Activists in big cities calling for laws banning street harassment

Posted in Sexual Harassment on November 6, 2014

If we truly want to improve respect in the workplace and reduce workplace sexual harassment, we may need to address the much more pervasive problem of street harassment. Workplace sexual harassment and street sexual harassment are different, but only so in terms of their legal remedies.

When you are sexually harassed by a colleague or supervisor, you have the option to report your harasser to company officials or human resources representatives. If your employer fails to adequately address the issue, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and seek the help of an attorney. Street harassment, however, tends to offer fewer legal remedies for victims.

The issue of sexual harassment out in public has gained significant media attention in recent years. Last month, a woman in New York City secretly filmed herself walking the streets and sidewalks. She was dressed conservatively and did not say anything. But in just 10 hours of walking, she was verbally harassed more than 100 times. This tally did not include winks and whistles she received from passersby.

This video has prompted national discussion about sexual harassment, particularly in big cities. According to the author of a recent New York Times article, two-thirds of women report being harassed every day. In light of this, many are calling for specific laws prohibiting street harassment.

At its core, sexual harassment is about exerting power over someone else. As such, sexual harassment isn’t just irritating. It is often threatening, intimidating and demeaning. Therefore, laws banning the practice would likely be consistent with laws banning hate speech, for instance.

Practically speaking, such a law might be difficult to enforce. However, that alone is not a sufficient reason to avoid enacting an anti-harassment measure. Even if it could only be marginally enforced, an anti-harassment law would likely send a powerful message that this type of behavior cannot and should not be tolerated anywhere. Hopefully, that message would then spread to our workplaces, schools and all the other places where women are made to feel intimidated and objectified simply because they are women.

Source: The New York Times, “Street Harassment Law Would Restrict Intimidating Behavior,” Laura Beth Nielsen, Nov. 3, 2014