A Mercer student walks across the street in Mercer Village late at night. (Ian Henshaw)
A Mercer student walks across the street in Mercer Village late at night.

Ian Henshaw

Macon at night: Catcalling, harassment and why victims don’t report

October 11, 2019

At about 2 a.m. on a Tuesday before classes started, I left my apartment in Mercer Landing to go visit a friend across campus. There weren’t many people moved in yet, I didn’t want to ask my friend — who had been drinking — to come pick me up and I don’t have a car, so my only choice was to walk alone. I wasn’t worried about it when I left, but as soon as I reached the crosswalk on Mercer University Drive, everything changed.

I headed onto the sidewalk leading into campus by the stadium and saw a man walking out of campus on the other side. I stayed aware of him, but I wasn’t scared; he hadn’t done anything, though I was reasonably certain that he wasn’t a student. I called the friend I was visiting on the phone and kept walking. I didn’t say that I had encountered anyone, since nothing had happened yet. I just wanted a safety net, real or imagined.

I’m glad I did. As I rounded the corner, I heard someone shout, “hey!” from behind me. I didn’t turn around, but I had a gut feeling that it was the man I had seen. I picked up my pace, suddenly conscious of the heels I was wearing and how limiting they were, when he yelled again: “hey, what’s up?”

Against my better judgment, I looked behind me, and there he was. He had crossed over to the same side of the street as me, turned around and was now following me back onto campus.

I told my friend what had happened on the phone and asked if they’d come get me. I figured I’d rather take my chances in a car with someone who was a bit buzzed for a minute than risk the rest of a cross-campus walk with a stranger following me in the middle of the night. I was too far from the Mercer Police station at this point to walk in for safety, and I didn’t want to call them, either. Getting caught up in filing a report or explaining why I was scared in a situation that might not seem serious was the last thing I wanted to do. What was I supposed to say, “uh… a guy said ‘hey’ to me?” 

My friend was just a few beers deep, and it had been over an hour since their last. It felt like a smarter, easier choice.

My friend pulled up next to me just a minute or so later and we headed back towards Mercer University Drive to turn around. The man crossed the street and started to leave campus once I got into the car, making it even clearer that he had been following me. I cried the whole way back to my friend’s Loft, feeling terrified, objectified and frustrated that a woman can’t just walk on her own campus without someone going out of their way to intimidate her.

Stalking and violence “infrequent” at Mercer, but a concern nationwide

Stories like this may sound dramatic if you haven’t been catcalled or followed before, but rejection violence — the tendency of harassers to lash out at victims who respond unfavorably to their advances — is a huge concern. Over a single week in 2014, one man slashed a New York woman’s throat for refusing to give him her phone number, and another shot a woman to death in Detroit for turning down a date. The threat of violence is one reason why women feel so much pressure to respond politely to harassing comments or actions.

After checking with Mercer Police and the General Counsel’s Office, which prepares our annual crime report, no one can recall more than one or two reported incidents in the last several years that meet your definition.”

— Rick Cameron, senior assistant vice president for marketing communications at Mercer University

Nothing that horrifying has been reported at Mercer, but according to the 2019 Clery Act report released Sept. 27, Mercer Police received 12 reports of stalking on campus in 2018 alone. There were also six reported cases of aggravated assault and nine reported rapes that year.

I asked Mercer Police Sept. 26 if the office had collected data on students reporting “being followed, catcalled or made to feel unsafe due to verbal harassment.”

Rick Cameron, senior assistant vice president for marketing communications at Mercer, said in an email the next day that reports of that nature are “infrequent.”

“We’d only have records on them if they were reported to Mercer Police as possible crimes or if they were reported to the Title IX Office,” Cameron said. “After checking with Mercer Police and the General Counsel’s Office, which prepares our annual crime report, no one can recall more than one or two reported incidents in the last several years that meet your definition.”

Low numbers may seem to indicate that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, but according to an investigation by Broadly, it’s more likely that women are afraid to report something that can be so difficult to define yet so easy to trivialize. Not to mention, identifying a perpetrator can be impossible in many situations.

In Georgia, we don’t have laws against catcalling, and the legal definition of stalking leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It refers to “someone following, placing under surveillance or contacting a nonconsenting person for the purpose of harassing or intimidating that person,” according to Title 16, Chap. 5, Article 7 of the Official Code of Georgia. This means that to take action against the guy who followed me, I’d have to prove that he was just trying to scare me.

‘I would literally get catcalled … twice per month:’ Students recall troubling experiences in Macon at night

I spoke to two women about their experiences on and off campus, though I know plenty more with similar stories to tell. They never reported their harassers, either.

Rachel McBride, a journalism major, attended Mercer for two years before transferring to Kennesaw State University as a junior.

“I don’t know about everyone else, but I would literally get catcalled like approximately twice per month on my walks to the CCJ (Center for Collaborative Journalism) when I was a student at Mercer,” McBride said. “Upon transferring to Kennesaw, I thought that the catcalling situation would be worse since the population is more dense here, but this actually isn’t the case.”

She hasn’t been catcalled once since transferring.

She said Mercer’s catcalling problem may seem worse than Kennesaw State’s because of how open our campus is to the Macon community. Kennesaw State, she said, is more closed off to the surrounding area.

One of the most common pieces of advice women receive to stay safe is to never walk alone, but McBride said the buddy system doesn’t always deter harassers.

“I was with my roommates, and we drove to downtown Macon to eat at the Rookery, and a man ran up behind us and asked us for directions,” she said. When they said they didn’t know the way to his destination, he followed McBride and her roommates into the restaurant.

“The waiter came by and checked on us and told us that he’d make sure the man left us alone,” McBride said.

I was followed once or twice for sure, because I would do the trick they teach you when you cross the street, wait a block, and then cross back to the other side and see if he does the same. Those times were panic-inducing, but I sped up and got to my car pretty quickly before anything happened.”

— Emma Johnston, senior women's and gender studies major

The waiter’s help is an example of bystander intervention, and it’s one of the safest and most effective ways to deter harassers, according to Hollaback, a national anti-street harassment organization based in New York. 

Emma Johnston is a senior at Mercer who grew up in Macon. The first time she was verbally harassed, she was only 12 years old, standing in the concessions line at a movie theatre.

“I remember it really well because a friend and I were seeing ‘Tangled’ at Amstar. It had just come out, and we were still just kids who loved Disney movies,” she said. “We were together, giggling, about to head into the movie, when a middle-aged dad … sitting down in the lobby started whistling at us and calling over to us to ‘come over here and sit on my lap.’”

Johnston was worried that the man would try to approach her and her friend, so they left the line and went to their seats. Despite her fear, she said there was an additional layer to being seen as sexually attractive at such a young age that made the experience even stranger.

“I remember also feeling a little excited, because that meant this guy saw me as a woman rather than a girl, or that I exuded some kind of maturity, and of course, as women and girls, we are raised to value the approval of men,” she said.

As Johnston grew up, she started performing in shows at Theatre Macon on Cherry Street and attending nightly rehearsals until 9 or 10 p.m. On her solo walks back to her car, Johnston said she endured leers, comments and stalking from men lingering outside bars.

“I was followed once or twice for sure, because I would do the trick they teach you when you cross the street, wait a block, and then cross back to the other side and see if he does the same,” she said. “Those times were panic-inducing, but I sped up and got to my car pretty quickly before anything happened.”

In college, Johnston bought a defense keychain to carry with her and took a self-defense class her junior year after being physically harassed at The Crazy Bull — a location she now avoids — by “a white, male, Mercer law student.”

She said there are racist and classist stereotypes about who the most threatening people are, but in her experience, these have not proven true.

“Overwhelmingly, the guys that felt entitled to talk to me, catcall me and make me feel uncomfortable, scared and threatened, were white guys standing outside bars smoking,” she said. “I have honestly had very few problems with homeless or African-American men bothering me at any point in my life. There’s also definitely a difference in someone asking me for money and someone yelling some opinion about my appearance at me from a distance.”

For information on how to safely react to situations of harassment, whether it’s towards you or someone else, visit Hollaback’s website or message the Online National Street Harassment Hotline.

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “Macon at night: Catcalling, harassment and why victims don’t report”

  1. Brandopolis on October 12th, 2019 12:49 am

    There are weird people everywhere…And weird students because every time I’m at the intersection of Mercer University and the lofts.. Students walk in front of cars like they own Macon..

  2. Mary on October 12th, 2019 3:22 am

    I’m sure this won’t make the comment list. Macon is a place I would never send my kid to college… Mercer is really in a bad section of downtown… So I’m not surprised at this happening and no other reports… Those files we’re probably burned

  3. steve on October 16th, 2019 10:37 am

    Just so people won’t assume the article is about race, let’s virtue signal by claiming white guys are the problem. Maybe a good journalist would show the crime statistics of Macon downtown to back up (or discredit) this person’s experience.

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