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In defense of an ‘inappropriate’ awareness campaign

Last December, around 8 p.m., I was walking home from the MUB to my dorm, which takes about five minutes. A car with two or three guys in it slowed down next to the sidewalk and one of them asked, “Hey baby, where you going?” Having already experienced street harassment countless times, I was fed up with feeling afraid to walk home at night. Only a few nights before, I was “cat called” three times while walking home from the Freedom Café, about an eight-minute walk from my dorm.
So, in my frustration, I shouted back something I shouldn’t have said to him. But there was no response from me that could have justified his next actions. “What the f–k did you just say,” he asked, and started to open his door and get out of the car. He was probably just messing with me to get a laugh out of his friends, but in the moment, I was terrified, and I ran.
Something had to change. I and countless other men and women I know experienced this type of harassment so often that they didn’t even think about it anymore, or pushed it off as something that “just happened to them.” Street harassment is any type of unwanted verbal or physical action forced upon a stranger in a public space. It is often portrayed as something that is okay, complimentary, a joke, and in some cases, an expression of free speech. It is none of these things; street harassment is considered a human rights issue because it limits a person’s ability to be in public.
As a community educator with the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), I had access to a platform on which I could portray a message on the issue. We started planning the “Wildcats STOP Street Harassment” campaign in December. As I wanted a more personalized view of what street harassment looks like on the UNH campus, we conducted a survey of 190 students and decided we should share the results on the third floor Memorial Union Building (MUB) wall, which SHARPP utilizes every spring. In addition to some basic questions around the subject, students could provide an example of something that had been said to them on the street. It was these quotes that we would display upon the wall, in addition to statistics, facts and resources.
Our project was censored within a few hours of installment. According to the administration, the quotes were too “offensive” and “inappropriate;” MUB staff and the dean of students were receiving complaints about the quotes and the administration was worried about tour groups seeing the display and changing their decisions. The entire wall was taken down.
The survey revealed that 67 percent of UNH students who took the survey experienced some form of street harassment. The most surprising thing about our findings was the volume of physical harassment. 20 percent who took the survey reported sexual touching or grabbing, 18 percent reported that they had been followed, and four percent reported assault. Of the 190 that took the survey, we received 88 written responses that we could use as quotes for the MUB installation.
When the administration tore down the display, they silenced those voices. All we wanted to do was provide education, resources, and support for students that felt unsafe on campus, and the platform was taken away. Not only did they remove the quotes that were deemed “inappropriate,” they removed the statistical data, facts, definitions and resources that we provided for students. This censorship strongly implies that the administration does not consider street harassment to be an important issue.
To counter the administration’s arguments, I would say that offense is the appropriate response to the quotes on the wall. Our display contained real things that had been said to students on this campus, and yes, they were horrible. That fact should upset people and cause them to want to take action on the issue, like we did. We did not pull these quotes from the internet for shock value, we pulled them from a survey that we conducted and that UNH students answered. Words like “boobs” and “suck” are not horribly vulgar or profane and the response from the administration was uncalled for. I do not believe I did anything offensive or controversial; my intention was to spark dialogue on an important topic that has not been addressed on this campus, but the issue can never be mended or even discussed if it is hidden.
Sexual harassment is not a happy topic, but it is a topic that needs to be addressed so that we can fix it. UNH is nationally recognized for its leading sexual assault awareness and prevention program, and the administration has deeply let us down by sweeping the issue under the rug. The administration has silenced voices that ache to be heard, they have prioritized recruitment over the safety of their own students, and they have let down a student body that depends on it to listen to its stories and keep it safe.
While it doesn’t look like our display will ever go back up onto the MUB wall, the street harassment campaign will not be going away. There will be a poster campaign to kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month during the first week of April, which also happens to be street harassment awareness week. The quotes that once hung proudly upon the wall will not be going away; we will definitely be using them. Those who shared their stories will not be silenced, and we will make sure their voices are heard one way or another.
Jordyn Haime
First year student, SHARPP
community  educator

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