“I’M HARASSED when I smile and I’m harassed when I don’t. I’m harassed by white men, black men, Latino men. Not a day goes by when I don’t experience this,” says Shoshana Roberts, the subject of a much-discussed video on street harassment by the non-profit Hollaback!. The video, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”, records over one hundred instances of verbal harassment: “How you doing today?” “Smile!” “Hey, beautiful.” “If I give you my number, would you talk to me?”
The two-minute video has been watched nearly 40m times. Many women apparently identify with Ms Roberts’s experience. Street harassment is common, especially in urban settings, and some find it oppressive: a threatening, daily reminder of their vulnerability. To avoid it, many women say they change their routes, behaviour, transportation or dress. Hollaback! and other activists are calling for an end to street harassment, arguing that it is just another symptom of the persistent equality gap between men and women (a problem made plain in a recent report from the World Economic Forum). But can decency be regulated?
In a New York Times op-ed, Laura Beth Nielsen, a professor of sociology and director of the Centre for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, proposed legislation that would prohibit street harassment. Such legislation would be consistent with First Amendment principles about other kinds of hate speech that intimidates, harasses and perpetuates inequality, Ms Nielsen argues. She points out that laws exist to protect women from sexual harassment at home, work and school—why not public places too? The law would allow states to “recognize street harassment for what it is: physical and psychological acts that intimidate, exclude, subordinate and reinforce male dominance over women.”