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Can New Laws Stop Men From Harassing Women in Public?

Legislators in Argentina are considering a law that would criminalize catcalls. Can that sort of reform lead to men not being assholes?

Photo by Flickr user Michael

Buenos Aires, like many large cities, has a street harassment problem. Referred to as piropo, catcalling has been widely accepted as a cultural custom for generations, according to Verónica Lemi, the founder of Acción Respeto, an Argentinian women's rights organization. Now, new legislation proposed in her country's largest city would outlaw such behavior, making acts like whistling, kisses, and "lascivious looks" punishable by up to five days in jail and a 1,000 peso (about $110) fine, and national lawmakers are mulling a law of their own.

It's a needed change, according to Lemi. An informal survey of more than 1,100 Argentinian women conducted by her group found that nearly 94 percent reported being the target of comments from men in public places; 70 percent of those comments were about their breasts, butts, and vaginas. In another poll, this one from an Argentine university, 72 percent of women said they had been catcalled, and 59 percent said it made them feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or violated.

"There are a few laws which could be applied to [street harassment], but prosecutors refuse to do it because they don't conceive street harassment as a violent act," she said. "And that's the loophole these new bills can close. If there is a specific clause with the specific term and the clear statement that it is a form of violence against women, there is no way a prosecutor can simply brush off the charges."

While legislation would seem to be an appropriate way to address the issue, a look at the US legal landscape paints a more complicated picture, where charges are difficult to pursue, laws themselves are rarely cited, and minorities are often targeted disproportionately.

Take New York, for example, a state with "a number of specific laws which make street harassment illegal under certain circumstances," according to Hollaback!, an anti-catcalling advocacy group. Despite this, New York City has become well known for it's street harassment issues, much of it captured in the now famous video "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman."

Of the many instances of harassment captured in the video, most wouldn't meet the standard set by New York law, which begs the question: If a person moving through a public space is made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by an act that doesn't legally amount to harassment, does that then make it OK in a black-and-white, by-the-books way?

"That's the classic dilemma with law, finding something specific enough to address the issue while leaving leaving room for discretion," said Laura Beth Nielsen, a research professor at the American Bar Foundation and associate director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University.

In her research, Nielsen said she's found that laws such as New York's—which require a victim be repeatedly followed in public, feel a "reasonable fear of physical injury," or that a perpetrator act with intent to "harass, annoy, or alarm another person"—can be difficult to pursue.

"That's a high standard. It makes for a very hard case," she told me. "A lot of street harassment is quiet, it's difficult to prove it happened."

Nielsen said that in America, a country that prides itself on a legacy of free speech, restrictions on expression aren't met with much fanfare. She found that, generally speaking, white males are wary of street harassment laws on free speech grounds, while minorities and people of color fear being unfairly targeted by these same laws.

"You can't report every single person. It takes so long to pursue, people often think it's not worth the time, energy, and money to seek justice."
—Holly Kearl

The potential abuse of such laws is a main reason Hollaback! does not advocate for the further criminalization of street harassment, explained Debjani Roy, the organization's deputy director.

"We have a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets particular communities, and we don't want to facilitate that," she said. "Just having a law threatening harassers with fines or jail time is not a tool that is effective in itself."

One doesn't have to look far to find cases of people of color being disproportionately targeted for crime: The US Department of Justice found it happening all the time in Ferguson, and the Drug Policy Alliance found the same occurring in Colorado.

While the potential for abuse of anti-harassment laws is there, it's not clear that it's a serious problem, especially because police generally don't take harassment complaints all too seriously, according to Holly Kearl, author of two books about sexual harassment and founder of the group Stop Street Harassment.

With an endless stream of crime running around the clock, police resources are constantly contested and often unable to facilitate addressing what can be perceived as a lesser crime. Moreover, Kearl described a "cumulative effect" of harassment; it might not be the first, second, or third instance that in itself causes a feeling of being unsafe or uncomfortable, but collectively, each instance takes a toll.

"In cities, chances are you're not going to set that person more than once," she said. "You can't report every single person. It takes so long to pursue, people often think it's not worth the time, energy, and money to seek justice.

"As I can tell, those laws are almost never used," she said.

So laws are passed that are difficult to enforce, rarely utilized, and run the risk of unfairly targeting minorities. Can these laws serve any purpose at all then?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.

"A big part of this work is letting people that are harassed know that their feelings around it are validated and that their experience matters."
—Debjani Roy

First, it's important to differentiate between harassment in public places—where a perpetrator is difficult to identify and might never been seen again, such as a city sidewalk—and private places, like a work environment or school, where it is usually the same person or group of people committing harassment. The former can be difficult to bring to court; the latter, not so much.

"When my mom first started working, there were no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, and if your boss pinched your butt, you found another job," Nielsen said. "That changed because of law."

And most of us can agree that physical harassment, such as groping, and more extreme forms of harassment, like stalking, need strong legislation on the books. As lofty as it might sound, there's a resounding consensus that—though it is far from perfect—the law serves as an official state opinion, one that can serve to facilitate shifting cultural norms.

"I do think laws can help change social attitudes, even if they're not being used," Kearl said. "It sets a tone."

Hollaback!'s focus on creating communities for victims of harassment to share their stories, empowering people to combat harassment, and working with community leaders to create safe environments aims to address the gaps that legislation leaves behind, Roy said.

"Criminalization is fine, but it cannot act alone," she said. "A big part of this work is letting people that are harassed know that their feelings around it are validated and that their experience matters."

Nielsen pointed to Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision that ushered in the desegregation of America's schools, as an example.

"We know empirically that didn't automatically desegregate schools, and yet it did a lot of work for justifying different kinds of policies that had to happen for there to be any kind of progress," she said.

In the wake of organizations pushing for more recognition of street harassment, many cities have put into effect their own efforts, complete with posters, technologically-savvy means of reporting harassment, and better-trained police officers.

Whether the legislation provides the culture change or the culture change spurs the legislation isn't clear. There does, however, appear to be a real link between the two, and an ability for each to lean on the other as a means of building into our social fabric some kind of awareness of the damage wrought by street harassment.

To that end, Lemi said that while media coverage has focused on the penalties built into Buenos Aires' proposed street harassment legislation, the proposed laws would also put various public awareness campaigns and school programs into effect.

"These guys will probably not change their minds, but will stop doing it so they won't risk having to pay a fine," Lemi said. "In turn, the following generations will grow up already knowing that this is wrong. Of course, it will take time, but the legislation is the first step."

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