The legal system and cultural problems: why street harassment won’t be criminalised, and shouldn’t be.

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.


9 thoughts on “The legal system and cultural problems: why street harassment won’t be criminalised, and shouldn’t be.”

  1. Isn’t it technically already an offence since if it causes the recipient genuine credible fear of physical danger, it’s common assault?

  2. I agree to an extent but I do think there’s a shift going on, although I’d hestitate to say it’s marked, with the key seeming to be going for employers where possible (in the specific instance of workmen groups which is where I’ve had the majority of problems). I had a building site shut down in 2002 (yeah, I’m that kind of person) due to feeling that fucking intimidated by a bunch of leering twats that I felt I couldn’t reasonably take a regular path past them. Called the police who were awesome, cited public order and the next thing they were all gone. So, to be entirely fair, I didn’t have them shut down as such but rather the attention from the police got their employer bothered enough that I figure they must have pulled the whole team and then reinstated them at a later date (if they did which I don’t know as I was gone a couple of months later). I remember this distinctly as it was the first time I realised a) it was law-breaking and b) working on it as law-breaking in the sense of it being a process rather than reactionary seemed to offer a degree of solution.

    Now, what I do is test it. If I feel there’s any attention I don’t want or, crucially, that interferes with my using the streets in a manner that is lawful, I’ll call up the company they work for and tell them I live on the street or have to use it to get to x, y, z and I feel intimidated/harassed enough that I have to take a different route and that I’d appreciate them resolving it or I’ll feel I have no recourse but to call in the law. I’ll usually leave a phone number and name but not give any other information. So far, I’ve never had issues with this and what will invariably happen is I’ll walk past again and they’ll pointedly not look in my direction. Whether they do this only for me is probably debatable but probably don’t as I don’t give any identifiable information so obviously the company concerned will have had to remind them of blanket policy. This suggests to me that the company’s don’t want shit, know the law themselves, and most of them – from what I’ve been given to understand in these conversations – have some sort of ‘code of conduct’ they all subscribe to or have signed off on.

    So, upshot is I think a combination of at minimum knowing the law and your rights and exercising them by making a first port-of-call to employers in the instance of workmen and putting in a good old complaint is a good way to go. They (these contractors or whatever they’re called) definitely seem to know it’s an issue and definitely seem to have the wherewithall to put the screws on if they need to. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you don’t have to explain the stares or comments but rather that you feel intimidated enough to want to take a different route. A material outcome as opposed to what I personally think is the more important nuance aspect of feeling like a piece of meat but still, a result is a result.

    I agree about policing and I do think the core issues are what the focus should be but I also think if you make something so obviously unwanted, disliked and anti-social for all sorts of reasons, they’ll at least attempt to control it because they know the behaviour is, at minimum, negative or highly questionable which seems a long-term good and achievable goal to me.

    I suppose in the instance of workmen it helps having a process as it were but the core issue is again a priority when it comes to, say, groups of young men standing around and intimidating women that walk past them. In these instances, I think having the law and knowing it is there is vital and I absolutely think the law should be called in when they occur. How I’d probably play it is challenge them because any shit that results will invariably land up being openly threatening or aggressive in which event making that call is easy peasy. And it should be made. I couldn’t give a flying fuck what the police would rather be doing or that it causes a drama. Fuck that. Law is the law and we are all in this together. It’s all very well having equality laws but they are so much bluster if you can’t even walk in the streets without being treated like shit.

    Sorry for the long post.

  3. When I clicked on the RSS link, I was wary — what sort of a title was that? Were you going to defend street harassment?! Had the world gone upside down? But it hadn’t, you weren’t, and you make good points. I’d not thought of it like that before — probably because, as an Australian, I’d never been exposed to the whole racism Terry thing — and it makes too much sense. Society is gross. I am concerned that, if criminalising it won’t help (which, as you’d pointed out, it wouldn’t), then what will? How WOULD we go about changing things so that women aren’t seen as pieces of meat?

    1. IMO, it’s going to be a long, slow but ultimately worthwhile process–a LOT of education from a feminist perspective to teach people not to do it, and not to accept it.

      Also, a general cultural blind eye to yelling “fuck off” at street harassers as an interim measure 😉

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