Don't Outlaw Catcalling

Street harassment is a problem worth addressing, but making it a criminal offense is worse than doing nothing at all.

In my neighborhood, there are lots of homeless men, some of whom are drunk, high on meth, or off their meds. They engage regularly in the verbal harassment of women on the street, often making remarks far more aggressive than anything featured in Hollaback's video of catcalling in New York. I know this because women in my life—my wife, friends, workers at neighborhood stores and restaurants—share their experiences. Though I seldom witness catcalling or verbal harassment, I've come to understand how constant and burdensome it can be for women, especially when the words used are crude, violent, or degrading.

Activists who spread awareness of this problem are doing a public service. As the cumulative effect of individual comments becomes more widely understood, some men will stop catcalling, newly aware that the behavior isn't as innocuous as they imagined. Other men will tell catcalling colleagues at the proverbial construction site, "Dude, that's not cool." Slowly but surely, social norms will change.

Nor are viral videos the only way to attack the problem. In Venice, where I live, I strongly suspect that increasing the number of beds in Los Angeles homeless shelters and assigning social workers to neighborhood encampments would almost immediately lead to less harassment of female residents. Other neighborhoods are different. In Seville, Spain, where I often witnessed catcalling, blonde study-abroad students were besieged by definitely-not-homeless men.

Manhattan would seem to be an ideal location for a public-education campaign. A critical mass of women who responded to catcalling by saying, "I don't appreciate that," or handing men a business card with a phone number that turns out to be a recording or return text gently chiding them for the act of catcalling, might be successful, though not all women would feel comfortable participating. Soliciting the perspective of catcallers and engaging them in conversation might also increase our understanding of the problem and facilitate persuasion, though large swaths of contemporary activism and opinion journalism are so heavily invested in sanctimony and stigma that few have tried it.

There are, no doubt, many other plausible solutions that haven't occurred to me. I'd eagerly take part in a crowd-funding effort to help some experiments to go forward. Many others would too.

Unfortunately, before even beginning to test the possibilities of non-coercive change, a few activists and writers have begun to endorse the worst possible response to catcalling: enacting laws that would criminalize the behavior. Doing so would result in orders of magnitude more harm than the status quo. Before this idea gains momentum, its adherents would do well to reflect:

  • As Liliana Segura notes at The Intercept, "a law against street harassment would, in practice, randomly punish a select few individuals in the name of redressing a vast and systemic problem." In my neighborhood, it would disproportionately result in the arrest of homeless men. It would, in New York, disproportionately affect the lower and working classes (where there is less cultural stigma against catcalling) and men of color, who are disproportionately represented in the lower classes, spend more time on the street in neighborhoods dense with police, and suffer from the NYPD's racial bias.
  • Catcalling laws would criminalize speech, a clear violation of the First Amendment. The most prominent attempt I've seen arguing otherwise comes from Professor Laura Beth Nielsen, who wrote in The New York Times, "I'd propose a law that would prohibit street harassment and would also be consistent with our First Amendment jurisprudence about other kinds of hate speech (cross-burning in Virginia vs. Black) that intimidates, harasses and perpetuates inequality." That is a stunning jurisprudential allusion. In Virginia v. Black, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reasoned that cross burning is "inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan," and that the act is often meant to "create a pervasive fear in victims" that they will be murdered. One needn't dismiss the seriousness of street harassment in America to see that it is unlike cross-burning in every relevant way.
  • The precedent that unwanted speech on the street can be criminalized wouldn't only affect catcallers. As any city-dweller knows, unwanted interactions are constant. There are panhandlers asking for change, canvassers requesting "a moment of time for the environment," union personnel making it uncomfortable for anyone who crosses a picket line, Occupy Wall Street protestors shouting at Goldman Sachs employees, signature gatherers for petitions, folks standing outside bars asking for a light. Left-wing activists are often among the most confrontational in trying to get out their message, and would presumably suffer most immediately from a new status quo where unwanted interactions could be made illegal.

Hollaback's video thankfully caused influential organs of public opinion, like The New York Times, to think, Something should be done about this problem. But reflexively conflating something should be done with a law should be passed is absurd in this case, where there are so many options other than criminalization and so many reasons to believe a law would do much more harm than good.

Street harassment ought to be stigmatized. 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.