Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?

I wrote a piece at the Daily Dot about a proposed ordinance that would make street harassment illegal.

Street harassment is dismally common–a recent study commissioned by the organization Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of the women surveyed had experienced it.

But up until recently, most strategies to stop harassment have focused on the victims. For example, the Hollaback app allows people who experience street harassment to document the incidents on a map, perhaps helping others avoid areas where lots of harassment occurs. And then there’s the usual, mostly-useless advice: don’t wear this, don’t do that, don’t walk alone.

However, that’s starting to change: some cities are adopting laws that attempt to criminalize street harassment. For example, a new proposed ordinance in Kansas City would make it illegal to purposefully frighten or injure a pedestrian or cyclist and lists a number of behaviors that would qualify, such as “threaten such person” and “place such person in apprehension of physical danger.”

It’s heartening that city officials are starting to take the issue of street harassment seriously. It’s a strain on individuals’ mental and physical health and creates a hostile, unwelcoming environment for women and gender non-conforming people whenever they leave their homes. Passing an ordinance that bans street harassment can send the message that this is wrong and will no longer be tolerated, thus indirectly helping to change the social norms that make street harassment so common.

But as much as I want to be optimistic about this, I’m not sure that these laws will be effective. For starters, enforcing them is probably impractical. Suppose you get harassed by someone on the street. You immediately call the police. They arrive. By then, the harasser is long gone. You give them a description. Now what? The likelihood that the police will prioritize locating a catcaller based on a physical description when there are so many other, more physically violent crimes to investigate seems low.

Moreover, we live in a society in which many people still insist that catcalls, even when made with a threatening tone and body language, are “compliments.” Such perceptions make a difference when it comes to law enforcement, even though many people still believe that police officers are objective enforcers of the law. (If the events in Ferguson haven’t changed their minds about that, I don’t know what will.)

Many sexual assault survivors report that the police refused to pursue their allegations. Some even intimidate or threaten the survivors to convince them to recant those allegations. Why wouldn’t this happen with street harassment claims, which most people probably take even less seriously than they take claims of sexual assault?

The wording of the proposed ordinance may not even include many instances of street harassment. Someone mumbling “nice tits, slut” while leering at a woman would not be breaking the proposed law. Someone saying “fuck you, cunt” when the woman walks away wouldn’t be breaking it, either, as long as they don’t make “loud or unusual sounds” in the process.

Read the rest here.

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Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?
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10 thoughts on “Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?

  1. 1

    ” illegal to purposefully frighten or injure a pedestrian or cyclist and lists a number of behaviors that would qualify, such as “threaten such person” and “place such person in apprehension of physical danger.” ”

    Aren’t these things mostly illegal already, under charges like ‘assault’ and ‘threatening bodily harm’/stalking etc? What would this law change, exactly?

  2. 2

    There are things which are illegal but which are more difficult to enforce or prosecute – marital rape is one, but I think having it be illegal sends the right message.

    With street harassment, my inclination is that the police will enforce it in an arbitrary, capricious, racist and classist fashion both in terms of who they choose to cite for the offense but also who they choose to listen to. Will the cops take complaints from women of color seriously? Trans women? I just see this being an area where police biases are going to be really, really bad.

    The law (as you said) doesn’t even seem to apply to much of street harassment, and seems to be a more ‘general harassment’ law which ends up not helping the issue.

    Another thing is that a lot of harassment in public happens so fast you don’t see who said what. I’ve had lewd remarks (well, maybe not by the definitions of this particular law) yelled at me from passing cars and I’d be at a total loss to describe the vehicle or the people inside it. That’s kind of how many harassers work – make sure they can harass and then escape any possible retaliation or being recognized.

  3. 3

    As I’ve said before, this is an area where the solution won’t be found in the law, but in the changing of cultural norms.

    I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I can tell you that there are countries where women in public get their bottoms pinched, and countries where this rarely if ever happens. It’s not religiosity, either– Italy is notorious for its “handsy” men, and I don’t think I need to report that Jesus is huge there. HUGE.

    And the only thing that changes cultural norms is when people speak up. If you want to enforce the status quo, keep quiet.

  4. 4

    Here’s how it could work: treat it like littering, i.e. the “broken windows” approach. Ticket harrassers with fines that increase with each offense, but the first fine could be reduced by taking a class or somesuch. (Maybe make the guy run a gauntlet of harassers?) This situation is similar to littering and vandalism in that it ruins the surroundings and makes navigating treacherous. The only difference is that usually only the targets see it. How about a small dept in the police that patrol in plainclothes and hand out tickets, and explain just why it is so horrible. and use the funds for battered women’s shelters!

  5. 5

    “The wording of the proposed ordinance may not even include many instances of street harassment. Someone mumbling “nice tits, slut” while leering at a woman would not be breaking the proposed law. Someone saying “fuck you, cunt” when the woman walks away wouldn’t be breaking it, either, as long as they don’t make “loud or unusual sounds” in the process.”

    I feel advocating for a law where the government or “the people” gets to determine what words or phrases are “appropriate” or “inappropriate” is not only a clear violation of the first amendment but could lead to a true slippery slope since harassing or offensive phrases are subjective. Yes, I think we all can agree that the examples that were given are deliberately degrading and sexist, but as we slide down from those extreme comments the decision on whether something is sexist, racist, bigoted, or offensive begins to get blurry as well as the intentions of the individuals making the comment. I don’t think arresting someone simply for giving a woman a well intentioned compliment on her looks, which some may view as being sexist or offensive, is a good way to bridge the gap on the issue and may end up causing more of a backlash. However, I don’t think this issue should be ignored, you had mentioned the Hollaback app which could be a great tool to use to set up demonstrations in areas where many sexist remarks are made and of course education with a focus on mutual respect for everyone regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, and beliefs is always a useful tool to have as well.

    1. 5.1

      A problem with considering this a ‘free speech issue’ is that I don’t think that free speech necessarily entail a right to an audience. Part of this may be that I’ve contended with at least one man who thought ‘free speech’ meant that after I told him to leave me alone, he could keep talking to me progressively getting more hostile .

      I also disagree that an arrest or citation might not do some good. I’d be against harsh penalties for first-time offenders and would prefer something more educational, but a problem with trying to educate people is I feel like in that regard we’re preaching to the choir on this issue.

      1. I want to get some clarity first before we go further because I feel like your understanding of harassment is different than mine, in your words how do you define harassment. In my words I interpret harassment by the behavior of the individual not the message that they say. A great example is the one you gave where you clearly told the person to stop, but yet they persisted. As to the free speech vs. right to audience, the purpose of someone speaking out is in hopes that they gain an audience willing to listen, just as much as we have a right to speak out we also have a right to criticize or refuse to listen to the individual speaking out, now I will agree that if the individual puts you in a position where you have no choice but to listen, that would be a violation of your rights, I think that would be more of a reflection on the person’s actions and behavior rather than what they have to say. The reason why I’m against the argument about the language being
        used is because of my original point which is; offensive language is subjective and goes back to my original free speech argument. Remember harassment can come in all forms not just in the sexual manner and, being an atheist, I wouldn’t put it past the religious crowd to use this law to shut
        us up, want proof, look at the false flagging which goes on in youtube and other social media websites.

  6. 6

    While I strongly believe nobody deserves to be harassed just for walking down the street, I am inclined to disagree with making and enforcing such a law. Like number 2 had mentioned, the first thought that popped into my head when reading this was the racial implications. I think many can see how this law would be more heavily enforced in areas with minorities and looked at as another legitimate way for police to harass and stop people of color. Also, the principle of free speech has to be considered. As a veteran we have the monicker “I fight for the flag waiver as much as the flag burner.” So for me any hindrance on speech is not good and I have to admit I don’t see any sort of data that will change my idea on this. I truly believe one of the prices we pay for free speech is having to hear things we do not like.

  7. 7

    Just to elaborate some more on my comment so it doesn’t come off as if I support these people being jerks and the cat calling behavior. I would very much be in support of some type of public service campaign designed to teach people it is not appropriate to talk to people this way. I’m open to other ideas to help foster a culture where this would be considered wrong by an overwhelming majority. We don’t have many laws against racial slurs but we live in a culture now where it is considered reprehensible to shout out racial slurs at people. I think we could eventually get to a point where cat calling is looked on with almost the same disgust by the general public. Maybe something like similar to the “R-Word, Spread the Word” campaign.

  8. 8

    Suppose you get harassed by someone on the street. You immediately call the police. They arrive. By then, the harasser is long gone. You give them a description. Now what?

    This is not the real enforcement issue. The bigger problem is that now everyday activities – asking for directions, smiling, etc.-are now grounds for reasonable suspicion in violating an ordinance, which gives the police more leeway to stop and question individuals who they believe look suspect. Who does this disproportionately affect? Minorities.

    So while the law allows a tumblr activist to feel safe knowing that some homeless man can’t call her beautiful anymore without repercussion, the law is actually an instrument to enable more police harassment.

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