Is Street Harassment A Crime?

May 11, 2016



Catcalling.  Unabashed ogling.  Attacking.  Killing.

Street harassment is a long-standing issue dismissed by perpetrators as natural, playful, even complimentary.  Unfortunately, today’s harassment has become increasingly intimidating and violent.  This is evident from reports of a pregnant woman attacked in San Antonio for rejecting a man’s advances, to stories of a Pittsburgh woman shot to death outside a bar shortly after declining the romantic overtures of an unknown male.  There are additional tales involving a Detroit woman shot and killed for refusing to give her phone number to a stranger, and a woman in New York whose throat was slashed for declining a date.  Such incidents have led some to recommend legislation outlawing street harassment.

Laura Beth Nielsen, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, proposed a law that would prohibit “uninvited harassing speech or actions targeted toward individuals in public spaces on the basis of sex or sexual orientation when done with the intent to intimidate.”  Relying on Virginia v. Black, which involved cross-burning, she suggests street harassment is hate speech that perpetuates inequality.  Therefore, arguably, it does not merit First Amendment protection.

However, not all share Professor Nielsen’s sentiment.  Specifically, Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic posits that street harassment is unlike cross-burning “in every relevant way.”  While recognizing that street harassers ought to be ostracized, Friedersdorf believes criminalizing catcalling would be more harmful than helpful, leading to a disproportionate number of arrests of homeless men and men of color.  As the debate continues in the United States, there are a number of foreign countries that have already criminalized verbal sexual abuse.

Belgium, Peru, and Portugal are battling street harassment with laws subjecting offenders to substantial fines and potential incarceration.  Specifically, Peruvian law carries a maximum sentence of 12 years imprisonment for harassment in public spaces.  Though advocates believe the laws help protect women, opponents contemplate whether anti-street harassment laws are excessively intrusive.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has made women’s rights around the world a priority. In addition to sponsoring news reporting on crimes against women, a foundation poll recently ranked  the most dangerous transport systems for women around the globe, and the foundation hosts the annual Trust Women conference aimed at empowering women worldwide and ending modern-day slavery.

Amid this increasing focus on women’s rights, the debate surrounding the criminalization of street harassment is unlikely to dissipate.  As women continue to suffer indignity and disrespect (and death), and as foreign nations continue to pass new laws, there will be increased pressure on the U.S. to legislate against what is tantamount to gender hate speech.  It appears Washington, D.C. is already on the right path.

For more information on the topic treated in this article, the following searches may be run on Westlaw:

adv: “street harassment” “verbal sexual abuse” “gender hate crime” /p public! /p crim! equal! (60)

Search Type: Boolean T&C

Content: Secondary Sources

Jurisdiction: All State & Federal

adv: “street harassment” “verbal sexual abuse” “gender hate crime” (40)

Search Type: Boolean T&C

Content: Cases

Jurisdiction: All State & Federal