A new bill in Washington, D.C. aims to set a precedent for criminalizing catcalls, groping, indecent exposure, and other lewd public behavior that many women have suffered their entire lives.
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One evening in 2008, Pascale Leone entered a metro station in Washington, D.C.’s Farragut Square on her way home from work. A self-identified “city girl,” she was no stranger to public transportation—it was a part of her life, like it is for so many people.
But she was still shocked when a young man, seemingly out of nowhere, approached and confronted her, all at once spewing profanities, calling her a “fucking bitch,” and groping her breasts and buttocks before, according to her testimony before the D.C. city council in 2012, “walking away as if nothing had happened.”
When she told a metro worker what had happened to her, she said he pointed to another woman at the station who had been harassed by the same man. Then he laughed.
The suspect in question was eventually arrested. Before assaulting Leone, he had punched a woman in the back of the head, and later that day, attempted to rape another woman.
While what Leone endured is horrific, it’s the norm for many women living in a world where street harassment is taken about as seriously as casual flirting. But not for long.
In Washington, D.C., activists have teamed up with city councilors to promote a bill offering several solutions to street harassment, with the hopes of seeing legislatures across the country adopt similar measures. The first step was to bring this everyday occurrence out of the shadows.
Women are often forced to reorient their schedules and plans to account for public harassment, from changing a walking route to shelling out the money for an Uber to canceling evening plans altogether, ensuring that inequality pervades quite literally every aspect of day-to-day life for women. After all, according to a 2014 survey, more than 99 percent of all female respondents reported experiencing some form of street harassment, from whistling and sexist comments to vulgar gestures—all of which could easily escalate to more threatening or even violent situations such as stalking and assault.
Catcalling has traditionally been misunderstood as a form of “flattery,” stemming from the notion that women are obligated to be grateful for and reward male attention. While a recent shift in attitudes about sexual harassment as of last year offers reason for optimism (86 percent of Americans now say they believe that a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in our society”), street harassment remains embedded in marginalized people’s everyday experiences. And it will remain so until it is adequately addressed within our legal system.
Chai Shenoy led the effort to do just that, when she co-founded D.C.’s Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) in 2009. Shenoy felt compelled to start the organization after a man exposed himself to her on the metro while riding in a car with almost no other passengers. In her testimony before the city council in 2012, Shenoy recalled feeling “anger, terror and shame,” but on top of that, guilt at her own helplessness in the moment. “What if he went into the next car and exposed himself to a teenage young woman? How would that shape her identity? How about her safety in public spaces?” she said.
Almost six years have passed since Shenoy and Leone testified before the city. And now, Shenoy’s organization is behind the passage of a bill that will tackle street harassment through several innovative approaches.
In May, the D.C. Council passed the Street Harassment Prevention Act (SHPA), which will combat gendered street harassment through community prevention education, and a legal definition of street harassment that acknowledges the disparate experiences of people of color, LGBTQ people, and some religious groups. Instead of criminalizing street harassment and imposing hefty fines on offenders—as is the practice in France and cities around the world. SHPA defines street harassment as “unwanted, disrespectful, or threatening comments, gestures, or other actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, directed at someone because actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, identity or expression, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic identified in the Human Rights Act of 1977.”
In addition to its definition, SHPA will create a budget for a citywide study on street harassment, a public awareness and education campaign, and an advisory council composed of community representatives to oversee training on street harassment for public government employees.
But it’s worth noting that a definition of street harassment is important, and frankly monumental, as it codifies an everyday experience into our legal system. In doing so, it closes gaps in existing laws such as disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and stalking, which are meant to address street harassment, but often fail for a number of reasons.
As early as 1993, one Harvard Law Review paper examined how current statutes meant to address “the typical incident of street harassment” often fail because they “focus on the harasser’s intent, they require repeated conduct,” and are usually interpreted as unrelated or applicable to everyday street harassment. To be clear, laws addressing behaviors that constitute street harassment have always existed, but they have focused on individual acts rather than the broader issue of women, people of color, and all marginalized people facing identity-based targeting and threats.
“The law already allows the criminalization of threatening speech,” said Northwestern Law Professor Laura B. Nielson, the author of several papers about street harassment and the law. But what we need now is “a recognition of rape culture and general patriarchal norms. [Street harassment] is part of a broader set of practices designed to exclude and subordinate women.” A legal definition—as well as the education and prevention programing SHPA has created—are critical to changing the culture around harassment, which could result in more long-term change than criminalization.
Shenoy’s organization, CASS, has expressed concerns with how patterns of racist, discriminatory policing could impact the way laws purporting to criminalize street harassment may affect groups disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. The reality is that biases often affect who is heard and believed among victims, just as they affect who is more likely to be perceived as dangerous and criminal.
In 2015, when New York CIty’s MTA began regulating the act of “manspreading” on the subway, it was men of color who were targeted and, in a couple incidents, even arrested and charged with crimes.
Among undocumented immigrants, transgender people, and other groups that may be more likely to experience sexual abuse including street harassment—and more likely to fear and distrust police—a law that would mandate interaction with police is more likely to intimidate and even endanger them than help them feel safe. The perception of Black and brown people as inherently more dangerous than white people is deep and potent, and multiple studies indicate how Black people are substantially more likely than white people to be convicted for crimes they didn’t commit. In cases of sexual crimes specifically, innocent Black people are 3.5 times more likely than innocent white people to be convicted, according to research last year from the National Registry of Exonerations. Last year, the United States Sentencing Project additionally found that across a range of crimes, Black people face harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as white people.
And it’s not just people of color. According to CASS communications director Claire Gould, trans people, homeless people, and those of intersecting marginalized identities also face the threat of being targeted by law enforcement—a threat that criminalizing street harassment may only exacerbate.
“We don’t believe that further criminalization of public gendered harassment is an effective strategy for ending public gendered violence, but that survivor and community-led solutions to address the entrenched structural aspects of this violence will have the most lasting impact,” Gould says. “Data shows that everyday discrimination against transgender people of color, usually misgendering and transphobic comments, is backed by exclusion from housing and most traditional workplaces. Because the experiences are different, we know the solutions must be different.”
That’s why CASS worked to ensure SHPA is centered around education and awareness-based solutions to the problem of street harassment.
SHPA’s purpose is to address a prevalent form of abuse, and do so by structuring a solution around the comfort of those who are most likely to be victimized. It could also pave a way forward for addressing other abuses without directly involving police, and through considering and validating the experiences and concerns of marginalized groups.
That said, the fact that police and courts have indisputable tendencies toward racism and other identity-based biases shouldn’t erase the experiences of women and marginalized groups who face harassment from our legal system, or narrow their options for recourse. That’s why the SHPA’s inclusion of a legal definition of street harassment and proactive education programing matter so much.
“Everyone deserves to feel safe while using public transit. Everyone deserves to feel safe enjoying nightlife,” Gould said. “Everyone deserves to feel safe on the street.”
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