Being whistled at, followed, and "hey sexy-ed" is a feature of daily life for women and trans* folk wearing just about anything, just about anywhere. There have been countless debates surrounding whether these acts constitute innocuous compliments or ritualized spectacles of power, especially after a video of a woman walking around New York City, enduring relentless harassment, went viral last year.
But how does a practice that's so culturally embedded around the world get uprooted?
Some countries are trying to fix the issue by changing the law. According to CityLab, lawmakers in Buenos Aires, Argentina are considering two proposed bills that would define street harassment as a misdemeanor punishable by either a $120 fine or five days in jail. The law would encompass explicit verbal catcalling as well as whistles, horn-honking, and "lascivious looks."
If anything, Argentina's legislative approach represents progress by formally recognizing street harassment as a large-scale problem. But is criminalizing catcalling an effective solution to a practice that's so culturally ubiquitous? And would this approach even be applicable in the United States, a country whose cultures, gender dynamics, and legal systems are so different from Argentina's? Deputy Director of the anti-street harassment movement Hollaback, Debjani Roy, doesn't think so.
In a 2013 editorial Roy wrote for the Huffington Post, she argued criminalizing catcalling might not only deter the anti-harassment movement, but could have a "negative impact on families and communities within already marginalized and targeted groups." Poor, minority, and immigrant communities in the U.S. statistically experience heavier policing and incarceration rates, so catcalling could potentially become a crime that drags even more people into the prison cycle.
"There are many possible solutions that will contribute to a culture shift that sits outside of criminalization," Roy told A Plus.
Holly Kearl, founder of the anti-harassment organization Stop Street Harassment, agrees, and says even if there were laws in the U.S. outlawing catcalling, they may not be effective.
“Until police culture and attitudes are improved overall, I don’t think a lot of people would feel comfortable turning to them for help,” says Kearl.
Kearl told us the normalization of street harassment, coupled with general distrust in the police, has made women averse to reporting such incidents. "Considering a tiny percentage of rape reports end in conviction and jail time for rapists, it's unlikely given our current system, that much would happen to street harassers," she explained. So a lot of harassed people may feel it's not worth their time or energy to purse filing a police report."
But if legal channels aren’t the optimal tools to catalyze such change, what are?
Kearl and Roy both emphasize the need for a vast cultural shift.
As Roy wrote in her Huffington Post piece, this involves "working through community-based organizations to discuss how masculinity is shaped and actively redefining what it means to be a man across cultures." One way Hollaback has done this is through the Healthy Masculinity Action Project, which encourages participants to pledge to frankly discuss masculinity with two people.
"Stop Telling Women to Smile" is an art series that places women's portraits around Brooklyn, New York along with statements like "Harassing women does not prove your masculinity." They have also installed posters in Mexico City.
On a policy level, politicians can invest more in community education, with a particular focus on the youth.
"Their leadership and the leadership of other political figures on this issue, anywhere in the world, is crucial to raise the profile of the problem and to come up with effective solutions that serve the greater good of the community," Roy told us.
In addition to educating the public, Kearl said Stop Street Harassment has launched a campaign calling out and pressuring companies to stop trivializing street harassment in ads and film.
Though there are already U.S. laws against some forms of street harassment, Kearl says, "Ultimately, we need to change social norms and cultural attitudes about respect, consent and in particular, women's equality."
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