A woman holds a sign that says "#I Will Go Out My Body My Right.
A woman holds a sign as she takes part in the #IWillGoOut rally as part of the International Women's March in Mumbai, India. Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

One of the most common types of sexual harassment is also amongst the most difficult to legislate.

This week, social media was flooded with #metoo, a hashtag that survivors of sexual harassment and assault used to share their experiences and demonstrate the sweeping ubiquity of the problem. Some women recounted stories about being made to feel unsafe in public spaces and their own neighborhoods. While laws attempt to tackle many kinds of harassment and assault, one of the most pervasive—street harassment—is also amongst the most difficult to legislate. Still, a number of cities in the US and abroad have attempted to tackle street harassment with laws aimed at this problem some with threats of punishment, and others with education campaigns.

One of the most recent proposals is a bill, the Street Harassment Prevention Act (SHPA), introduced in February in Washington, D.C. by Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau that targets street harassment through “education, awareness, data collection, and culture change” as opposed to punishment.

The bill proposes a taskforce to collect and analyze data as well as a public advertising campaign about what street harassment is and what resources exist for victims.

But a key component of the bill is bystander intervention training programs for government employees, which proponents say works because it helps to change the culture rather than focusing on punishment.

Jessica Raven, the Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces who aided and supported the bill’s creation,  compares the proposal’s approach to that of anti-bullying campaigns. “Bystander intervention works really well because it makes people more likely to intervene and de-escalate a situation,” she says, “but also makes them more likely to empathize and intervene.”

“It’s more effective to talk to men as potential heroes than it is to talk to them as potential aggressors,” says Raven. “We don’t want to shame people about the [way] they’ve been socialized to behave.”

The D.C. bill ticks all the boxes for Debjani Roy, the Deputy Director of Hollaback!, an organization that aims to end harassment. She reiterates that advertising campaigns around a city, particularly in public transit, are key. She also advocates for bystander training in schools. “We know it’s happening young,” Roy says, “I know from my own experience that this is where the behavior starts. It’s learned behavior and peer pressure: proving masculinity.” Though she is against laws that promote criminalization, Roy still believes that through campaigns and advocacy programs there is work legislators can do to make their cities safer for everyone.

The bill, which had a hearing in June and is now waiting to go before the full D.C. Council, is a pivot from some prior legislation, especially in other countries, which attempted to punish harassers--typically with little success.

In 2014, Kansas City passed an ordinance protecting bicyclists, pedestrians, and people in wheelchairs from “intimidation.” In 2015, Peru passed a law that could give men over a decade of jail time if they made lewd comments at women in public. Buenos Aires passed a similar law that same year. And in 2016, Manila revised its Gender and Development Code to include penalties for sexual harassment of women in public spaces.

In the U.S., the legal system is a major limitation to enforcing these laws. In a 1993 paper for the Harvard Law Review, Cornell Law Professor Cynthia Grant Bowman wrote, “the current criminal harassment statutes are inadequate to address the typical incident of street harassment because they focus on the harasser’s intent, they require repeated conduct, and they are usually interpreted by the judiciary as not extending to the problem of street harassment.”

According to Holly Kearl, founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit group Stop Street Harassment, these issues remain. “I have yet to hear about any of these harassment laws being used to successfully prosecute for verbal street harassment,” says Kearl. “When they’ve had success, it’s been for physical harassment or flashing or upskirt photos.”

Globally, implementation and cultural obstacles have limited the efficacy of these laws. Kearl says that while creating a internal report on street harassment laws for UN Women, she discovered that such laws aren’t always backed up with the funding necessary to implement things like PSAs or training programs for police, lawyers, and judges.

And such laws, like others related to harassment and sexual offenses, can fall short of changing a culture that births harassment. Though Egypt enacted laws that enable women to press charges against men who harass them, reports nearly a year after the law went into effect suggest that the legislation hasn’t translated into real change because police officers and society are still blaming the victims. What’s more, the logistics of identifying, tracking down, and charging people who yell offensive statements from down the street or across the road can pose its own challenges.

With all of these laws, activists are particularly worried about a new kind of criminalization.

“We knew criminalization was bad for communities of color in general,” says Raven. “The people who are targeted [by street harassment] are often people of color, women, LGBTQ, and often targeted by the police. A national study showed that police sexual assault is the second most common form of police brutality.”

“For many communities, the police aren’t seen as allies,” Kearl adds. “If you’re undocumented, if you’re trans, if you’re a person of color, you may not see [reporting] as an option.”

According to Estelle Freedman, a professor at Stanford University and author of Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, the culture surrounding sexual harassment in America has shifted over time. In an interview with the nonprofit group Stop Street Harassment, Freedman says the sexual freedom that burgeoned after WWI made it easier for catcallers to excuse their behavior by claiming they were just flirting. “After the 1910s,” she says, “there were fewer stories supporting women’s self-defense and more sympathetic stories about men fearing being falsely accused.” In her 1993 paper, Bowman charted the cultural shift regarding street harassment in the 60s in 70s. During this era, women were entering the workforce, allowed to enter public spaces unchaperoned. And periods of recession were literally placing more men on the streets.

Freedman also points out that race has long played a role in the optics of street harassment. Racial animus has famously manifested itself through concern for white women being harassed by black men. Such accusations could prove deadly, as in the case of Emmett Till: a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was lynched after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.

This is part of the reason why many activists believe that criminalization is not the answer. “Here in the U.S., a dominant narrative is that white women are harassed by men of color,” says Debjani Roy, the Deputy Director of Hollaback!, an organization that aims to end harassment. “We’ve been collecting stories at Hollaback! since 2005, and we know that those who perpetrate street harassment are men of all backgrounds. Our fear is if [criminalizing] legislation is introduced, law enforcement practices will be biased against men of color.” Internationally, Roy pointed to incidents in Belgium and France, where videos of immigrant men harassing white women went viral and, she says, were used to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. “The fear is specifically immigrant men in those communities will be targeted unfairly,” says Roy.

Activists hope to see more legislation aimed at changing the conversation and culture around street harassment. “Women in my generation expect to not be harassed in the workplace, unlike my mother’s generation,” says Nadeau. “I want my daughter to find street harassment completely unexpected and unacceptable.”

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