colfax, and none of it was being reported to the police," he said.

It all started with an incident reported by an LGBTQ teen.

"He was on public transportation on Colfax, going to a youth program at the Center and someone started calling him derogatory slurs and actually chased him off the bus and down the street," Wyatt said.

He decided to replicate a program he knew was working in Seattle. The Safe Spaces program gives window stickers to participating businesses that mark them as a place where an LGBTQ person can get help when they're being harassed. It's free for the businesses and does not require any training for employees.

Since the program began about five months ago, more than 100 Denver businesses have gotten on board. Wyatt says the program exists in about 50 American cities.

But while Safe Space programs are effective in keeping people safe and encouraging reporting of harassment and assault, they can only tackle one part of the problem.

Before we can have a productive conversation about harassment, we need to make sure we’re all using the same definition.

"When we’re thinking about street harassment, we’re thinking about a broad range of behaviors that could include things like leering, calling out — things that people might think are acceptable or wanted. Some individuals don’t see it as harassment, they see it as disclosing their attraction to someone," Alexander said.

Many men who harass women in more aggressive or violent ways know what they're doing. Many others, who might whistle, bark (yes, that happens) or make sexual comments see it as complimentary. Still others think they're just demonstrating confidence while trying to get a date.

The men who spoke to Denverite about street harassment had varying ideas about what constitutes harassment. Jerel Roberts said catcalling is rude and that he'll confront someone who does it to his friends or girlfriend, but also said he'll wink at women or otherwise make it clear he's checking them out.

"I’m not yelling out the window," he said. "There’s a line."

Often, they draw the line physical contact or aggressive behavior.

But as almost every single person who took Denverite’s survey told us, that’s way off. The line is drawn where power dynamics dictate — where your actions make someone  feel objectified or unsafe.

"Some of it can be really scary, even when the dude is trying to be nice or complimentary," Cat S. said. "I had someone very abruptly walk toward me fast at night while quoting slam poetry. I'm sure he had some romantic 'how we met' story in his head, but it was terrifying."

Fighting street harassment requires changing the behavior and attitudes of men.

"What we’re talking about with street harassment is that these are unwanted behaviors, with that threat there, and attitudes towards hypermasculinity. ... Street harassment is one subset of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and tied to all of those things are a need for power and control,” Alexander said. "We need to be focusing on changing the behaviors of harassers, not women."

In an immediate way, that means having the conversations our survey respondents said they wished we were having. It means helping men understand that the problem is more serious than they think, or that behavior they may think is harmless takes a toll on women.

It also means changing the conversation from "women and LGBTQ folks are being harassed" to "men are harassing women and LGBTQ folks," because right now, even the language we use to talk about harassment lays responsibility on the people subjected to it.

For one thing, victims and advocates say that if men see something, they need to say something — whether it’s happening to someone you know or a stranger, or the perpetrator is someone you know or a stranger.

When it comes to defending someone being harassed, most of the men Denverite spoke to said they feel compelled to do something when they see it happening their girlfriends or wives. That takes the form of holding her hand to show that she's with someone, yelling or even getting into a physical fight.

For most of them, the reaction came from a place of concern or protectiveness. For others, it was possessiveness.

"Like, What the fuck dude? That’s my girl," Trevor Height said. "I feel like it’s my boundaries. It’s the same thing if it’s your front yard or your backyard. You own this, you don’t want people in it, you know? You got no trespassing signs."

Setting aside that it’s wrong to think you own your girlfriend like you own a piece of land, women is particular have said again and again: It shouldn’t take having a wife, girlfriend or daughter to make you see women as humans.

It’s also time to stop using or accepting age as an excuse. Several of the men we spoke to said that they would catcall women when they were younger, but don't do it now.

"It’s been a long time, probably since I was in my early 20s. I’m 39 now. But yeah, I’ve done it before. I’d have to admit that," Sandoval said. "I would be driving down the street back in the day when people would cruise Federal and whatnot. It would be to whistle or say something out of the car window to see what kind of response you would get."

But the people who are harassed daily don’t want to wait for maturity. Long-term, fighting street harassment (and sexual assault, for that matter) needs to start early. Alexander said schools need to play a part, teaching kids about healthy relationships and gender roles in sex education classes.

That's already happening in some Denver schools. The Blue Bench, a 34-year-old local sexual assault support and prevention center, offers programs in middle schools, high schools and colleges that focus on building empathy and knowing when and how to speak out about sexual assault.

"First it’s just a lot of defining what sexual assault is and what that looks like, starting with more sexual harassment type activities and then moving on to the full scope of a sexual assault," said Karmen Carter, executive director of The Blue Bench. "[It's also] talking to them about what they can do to change conversations or call each other on comments that they think are inappropriate."

Things don't change overnight, so here's how to cope and get help.

The Blue Bench has a 24-hour sexual assault hotline: 303-322-7273. It also offers 24-hour hospital response, ongoing case management services and we have individual and group therapy. A list of the latter can be found here.

There's also the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a membership organization that promotes safety, justice and healing for sexual assault survivors and works to end sexual violence. The resources section of their website offers step-by-step guidance as well as a guide to LGBTQ-specific resources, campus resources, military resources, culturally specific support organizations, criminal justice advocacy and a lot more. That can all be found here.

Alexander recommends the Professional Psychology Clinic at the University of Denver, which offers sliding scale counseling services. 

And, again, the Denver Police Department encourages victims of street harassment and assault to report it.

"It doesn’t need to rise to the level of an actual assault to call us," Wyatt said. "If there’s any question, call and let the officer show up and decide."

Lastly, for when you're just feeling angry because of the latest hurtful slur or unsolicited and gross comment about your appearance, here's how the people we surveyed said they manage the stress: Exercise, pet a dog, have a glass of wine, Tweet it out, talk to a friend or Snapchat the stupid things harassers say with pictures of your cat. When the little injustices add up, it's the little things that can calm you down.

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