Would On-The-Spot Fines Stop Catcalling for Good?

Countries like Argentina and Belgium are trying to stamp out street harassment with a controversial penalty.

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Sep 3 2015, 4:20pm

Foto por Giorgio Fochesato vía Stocksy

There comes a point in every woman's life when she realizes that a female body in a public space is somehow a public thing, like a statue or a water fountain, to be commented on and leered at and even touched. But few women complain to the authorities about catcalling, even if they are aware that it is illegal. Although catcalling is generally covered by broader areas of law governing harassment, law-makers in certain countries are increasingly moving to make it a specific crime, subject to fines and prison sentences. The hope is that catcall fines act as a deterrent to make streets safer for women. The question is: Do they work?

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Argentinean congresswoman Victoria Donda Pérez introduced a bill to Congress in June that would make catcalling (known as piropos) a punishable offence. Under the proposed legislation, catcallers would face a fine of up to 7,000 Argentine pesos ($775) if found guilty of sexually or verbally harassing a woman. The bill is currently passing through both chambers of the Argentine National Congress.

"The reality in our country is that men take over the public space and consider themselves entitled to harass women," Pérez told me. "It [piropos] invades the privacy of women who have had to tolerate it for years with resignation. When you walk down the street and see men harassing girls on every corner as they are leaving school, you realize that this is a form of violence against women and should be subject to legal sanction. We hope that the bill will achieve a cultural revolution and exert clear pressure to prevent women continuing to be seen as mere objects rather than subjects of law at parity with our fellow men."

In Belgium, specific fines have been in place for catcalling since 2014. Whilst official figures for the number of fines administered nationally are not available, the city of Brussels does record municipal fines, with 85 fines issued for street harassment in Brussels so far. The fines were introduced in response to Sofie Peeters' 2012 film, Femme de la Rue, which documented her experience of street harassment on the streets of Brussels.

When Belgian journalist Yasmine Schillebeeckx wrote an article earlier this year for major Belgian newspaper De Morgen about street harassment, people accused her of exaggerating the negative effects of the phenomenon. Her hashtag #WijOverdrijvenNiet (#WereNotExaggerating) and follow-up article, subsequently went viral, with thousands of women sharing their experience of street harassment online. I spoke to her to find out about the impact of Peeters' original film.

"It aired on national TV and shocked the country," she said. "Street harassment is not generally talked about a lot here in Belgium. We're a country that suffers from 'women are doing alright here, it can't really be as bad as in other countries' syndrome. Wishing to be seen to be proactive, the authorities introduced fines without consulting with womens' groups.

This was just a temporary band-aid to stop the bleeding. A quick way for the government to show that they cared.

Schillebeeckx feels that "this was just a temporary band-aid to stop the bleeding. A quick way for the government to show that they cared, even when they didn't. Yes, you can introduce fines, but will that help? Will that take away the sense of fear that women have when they walk down the street at night, alone? I feel the fines give us a false sense of security."

Belgian advocacy group rebel.lieus, which campaigns for safe public spaces, was also critical. "Our view," said spokesperson Aurore Guieu, "[is that] administering fines on the spot means that men of color are primarily targeted. Due to racism and misconceptions of street harassment, they are often described by media and politicians as the main perpetrators of harassment."

Femme de la Rue itself highlights harassment from immigrants of north African origin, the troubling legacy of which has been to entrench certain groups as harassers in the Belgian public consciousness.

Both Schillebeeckx and Guieu agree that fines can't solve street harassment on their own. "Fines do not address the root causes of street harassment, and they only focus on sexist street harassment. Street harassment is an issue for many groups, not only cis women," Guieu said. "Education is key to achieve this."

Schillebeeckx calls for "more structural solutions", like "education [and] teaching boys and girls from a very young age that they should treat all genders with respect."

Peru also passed an anti-harassment law in March this year. The law was partly motivated by a viral anti-street harassment video called Silbale a tu madre, in which men were tricked into catcalling their own mothers. I spoke to Peruvian activists Paremos el Acoso Callejero, who were influential in campaigning for the law, to get their take.

Spokesperson Elizabeth Rocio Vallejo Rivera tells me they're broadly happy with the law, "a goal after years of advocacy work." However, more work was needed "around educating women to know that they can report acts of aggression to the police."

Rivera highlights problems with how the law is enforced. "Women are asked about the clothes they were wearing or their behavior when they report street harassment. Police need to be educated not to make women feel guilty, then more women will come forward to report street harassment."

Catcalling remains a huge issue in the US, but legislation varies at a state level. In Austin, 31-year-old runner Anna Aldridge attracted headlines recently for her petition (which remains open), calling for fines to be levied against catcallers and used to fund community programs. She also called for city-mandated sexual harassment training courses, similar to the types of courses Britain imposes on those fined for dangerous driving. Meanwhile, in April this year "no catcalling" signs appeared across the streets of New York and Philadelphia to raise awareness of International Anti-Street Harassment Week.

So, what might a catcalling fine actually look like in Britain or America? I spoke to Helen Simm, principal lawyer at Slater and Gordon, which specializes in abuse cases. Simm told me that catcalling in the UK is covered by legislation, namely the Public Order Act 1986 (shouting abuse or obscenities), the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (unwanted physical touching) or in extreme cases, by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (sexual groping, public exposure).

I asked Simm if there was a need for specific catcalling legislation. After all, Britain is a signatory to a 2011 Council of Europe resolution which requires participating countries to "take the necessary legislative and other measures to promote and protect the right for everyone, particularly women, to live free from violence in both the public and the private sphere." Yet when I made a Freedom of Information request to find out the rate of convictions for street harassment, I was told the government doesn't record figures.

"There is perhaps a gap in the current legislation; verbal approaches by strangers on the street which, whilst unwanted, do not constitute an offence under the Public Order Act," Simm told me. "Words may not be threatening, abusive or insulting but may still be unwanted and may make the recipient uncomfortable."

Our criminal justice system is already flawed. There are many reasons that women and LGTBQ people, the primary targets of harassment, do not want to engage with it.

Moreover, you can be acquitted under the Public Order Act for catcalling, if you can prove that you didn't think your wolf whistles would cause "harassment, alarm or distress." Simm concluded that "it's arguable that wolf whistling and more minor behaviors would be caught by this defence, so a specific offence of street harassment could be created to plug this gap."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson disagreed, telling me that "the harassment or sexual abuse of women is abhorrent and there is [already] extensive legislation in place to ensure offenders can be prosecuted."

But would a catcall fine work in practice? Activists and experts are conflicted. Legally, spot fines are difficult to enforce because, unless a police officer happens to be there, you're unlikely to identify a harasser who slips into a crowd. Given the massive cuts to policing budgets across the UK, it's also unlikely the police would have the resource to investigate complaints properly.

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Bryony Beynon, from Hollaback!, the anti-street harassment group, oppose fines partly because "our criminal justice system is already flawed, and there are many reasons that women and LGTBQ people, the primary targets of harassment, do not want to engage with it." Conversely, Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, says spot fines can "help change attitudes and show that something is or is not socially acceptable".

Dr Fiona Vera Grey, an expert on street harassment, argues that legislation is a tool, rather than a solution to the problem. "Legislation can be set the bar for what is acceptable in our society," she explains, "but there needs to be a broader prevention piece which backs up legislation, specifically around education and teaching young people in schools about their right to be safe in public spaces and about gender relations."

Leaving aside practical difficulties, fines can be symbolically important, showing women that the authorities do take catcalling seriously. Here in the UK, where there is no national anti-street harassment campaign or specific anti-harassment education in schools, this would be particularly welcome. When I asked the Metropolitan Police about their work on street harassment, I was told they were "not aware of any initiatives aimed specifically at protecting girls from street harassment, [however] there are regular initiatives focused on personal safety in general and personal safety advice is readily available on our web site". When I checked their website, searches for both "catcalling" and "street harassment" brought up zero results.

Despite this, there are some signs of change. British Transport Police's Project Guardian has pledged to investigate every incident of harassment on the transport network, and urges women to come forward and text a dedicated number. And while he was criticized by some activist groups, Labour leader candidate Jeremy Corbyn recently put Tube harassment on the agenda by proposing to look into female-only Underground carriages at night.

Ultimately, fines won't stop street harassment alone. Only structural changes—greater education in schools, publicity campaigns, more and better policing and legislation if necessary—will eradicate street harassment. Unfortunately, all of these measures are expensive, and difficult to introduce. If lawmakers view street harassment as a real crime, and commit real funds to tackle it, with fines if necessary, there's every possibility we can wipe out catcalling in a generation. But will our governments make this a priority? I wouldn't count on it.