The executive director says collecting data enables local organizations to make tailored adjustments, rather than sweeping, citywide ones ordained by law. "If we learn that this is happening to primarily women of color," she explained, "[we can] make sure there are educational workshops and campaigns designed with them in mind." She also envisions greater support for anti-street harassment ad campaigns like the one Hollaback!'s Philadelphia branch launched on SEPTA trains, which will run through October. May believes advancement for these initiatives requires some government involvement.
"When I started doing advocacy work with Hollaback!, council members received reports anecdotally and wanted to do something, but there was nobody educating them in a substantive way," May says. "They were turning toward increased criminalization. Council members approached us with a number of laws they came up with on their own terms that we don't endorse," such as fewer chances and more jail time, tactics May thinks are a quick fix.
Currently, no specific law penalizes "street harassment," but violations may be prosecuted in other ways. Acts like flashing and public masturbation may be deemed disorderly conduct, depending on the state, and are typically regarded as misdemeanors. In New York City, where the Hollaback! app is being piloted, those offenses could result in a $250 fine, a jail sentence of up to 15 days, or a conditional discharge for first-time offenders. Street harassment on public transit is addressed in similar ways. Still, verbal harassment--probably the most common kind of street harassment--usually goes unpunished. That's why Cornell professor Cynthia Grant Bowman advocates for some kind of legal deterrent that acknowledges that targets of street harassment are negatively impacted by the experience.
"There are kinds of things that are drip, drip, drip persistent--not cutting or injuring you--but persistently denigrating behavior that can feel bad and be scary," she said in a phone interview. "The idea is that the body politic takes [street harassment] seriously and wants to protect women from it; that it understands it has harmful consequences and isn't a joking matter. If it was physical, you would have a cause of action. This would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine; it wouldn't be a huge, criminal offense that would follow you around for the rest of your life." Still, what may seem like a small financial burden for one person may be totally unaffordable for another, and Bowman has acknowledged that these cases may be handled differently depending on the race of the parties involved.
In her 1993 article, Bowman illustrated the insufficiencies of conflating street harassment with assault by citing one case that was "decided upon openly racist grounds" and another that "measured the defendant's conduct [in] a transparently racist fashion." In the first, a black man was convicted in North Carolina for harassing a white girl on the street since "[a] negro man, using this foul indecent language towards a young white girl, as a matter of common knowledge, would create apprehension and fear." In the second, assault charges against a white man driving an "expensive foreign car" who harassed three young, black women were dropped. The man alleged that he believed the women were prostitutes, and the court concluded that he could not be blamed for making that assumption. After all, as scholar and activist bell hooks (whom Bowman references) has noted, if black women are always seen as sexually available, it is impossible to make an unwanted sexual overture. The socioeconomic class and race of street harassment targets and perpetrators are undeniable factors in the way these encounters are judged.