The Guardian rather melodramatically reports “Sexist remarks and wolf whistles could become criminal offences“. From that headline, you might be forgiven for thinking that street harassment could become a crime in the near future. Actually, that isn’t the case, as is outlined in paragraph 8, where a government spokesperson specifically says that wolf-whistling and the kind of unpleasant bog-standard street harassment comments won’t be criminalised. So, let’s pause to give the Guardian some golf-claps for some woefully misleading reporting, then let’s batten down the hatches and wait for the men’s rights types who would never read all the way down to the eighth paragraph of a news story to find out what’s going on to kick up a fuss.
Now, it’s easy to see why the Guardian might have got the wrong end of the stick on how it would be possible to criminalise street harassment. David Cameron will be signing the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. At the time of writing, actually finding the full text of the Convention led to a jolly bilingual 404, but the pertinent bit as quoted in the Guardian is this:
Among the pledges in the convention… is one to pass legislation or other measures to criminalise or impose other sanctions for “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
This is certainly pertinent to street harassment, which creates an environment which is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive, and props to the Guardian for recognising this. However, criminalising street harassment would change absolutely nothing whatsoever, and possibly make things worse.
The thing is, street harassment is a symptom of a culture wherein women are viewed as somehow less than people, less than human. Women are viewed as objects, and therefore don’t get the basic level of respect that allows us to walk down the street without a creepy “HEEEEY LADY”. In fact, we’re expected to appreciate this, because apparently we exist entirely for men to look at and stamp us with their manly seal of manly approval. There’s a whole set of underlying attitudes that need unlearning at a societal level, and criminalising a behaviour from individuals cannot do this.
Let’s talk about efficacy first. The Guardian article came out more than six months ago (yet is inexplicably trending today), long after David Cameron has signed this pledge. He hasn’t stopped doing things that create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for women himself. If the legal system were to genuinely sanction people for their role in this culture, Cameron would be a convicted criminal. Admittedly, all he’s done is sign the pledge and hasn’t actually bothered bringing in any changes to the law, which is–and I hate to say this–probably a good thing.
Let us imagine a world in which street harassment is a criminal act, for which the penalty is a fine. I’m basing my assumptions on it being similar to Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which refers to behaviour causing harassment, alarm and distress (which actually covers the worst of street harassment anyway, so there wouldn’t really need to be a new law).
The most famous recent Section 5 case was that of John Terry, who racially abused a fellow footballer on the pitch. Despite the fact he was shown using racist language targeted at this person, John Terry was acquitted. There’s now a frightening number of people who think that it’s unfair to call John Terry a racist because he was never convicted in a court of law, despite the fact that in this incident, he was blatantly racist. The criminal proceedings actually made it harder to point out this ingrained and unacceptable racism, because suddenly apologists can cling desperately on to an inadequate legal system. John Terry got off. That doesn’t make his actions okay in the slightest.
What criminalising actions does is shift the blame on to individuals, ignoring the system which allows this to happen. These individuals are either innocent or guilty, and discussion of the cultural backdrop and whether such actions are acceptable can be effectively shut down with reference to woefully narrow legal definitions and cases.
A further unpleasant effect to criminalising street harassment would be the policing of this law. If the cops bothered enforcing it, they probably wouldn’t do a very good job of it. They kind of suck at policing violence against women anyway. At best, they’d be completely negligent. At worst, they’d use it as an additional stick to harass the groups they tend to harass: young men, black men, poor men.
There is no way that the individual responsibility enshrined in the legal system could possibly lead to the cultural shift that would end the day-to-day harassment that women face. It needs work on a societal level, a full transformation. We all need to work towards building a society wherein oppression is unacceptable, we all need to learn and to unlearn. It’s a Herculean task, and it feels so much easier to ask the legal system to stick a plaster over the gaping wounds. But this is not the way to achieve change.