Should catcalling be illegal?

The viral #MeToo movement has lifted the shroud of shame which so often masks incidents of sexual assault, outing sexual predators and intensifying efforts to elevate issues of sexual misconduct into the public eye. But the movement has been subject to backlash, with Laura Kipnis claiming that it has served to create a climate of ‘sexual paranoia’. Recent calls by campaigners to class catcalling and other forms of street harassment as a hate crime have been met with similar accusations. Under current plans, incidents such as verbal abuse, unwanted physical approaches and harassment in the street would be classed as misogynistic incidents, treated equally to crimes based on hostility towards race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. But many men - and some women - believe it has all gone too far. Where do we draw the line between a harmless comment, a bit of flirtatious banter, and sexual harassment? UNiDAYS presents the debate.

In a two-year scheme in Nottinghamshire, police officers trialled treating misogyny as a hate crime, later branding it a ‘waste of time’ in a report released earlier this month. Police had been trained to identify and record harassment of women, from wolf-whistling to groping and assault and while 75 percent of those who reported crimes said they had a positive experience,The Telegraph has reported that many of the police officers involved were less convinced. Some said it “incorporated some behaviours that were fairly trivial, did not warrant a police response and that it involved a waste of resources’, while another officer commented that ‘it felt like a vanity project’.

“I just think if someone wolf whistles you when you walk past a building site, “So what? Really?” If someone came up to me in a gym and said “you look good in your lycra” I’d take it – ‘thanks!’”

You might be thinking the same thing, ‘How is a lighthearted catcall or wolf whistle motivated by sexism or misogyny?’ Perhaps the problem here is with the term ‘misogyny hate crime’. While the majority of catcallers are indeed men targeting women, ‘hate crime’ can feel like a strong label.

In a discussion with members of the public, a lot of men who argued that catcalling was ‘harmless’ raised the issue of intention. Their argument went along the lines of: ‘If the catcaller had no intention to cause harm or distress, then it shouldn’t be illegal. We cannot always know what will offend someone.’ What many fail to realise is that even the most casual of comments can cause serious distress. Three quarters of all victims (74.9 percent) who had experienced or witnessed harassment said there had been a long term impact in a survey as part of the Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report and 63.1 percent said they changed their behaviour in some way following the incident. This included avoiding the area, only going out with others and changing they way they dressed. What is more important, then, the intention or the effect?

Catcalling often involves a process of sexual objectification in which a person becomes an object of sexual desire, incapable of emotion or agency. It is a socialised process, not a natural one. The effects of this historic process of objectification have included sexual harassment (e.g. groping a woman), sexual abuse and in extreme (but not uncommon) cases, rape. When a man shouts ‘Nice and bouncy, just the way I like them!’, or ‘You may say you’re 15 but that ass says otherwise!’ he is declaring his right to discuss, analyse and appraise that woman’s body - to ‘undress her with his eyes’.

When a man catcalls a woman, is he expecting a response? In most cases, no. Generally, catcalling happens fast. A man yells ‘Hey baby!’ from a moving car, or ‘Nice ass!’, once you’ve walked by. A catcall is not a compliment because there is no space for mutuality or reciprocity (on equal grounds), and what could be a bigger insult than to disregard a person’s agency to consent? Shouting at someone is very different to speaking with someone. And sadly, often when women do respond, men become aggressive and intimidating.

Most people will agree there is a difference between shouting, ‘Hey baby!’ and ‘I'd break you in half with my dick!’. But how do we codify these differences into legislation? Perhaps we should look to verbal abuse legislation as a standard. If a catcall causes harassment, alarm or distress to a person, then it is an offence against that person. In cases of verbal abuse legislated against under the Public Order Act of 1986, the effect on the victim is given precedence over the intention of the aggressor. Why should catcalling be any different? Most women (and men) tend to agree that sexualised (graphic, intimate) language and/or persistent catcalling are where we should draw the line. While sexual harassment is already legislated against under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which makes it an offence to engage in a course of conduct that amounts to harassment of another person, specific legislation is needed to exclusively relate to street harassment.

For a lot of women, catcalling can cause harassment, alarm and distress much in the way that verbal abuse does. Each woman’s response to an act is shaped by her previous experiences. One ‘Hey, sexy’ as a woman walks to work might remind her of that time she was accosted on a dark street while walking home alone, or that time a man groped her from behind while she was queuing for a bus. For that 1 woman in 3 who has experienced physical or sexual violence it could take as much as a snigger, or a pair of eyes lingering on her breasts or legs for her heart to quicken and that familiar stomach-churning anxiety to ripple through her body. For some, the fear of what could happen is enough to spark a pang of unease. This is not to say that every woman is a victim. For some, catcalling feels like harmless fun, or even a compliment. But what is important to acknowledge is the latent potential behind every catcall to cause distress, fear and a sense of vulnerability.

Men often feel this too.

To put this into perspective, of the 591 people who participated in a survey as part of the Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report, 62.9 percent of women had experienced wolf-whistling. Of these same 591 people, 51.8 percent had experienced threatening/aggressive/intimidating behaviour, 46.2 percent of women experienced groping, 48.9 percent had experienced unwanted sexual advances and 24.7 percent has experienced sexual assault. This shows the very real possibility of aggression and sexual assault that all women contend with in public and on a daily basis.

Some people have asked, ‘What about freedom of speech?’ This is a good point. Are we going to start being policed on everything we say? Well, in a sense, we already are. We have already seen how verbal abuse is legislated against. It is also a hate crime to verbally abuse someone based on hostility towards a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. How is shouting ‘Will you let me cum inside of you?’ at a 14 year-old-girl (again, a real catcall) any better, or should I say less criminal, than cursing at a policeman? The difference is that you can be arrested for the latter.

For many women, street harassment is a process which began when they were mere children. In a study by YouGov for End Violence Against Women Coalition 2016, researchers found that 85 percent of young women had experienced street harassment and 45% had experienced it as sexual touching. Younger women and girls were found to be the most frequent targets of sexualised street harassment. Does this not say something worrying about our society?

Dr Loretta Trickett, one of the leading academics behind the Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report, was shocked by the nature and volume of incidents reported by people surveyed. She said that "Much of this behaviour on this spectrum is criminal behaviour, there's no doubt about that”, and that women could have gone to the police about these incidents before the Nottinghamshire trial. "But because of the culture we have, it's just acceptable to intimidate women on the street, to go up to a woman and touch her backside, or to comment on her body and put her in fear of an assault."

As Davia Temin illustrates in her article for Forbes, whether they are the most egregious examples of sexual harassment and abuse, or more subtle acts of unconscious bias, these incidents all happen within a culture that somehow sanctions them.

When catcalling is placed within this wider and much darker context, the case for criminalisation emerges. While to some men (and women) catcalling can seem worlds apart from sexual harassment or assault, for many women, it is part of a spectrum of dangerous behaviour.

This is why many women feel that catcalling is as a statement of power. The power not only to appraise a woman’s body as an object of sexual desire, but also the power to make that desire known, in public, brazenly, and without shame or space for consent.

This statement of power can carry an implicit threat of violence. Laura Bates, writing for The Guardian, details one particular catcalling experience. While walking down a quiet street at around 7pm, she noticed two men walking towards her. She writes that she began to notice the ‘tell-tale signs’ such as ‘overtly looking me up and down, eyes lingering on my breasts and legs’. As they pass her, they pause momentarily to glance, again, at her breasts, before saying:

‘I’d hold a knife to that.’

Her reaction was instinctive, uncontrollable: ‘My heartbeat quickened, the hair rose on my arms, and I felt the usual emotions flood through me. Fear. Anxiety. Impotence. Anger. Frustration. Misplaced embarrassment and shame.’ She emphasises that such an experience is not fleeting, it is a long and drawn-out process of constant, alert tension.

Even without the implicit threat of violence, the explicitly sexual nature of many catcalls differentiates them from a harmless compliment.

But, does this mean it should be a crime?

Some people feel that such legislation would make even innocent approaches dangerous territory and would stifle the playful element of courtship.

While many catcalls are potentially ‘harmless’ and may not affect women at all, others happen alongside intimidating, aggressive and criminal behaviour. As the statistics from the Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report show, women have just reason to feel threatened. Surely this is the purpose of the law - to protect those who feel potentially vulnerable?

This is an important thread detailing one woman’s experience with street harassment that is not untypical.

So, catcalling can be potentially intimidating and objectifying. But how do we legislate against it?

Many people have raised the issue of logistics. Surely it’s near impossible to actually identify the person catcalling you and prove they committed the offence in order to secure a conviction? The answer is yes, it would be hard. But does that mean it shouldn’t be legislated against? Conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. Despite this, I think we can all agree that rape must be legislated against and, if anything, the statistics show that we need to intensify our efforts, not step back.

Street harassment is specifically legislated against in Portugal, Belgium and Peru. Portuguese law specifically highlights ‘formulating proposals of a sexual tenor’ as an offence. This is not groundbreaking stuff, the UK is just lagging behind.

With today’s superior CCTV network, the widespread use of smartphones and other recording devices, as well as the very public nature of catcalls all provide possible channels for evidence.

More than this, should a nation’s laws not reflect its values? How can we achieve a cultural shift in the normalisation and widespread acceptability of street harassment if our laws don’t set the standard? It is true that laws alone won’t change things. Alongside this, we need to target the mindset that automatically sees women’s bodies as fair game for comment, judgment and public ownership in shared spaces. But perhaps the law is a good place to start.

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