A New York City council committee held a hearing where reps from the anti-street harassment group Hollaback! testified about the harmful effects of catcalling, whistling, and other lewd advances. Hollaback's interested in "no harassment" zones by schools. Could it work?
It would be great if it could, wouldn't it? As one woman told the council committee, opposing street harassment "is not our way of not being able to take a compliment ... This is an issue of safety." Hollaback members told the council about women they've heard from who have "left jobs, broken leases and skipped school all just to avoid incessant unwelcome advances from strange men." And apparently it's become common enough for adults to stand outside schools and harass students as they walk past. Um, too much free time on your hands, gents?
Having a man or group of men talk about your body while you're just trying to go about your business is not just annoying—it sends the message that you don't have the right to be left alone, which makes the streets feel less safe. You're a target, simply for being present. But how you legislate this problem away, without creating a First Amendment nightmare is beyond me. What about the risk of misinterpreting a mumbled comment? And how do you prohibit a leer? Sometimes the most bothersome "speech" men make involves no words at all—their eyes trained on you or some specific area of your body can be enough to inspire speedwalking.
Aside from the no-harassment zone idea, Hollaback is also proposing that NYC commission a study and pursue a public awareness campaign against harassment. These ideas sound a lot more workable—and might be more effective in the long run. The AP spoke with New York men who told them that they've called out to women on the street "just to be friendly," and "seemed genuinely surprised that any attention can be unwelcome." Mind-boggling, but also maybe a reason for optimism that such men, if told that hissing and pointing out a woman's body parts aren't "friendly" after all, can be rehabilitated.