Street harassment slips through the cracks

Routine harassment in the University District is rarely reported, even when it’s criminal

Image by: Kendra Pierroz
Queen's students frequently underreport street harassment

It’s a common enough sight. A young woman walks along the sidewalk, either alone or in a group, when suddenly a car drives by — slurs and innuendoes are yelled out an open window by a stranger. Before anyone can fully register what’s happened, the car’s gone.

Whether they’ve witnessed a drive-by catcall or public masturbation, female students at Queen’s are no strangers to street harassment in the University District.

But even when an incident is classified as a criminal offence, you’d be hard pressed to find a woman on campus who’s reported it to officials.

For Nicole Ahrens, the drive-by scenario is nothing new. Like many other female students, she’s been called a “slut” and a “bitch” on the streets of the University District, with the occasional “I’m going to fuck you” thrown in.

However, in a couple of cases, seemingly harmless situations turned into what police would classify as assault.

“I was on the street with my friend, and we were coming back from yoga on Princess St.,” Ahrens, PHE ’15, said. “We were across from the Starbucks, and some guy who was a few feet away from us … bent down on one knee to pretend to propose.”

At first the young man didn’t seem threatening. He called the girls “beautiful” while touching their faces. Then he suddenly grabbed both Ahrens’ and her friend’s breasts.

“He ran across the street where his friends were and they ran off,” she said. “I remember hearing them all laugh.”

At first they were shocked, but the surprise soon turned into anger.

“It’s disappointing to know that guys around my age think that this is appropriate or acceptable behaviour, and that the friends were laughing about it. They didn’t say anything … it was very accepted.”

Street harassment by the numbers

While Ahrens’ experiences aren’t wholly uncommon for female students, statistics on street harassment in Kingston, let alone Queen’s, are sparse and provide little useful information.  

For Canadian police, “catcalling” and “street harassment” aren’t categories for criminal offences. They instead describe incidents that could fall under the same dispatch codes as criminal harassment, threats, suspicious activity, indecent acts and trespass/prowler. As a result, no clear numbers exist on recorded cases of street harassment.

Data from Queen’s Campus Security and Emergency Services isn’t much better. Like the Ontario Human Rights Code, street harassment and catcalling fall under “sexual harassment” for Campus Security, which refers to any incident of a sexual or gender-related nature.

In 2014, Campus Security reported only four “sexual harassment” incidents. Reports dating as far back as 1998 don’t stray far from this number — seven reported incidents in 2010 is the all-time high.

However, these statistics don’t represent the amount of street harassment that occurs in the university area.

With minimal data available from official sources, The Journal conducted a survey on catcalling and street harassment in the Queen’s area, which received responses from 147 members of the Queen’s community, including staff and undergraduate and graduate students. While the online survey isn’t scientifically valid — the sample isn’t representative of the entire student population — the results of the survey show that Ahrens isn’t alone in her experience.

Ahrens was among 93 per cent of respondents who said they’d been the target of street harassment in the University District. Of those respondents, around 30 per cent reported that they experienced street harassment in the area on more than six occasions.

For some participants, these incidents took a dark turn.

Melanie Gray, ArtSci ’16, is Mohawk and a self-proclaimed hermit. She doesn’t go out much, but she’s heavily involved in the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.

One fall morning in 2013, she hopped on a bus heading down Princess St. to go to a meeting at the Aboriginal Centre. As the bus drove down Barrie St. towards the centre, Gray noticed something moving out of the corner of her eye.

“This guy was just, looking over at me.”

As first, Gray said she didn’t know what was happening.

“I saw him shift his body towards me, so I looked back towards him, and he was literally masturbating on the bus with lots of people around.”

With his hand deep in his pants, the man made vigorous movements in Gray’s direction. She began looking around to the other people on the bus, hoping someone else noticed what she was seeing. 

“I don’t know if anybody noticed, but nobody was saying anything, because what do you do in that situation?” she said. “So I kept sitting there awkwardly and seeing him looking at me.”

As he exited the bus at a University District stop, the young man smirked at her. She was 19 at the time.

As soon as she reached the centre, Gray began to cry.

“I felt sort of sick to my stomach,” she said. “I tried to figure out what I was wearing, and thinking no, that can’t be it. I’m wearing a sweatshirt and pants.”

“Now I realize that that was shame towards myself, thinking that it was my fault.”

She said it was a sad realization, because there were undoubtedly many more people who had felt the same way she did.

“It’s easier to blame yourself than somebody you don’t know, because how are you going to displace that blame?”

“Now that I’m older [I know better],” she said.

“I didn’t do anything. I was just sitting in my seat.”

It would be reassuring to say Gray’s experience was unique, but that’s also false.

In 2015 alone there were over seven reported cases of indecent exposure in the University District alone. In late October, police reported a case where a male driver masturbated while engaging with a female pedestrian on campus. 

But if The Journal can find over 130 people who claim to have experienced street harassment in the University District — many of which would constitute criminal offences — while Campus Security and Kingston Police’s statistics fall into the single digits, there’s a chance that Gray is among many students who simply didn’t report their experiences.

Where did survey participants report street harassment?

Red indicates where there are higher concentrations of reported acts of harassment.


Why women don’t report harassment

Of the incidents reported to The Journal, it’s difficult to say how many would be considered criminal offences. However, under Canada’s Criminal Code, both Ahrens’ and Gray’s experiences, and those of many other of the survey respondents, definitely qualify.

Despite that, none of the survey participants contacted Campus Security or Kingston Police.

Participants gave a variety of answers about why they didn’t report their experience, but a few key reasons came up repeatedly:

  • 37 people said there was nothing the authorities could or would do;
  • 24 people said it didn’t seem necessary or that they didn’t feel threatened;
  • 13 said it was a regular enough occurrence, so why bother?

After the groping incident, Ahrens said she felt frustrated and discouraged, and had a sense of not knowing how to move forward. 

“Thinking about it now, it would have been a good idea to report it just so they’re aware,” she said. “But I felt at the time that I didn’t have enough information to give any substantial information.”

“It was one of those things where I didn’t know if it was going to do any good.”

When is street harassment criminal?

When you call the police on their non-emergency line, there’s a chance that they can’t help you.

But while Kingston Police doesn’t use the category of “street harassment”, that doesn’t mean street harassment cannot fall under a number of criminal offences, KP media relations officer Steve Koopman told The Journal.

Criminal harassment under Canada’s Criminal Code involves one or more of the following: 

  • repeatedly following from place to place;
  • repeatedly communicating with, either directly or indirectly;
  • besetting or watching the dwelling-house, or place where the other person, or anyone known to them, resides, works, carries on business or happens to be; or
  • engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or any member of their family.

“If any of those four potentially are met, then the next question that officer must ask is: Did the person have a reasonable fear for their safety?” Const. Koopman said. Oftentimes, police receive calls from individuals who are bothered or scared, but aren’t in a legitimately threatened position. In those cases, it’s highly unlikely police can press charges.

However, in the event an officer can’t charge someone, police can still educate or warn someone on their behaviour and how it could escalate into a criminal offence in some situations.

So for anyone who believes they have legitimate fears for their safety, or has a hunch that someone’s violating the Criminal Code, it’s worth calling Campus Security or police on their non-emergency line — just to be safe. At the very least, they’ll have numbers that better reflect what’s going on.


Campus security, Catcalling, Kingston Police, street harassment, University District

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

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