On Aug. 1, France passed a law outlawing street sexual harassment. When it takes effect in September, lewd comments made in public can be fined about $870.
I read this and re-imagined public space. Guys catcalling light-rail passengers. Men driving slowly through campuses, verbally rating passing students’ bodies. Consider a world without this. Or, at least, one where it became state revenue. I wondered if an $870 #perverttax could net $100,000 at just one site daily. Union Depot? U of M? Perhaps you know such a place.
Could such laws pass here? Years of teaching gender reminds me that more people question victims’ responses to harassment than why men harass. Many moralize. Fewer make moves to punish public harassment. Others believe it’s “perfectly natural” (albeit naughty) or free speech (a common defense for obscenity). Many Americans struggle to even believe women and others carry burdens men don’t.
A disturbing picture
Statistics paint a clear, disturbing picture, difficult to collectively accept. Straight women and the LGBTQ community exemplify this. They suffer disadvantages just getting through their lives. Abuse by partners, rape, harassment, and murder all form part of the same pattern: populations generally treated worse than men, most often by men. Minnesota has uniquely failed at recognizing and alleviating this problem. Recent reporting clearly notes failure in rape prosecution here, as officials pledge resources. Dissolving the statute of limitations on rape would also help. Fining street harassment becomes another piece resolving the disparity puzzle.
Catcallers’ First Amendment rights? We restrict what we say and show on television, advertising, and in public. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, either. Note some restrictions shift over time. Contemporary clothing might have gotten you arrested early last century. Why?
America debates, not free speech, but acceptable behavior. Free speech reigns here. Catcallers can write blogs about every woman they see, and none of us would have to read it. But has saying these things in public become offensive to enough of us to fine it, like streaking? Does it constitute harassment, already illegal? We must decide.
False narratives justify street sexual harassment. Beneath arguments of “free speech”; “it’s only natural”; “women misunderstand men’s compliments”; and “they’re good guys underneath it all” lies a difficult truth. Too many men, with too much influence, are too accustomed to this. They reject guilt and conscript us in their efforts to avoid carrying it.
The time has come for men to share some of the fear and shame others carry because of them. The fear that makes a woman or trans-person re-plan their walking route to avoid harassment? We can transform it into the fear that makes a man think twice before opening his mouth to say something trashy. The shame your daughters feel when you tell them to cover their skin? Make it the shame of a young man fined for talking gross to a woman about her own body.
The person apprehensively selecting their clothing and bus route often gets harassed anyway. They have shouldered this alone far too long. Men ease the burden of inequality by taking on the simple anxiety of thinking twice about what we say and do, and the fear of a penalty for getting it wrong. I’m perfectly willing to trade anxieties with another if it means Minnesotans can walk home without fear. I’m willing to carry shame over things I shouldn’t have done and learn to do better if it removes fear from those who did nothing wrong. Are you?
Minnesota statute 609.72 outlaws conduct and language “tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others.” Brave women calling out catcallers have certainly demonstrated their reasonable resentment for years, but it persists. This law has not been enforced to protect Minnesotans.
The burden now falls to us. Minnesotans are more than just “nice.” They are proud and strong caretakers of each other. If the state does not act, I propose councils, mayors, and county governments formulate ordinances specifically fining lewd comments and public harassment based on the target’s gender, then provide law enforcement tools to enforce this. Write to them. Tell them what you want.
Jose Leonardo Santos is an associate professor of social science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Metropolitan State University.
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