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What are Minnesotans prepared to do about street harassment?

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

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.

Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos

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?

A proposal

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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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/16/2018 - 10:28 am.

    “Free speech reigns here.”

    Yes, it does. That is as far as we need to go with the idea of fining street harassers. It has nothing to do with the absurd arguments in defense of the catcalling. Unless speech is an imminent threat, we do not outlaw it. Offensive speech gets the same legal protection as inoffensive speech.

    That is not to say that nothing can or should be done about street harassment. The most effective way of fighting it would be to stop accepting it. Call out the harasser whether you are the victim or just a bystander. Refuse to let anyone think that it’s okay. If someone looks to you for approval of their harassment (“I’d like to ********** her, know what I mean?”), let them that you don’t approve.

    I would suggest educating everyone, starting at a young age, as to why harassment is wrong, but the fans of harassment will dismiss that as “snowflake ideology.”

  2. Submitted by Jim Lee on 08/16/2018 - 12:00 pm.

    Another law is not the only answer

    I started reading this piece thinking it would provide advice and commentary on what bystanders should or could do to address this type of behavior when they witness it. If, as the writer states, ” Minnesotans are more than just ‘nice.’ They are proud and strong caretakers of each other.”, why can’t we focus on stepping up and supporting each other?

    I don’t know how an ordinance can help if there are no law enforcement officers around to witness the harassment. Without direct observation by law enforcement, given our history of not believing females subjected to much worse than catcalls, I suspect we will just have a lot of “he said/she said” situations.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/16/2018 - 12:19 pm.

    It’s time to create Tolerance Police to maintain the inclusive, progressive society we want.

    Social justice is best served on the streets.

  4. Submitted by Benjamin Osa on 08/16/2018 - 03:51 pm.

    Limits Freedom

    Street harassment severely limits the freedom of women since they often fear for their safety and/or they find the street harassment directed towards them so off putting that they have to restrict themselves where they go.

    My friend yesterday informed me that she no longer goes to the Midtown Global Market due to the onslaught of verbal abuse she gets just walking in medical scrubs there during her lunch break from Children’s Hospital a couple blocks away.

    I feel bad for her because that’s a great option for lunch that she doesn’t feel is available to her solely because of her gender.

    This is a form of forced segregation that our patriarchal society allows and it’s time harassers get called and shamed for their anti-social behavior.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/17/2018 - 06:18 am.

      Pathetic

      It’s maddening that such pathetic creatures could hinder your friend’s ability to get lunch.

      I wonder if we could organize a sort of vigilante sting operation. Maybe have a woman walk the route your friend does, and when low lifes cat call her, men (men, not males, for there is a difference) can call them out in no uncertain terms. Shame them, shut them down.

      Maybe some college guys could organize this as a sociology project.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/16/2018 - 05:10 pm.

    As a woman, I think it would help if men would begin to shame your male friends who do this harassing of women and gendered “others,” and raise/educate your sons to realize how awful that harassing behavior is and never to take part in it. Maybe the cycle would stop, eventually?

    If women could stop the catcalling and other behavior that frightens them and makes even going to a market for lunch too much of a hassle, they would have done so. The victims can’t do anything except call it out–and maybe get raped or beaten for it! (You make the offender mad, see.)

    It is healthy and constructive for the male author of this piece to bring the subject up for other men. Even if–as with rape–laws against it will probably not be enforced as long as men are the ones deciding what the aggression is, and whether it’s taken place and done harm.

    After all, too many cops don’t even believe a woman when she says she’s been raped/physically assaulted. What would they say or do if a woman said she felt threatened by some guys yelling obscenities at her?

    The cops would say she should get a life. And let them go about their other, serious police work.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/17/2018 - 06:13 am.

    I Got Your Back

    Just a couple weeks ago, I was crossing Wabasha Street, just about ten feet behind a woman. There were a couple guys standing near the corner that we were approaching. My antennae went up, knowing what she may encounter.

    She would continue on Sixth, while I would turn on Wabasha. But before turning, I lingered just long enough to make sure she passed the two fellas. Had they cat called her, I was ready to pounce. This time, my vigilance was not needed thankfully.

  7. Submitted by Brigette Dawn on 08/18/2018 - 11:06 am.

    Fines only reinforce power of the privileged

    Here’s the problem I have with monetary consequences… it gives people with more money an option to chose their behavior and responses based on being able to afford the consequences. It only reinforces the fact that people with money have more power over others.

    Also, if we turn harassment into another fine collection, who reaps the benefits of this abuser tax? Is it going to go towards programs and services that address toxic masculinity and provide resources to victims of violence, or is it going to pad the same oppressive and toxic institutions that have been systematically failing victims by covering up abuse, blaming victims and fighting more for abusers rights than for protections of the abused?

    You want to deter men from being abusive trash? Continue to call them out, alert their employers, friends, family members and tell their community to step up and tell the person that what they are doing is unacceptable, damaging, and that they need to learn to be better humans by having and showing respect and to drop the idea that they are entitled to say whatever they want. Consequences are coming.

    If you witness harassment in public, turn to that person and tell them that they need to stop, tell them and everyone around you that you do not condone their violent behavior. Be the louder one.

    You want to make real differences In changing behaviors of offenders? Have offenders volunteer in shelters for victims of domestic violence, have them sit in court rooms where people have to wait for hours and beg to have orders of protection issued and defend their own actions in the process. Have them sit in the hospital waiting rooms and watch as those who were sexually assaulted are told they need to compete a physical examination and give samples for a rape kit.

    Make the offenders see what the real consequences are for those who are impacted by violent behaviors.

    More has to be done and I applaud the author, a local community member, for bringing this to a greater audience… but, understand that we are real sick and tired of unwanted, abusive, lewd, threatening behaviors and some of us are coming back with mace and live-streaming.

    The revolution might very well be televised.

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