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Should We Criminalize Catcalling?

Emily Goldberg |
November 12, 2014 | 1:06 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Women that Nielsen interviewed for her research reported changing their routes, behavior, transportation or dress to avoid street harassment. (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Women that Nielsen interviewed for her research reported changing their routes, behavior, transportation or dress to avoid street harassment. (Flickr/Creative Commons)
“Hey beautiful.” 

“How you doing?”


“If I give you my number will you talk to me?”   

These were only a few of the more than 100 unsolicited comments a woman received as she walked the streets of Manhattan silently in jeans and a crewneck T-shirt. The video, documenting "10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman," was posted online in late October by Holla Back, an organization and movement to end street harassment, and quickly went viral. On YouTube, it has racked up more than 35 million views.

More importantly, it has sparked a conversation about catcalling and whether it should be criminalized. Despite a commonly agreed-upon goal to eliminate street harassment, legal experts have disagreed on whether this issue should be fought against through the law, or other means. 

Professor of sociology and director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, Laura Beth Nielsen, called for a law against catcallers in an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times.

“It would allow states and cities to recognize street harassment for what it is: physical and psychological acts that intimidate, exclude, subordinate and reinforce male dominance over women,” she wrote in the article. 

Nielsen proposed a law that she said would be consistent with our philosophy about hate speech that is meant to intimidate, harass and perpetuate inequality, such as in the ruling of a cross-burning case, Virginia v. Black

Experts have debated if such a law would be constitutional. Since hate speech is not illegal in many cases, the constitutionality of such a law is unclear, according to executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, Peter Scheer. 

“In America, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment not because we have a place of high value on it, but rather we are required under the First Amendment to tolerate obnoxious hate speech,” Scheer said. "It would become more difficult to give strong constitutional protection for strong political or artistic speech that we do value as a society."

Instead of criminalizing street harassment, Scheer suggested that the best way to combat catcalling is with more speech. 

“When ugly and hateful speech surfaces, the best way, from a constitutional standpoint, is to oppose it with more speech, or other expressive activities like taping it and putting it on the Internet," he said. "To say what a jerk a catcaller is, which will result in embarrassment which is richly deserved, and will hopefully reduce the number of incidents."

Others agreed that street harassment would be defeated more effectively without the proposed law. The Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf argued that criminalizing catcalling would result in a disproportionate amount of arrests of those in other marginalized groups: the homeless, mentally ill and black men.

“Street harassment ought to be stigmatized,” Friedersdorf wrote. “But the reflex to throw men who catcall in jail suggests activists who conceive of them as villainous caricatures rather than humans, many of whom who can be engaged, reasoned with, and persuaded.”

He went on to argue that spreading awareness on the issue would be a better way to change such social norms. He also called for an increase in the number of beds in homeless shelters in certain neighborhoods, and more social worker assignments to neighborhood encampments to house and educate a large percentage of the men who commonly take part in street harassment. 

Chai Shenoy, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a public sexual harassment prevention group, said that her organization also disagreed with the criminalization of street harassment. 

“We think that one of the key components to ending public sexual [harassment] includes centering experience on collective action,” Shenoy said. “We also know that law enforcement tends to perpetuate sexual and interpersonal violence against the same people that are marginalized because culture change doesn’t necessarily happen in the legal system.”

Reach Staff Reporter Emily Goldberg here



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