France Wants to Criminalize Catcalling. Should the U.S. Do the Same?

August 29, 2017, 6:40 PM UTC

At 34, Marlene Schiappa is France’s secretary for gender equality and the youngest member of President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet.

She’s got a lot on her plate, but she told NPR that one of her first orders of business is to make street harassment of women a crime. Schiappa recalled experiencing such abuse growing up in Paris.

“We took alternative routes, out of our way, to avoid the bands of boys,” she says.

Criminalizing catcalling is an approach that other jurisdictions—Nottinghamshire, England; Belgium; Portugal; and Buenos Aires most recently—have implemented. “We felt it was necessary to bring awareness to a common occurrence that affects the daily life of thousands of women,” Congressman Pablo Ferreyra, who introduced the Buenos Aires bill, wrote after its passage.

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Debate about outlawing street harassment in the U.S. cropped up in 2014 after a video of a woman being repeatedly catcalled as she walked silently through New York City went viral. Research by Laura Beth Nielsen, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and author of License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech, shows that such an experience is not uncommon. In her study, 62% of women reported experiencing street harassment everyday or often. (A smaller share of men—55%—estimated that women endured catcalling so frequently.)

Those in favor of making catcalling illegal in the U.S. argue that sexual harassment should be prohibited on the street, just as it’s (ideally) banned in American workplaces and schools. Yet opponents of such a measure claim that it would punish—at random—a few individuals in the name of addressing a systemic problem and criminalize free speech.

In the interview with NPR, Schiappa said she supports violators being charged thousands of dollars in fines on the spot, but she didn’t specify how such a law would be enforced.

Indeed, these kinds of laws may be more symbolic than practical—though that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t serve a purpose.

Street harassment “is yet another way that women are marginalized,” Nielsen told Fortune. So beyond authorizing police to hand out tickets, an anti-catcalling law’s “expressive function”—its statement that such marginalization is wrong—could be powerful.

Schiappa echoed that sentiment, telling NPR that punitive measures for catcalling will send a message that such abuse is not the fault of women. Victims blaming themselves, she says, is a prime example of “rape culture.”

Nielsen, for her part, argues that “catcalling itself is not [women’s] most pressing issue in terms of gender equality.”

“But insofar as we normalize women being reduced to appearance and sexual objects, it facilitates other kinds of gender domination,” she says. “It’s harder to rape or beat up or pay someone less if you think of them as a whole person.”

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