No, We Don’t Need a Law Against Catcalling

In a matter of days, a viral video showing street harassment as an offense committed by black and brown men led to calls for new laws. This is not a solution.

In my fifteen years in New York City, I have lived on the Upper West and Upper East Sides; on Roosevelt Island and throughout South Brooklyn. I have worked above and below 14th St and in the South Bronx, spent regular evenings in Harlem, nights in Queens, and taken every combination of trains, at all hours of the day and night. I have done so without major incident or great fear for my safety. I have also been lucky.

At some point over these years, catcalls stopped registering. Not that I stopped noticing them, just that they faded to become a predictable part of the landscape, not unlike rats in the subway—occasionally gross and unpleasant, but there is a lot in this city that is gross and unpleasant. Like anywhere else on earth, this includes numerous other forms of sexism whose existence I, along with all other women, variously tolerate or combat while going about my business in the world. It’s been years since I broke stride over a stranger’s comment or considered the posture I assumed as I walked through the city. Or since I dwelled on the way furtive glances in my direction when I walk next to my boyfriend morph into sustained stares when I walk alone. It was not until I broke my foot recently and was forced to wear a cumbersome (and highly unsexy) boot around town that I was dismayed to discover a rather noxious subgenre of street harassment—one that was particularly bad on a day I wore shorts while running errands in Midtown. “Any excuse, any pretext, that’s all they need,” a friend said knowingly when I complained. She was right, of course.

Then, last week, the group Hollaback, which is trying to combat street harassment globally, released a video of a woman walking through New York City amid a relentless onslaught of comments and catcalls (as shown in the screengrab above). Suddenly, discussions of street harassment were all the rage, with cable news chauvinists gleefully denying the problem and more liberal media guys seeming shocked by its very existence, even going so far as to call it a “crisis.” This, in turn, surprised and irritated me — are the lived experiences of women so invisible to men that this could be construed as news? Or was I a bad feminist for taking such a fact of life for granted and not making more of it?

When I finally sat down to watch the video, it rang familiar and ugly in many ways, but it also didn’t sit right. I tweeted:

“UES” refers to the Upper East Side, New York’s wealthiest neighborhood—and soon my feed was filled with similar comments from other women whose reality did not match what was depicted in the video. That universe looked so racially skewed, it came as little surprise when it was later revealed that footage of white harassers had been edited out. More stunning was the way its creators defended this decision as an unfortunate necessity due to bad audio. Really? The excuse was so aggressively tone-deaf as to be offensive: How could they not see the danger in designing an activist tool that casts street harassment as an offense perpetrated almost solely by black and brown men?

That this viral video had sparked such a sense of crisis that people would push for a legal ban on street harassment was, to me, the most damning indictment of its race politics.
The harm was soon embodied by a question published by The New York Times’s Room For Debate series on Friday afternoon: “Do We Need a Law Against Catcalling?” At first glance, it was hard to take seriously. It was just too perfect a parody of what many women who think and write about prisons reject as “carceral feminism”—explained by author and activist Victoria Law as “an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.” For those who consider mass incarceration a women’s issue, more law enforcement is not the solution—and is often the problem, especially for women of color. That this viral video had, in the span of five days, sparked such a sense of crisis that people would push for a legal ban on street harassment was, to me, the most damning indictment of its race politics.

Feminists of color have long criticized Hollaback’s tactics for having precisely this effect, of casting black and brown men as congenital predators, thus perpetuating their criminalization (in a tradition going back hundreds of years). In New York, where the fight over stop-and-frisk is not over, such activism currently coincides with policing that punishes youth of color for dancing on the subway or uses bullhorns to shoo black students out of affluent Park Slope. Discussing the Hollaback video on his radio show, Geraldo Rivera asked Rudy Giuliani if it was proof of the city’s moral decay, with both men agreeing that street harassment should be seen as analogous to graffiti — a policing priority under New York Police Commander Bill Bratton. In the meantime, not far from where I live, a group of “concerned residents, business owners, artists and civic croups” called Gowanus United is closing ranks around gentrifying spaces in the name of public safety, raising alarms against a parole complex slated to open next year “within a half-mile radius” of “our streets, buses and subways.”

It is in this context—a battle against criminal intrusion on our space—that the world presented by the Hollaback video (and by extension, the Times) is most insidious. It’s not just about one woman’s right to “feel safe and confident without being objectified,” as the group argues on its website. In a rapidly gentrifying city, it’s also implicitly about the sense of privilege among those least affected by gentrification that they should also remain insulated from the tensions and jarring power dynamics it foments. In my first year in New York, I took the wrong uptown train and emerged, along with a fellow student, at East 116th St, a neighborhood on the cusp of sweeping gentrification. “Hey white girl!” a man yelled across the street at her, or maybe me, although it was clearly not about either of us. “Get the fuck out of Harlem!” Few would condone such intimidation, even understanding the context, because it is not particularly fair for any one person to be arbitrarily punished for a social phenomenon that is much larger and more powerful than him or herself. Yet in a sense, this is the logic behind calls for criminalization. While men are certainly responsible for their personal behavior, a law against street harassment would, in practice, randomly punish a select few individuals in the name of redressing a vast and systemic problem.

Does anyone really believe this is a solution? Systemic problems are not the same as crises — and there is little evidence that feminists are even pushing for new laws. Tellingly, none of the contributors to the Room for Debate series appears to believe that street harassment can actually be eradicated by outlawing it, rendering the title itself opportunistic clickbait. Instead, one contributor conceded that, “Even if rarely enforced, the symbolism of a law weighing in on the side of equality would have powerful effects.” For who? Who gets to sit back and enjoy the symbolism and who feels the punitive weight of the state?

Hollaback claims to reject criminalization. And on Twitter, it called criticism about the video’s racial bias “incredibly valid.” But between the group’s drug-war style rhetoric—street harassment is “a gateway crime”—and its appeals to “legislators, the police, and other authorities,” it is hard not to see a contradiction. Last year in New York, Hollaback teamed up with then mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, a defender of stop-and-frisk, to launch an app that would allow women to report harassers to public officials—which, as racial justice activist Mariame Kaba argued at the time, is “the same as reporting it to law enforcement.”

In the time it has taken me to write this, the police have been called to my neighbors’ apartment following a domestic dispute—a good reminder that most violence against women happens behind closed doors, and not at the hands of strangers. As my friend and fellow writer Collier Meyerson pointed out on Facebook, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “approximately 2/3 of rapes were committed by someone known to victim. 73% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger.” Is trying to cast a net over street harassers the best use of activist energy?

None of this is meant to negate the problem of street harassment, which, it bears repeating, is committed by men of all backgrounds, all over the damn place. Among other things, it angers me that it is a rite of passage for girls growing up in the city. And putting aside the obvious fact that most women (like most men) would be perfectly glad to walk around without drive-by salutations from strangers, the truth is, yes, even “hello” can feel like an unwelcome demand depending on an infinite array of variables—the speaker, the tone, the follow-up, the hour, or the mood one happens to be in on a given city block on a particular day. And, of course, depending on what a woman has lived through until that point.

Which brings us back to the problem with criminalization. In a place as diverse and populous as New York, such interactions are so ubiquitous and so subjective that what one woman considers threatening may well be shrugged off by another. It would be hard to imagine a more sweeping way to invite and reinforce racist notions of criminality than by telling people that every unwanted intrusion in public is a potential crime. To suggest that this is a serious solution to street harassment is condescending and counterproductive—and legitimizes a criminal justice system that commits violence against women every day.

*Author’s Note: This post is the product of a Twitter exchange with attorneys and blawggers including @ScottGreenfield and @bmaz, whose responses to the Room For Debate series can be read here and here respectively.

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