Could catcalling become illegal in Austin, Texas, and elsewhere?

Street harassment in the form of catcalling is a problem faced by many women in the US and around the world. How can it be stopped?

Mark Hutchens/Courtesy of Stop Street Harassment
A demonstrator is seen at the Our Streets Too anti-street harassment march, in Washington D.C., in 2011.

In Austin, Texas, one woman has resorted to wearing a body camera when she goes running and has started a petition in order to foil street harassment in the form of catcalling.

Anna Aldridge of Austin, Texas, is so tired of being harassed by men on when she goes for a run that she’s started a petition to make catcalling illegal in her town, and is calling upon women to wear cameras in an effort to halt the practice she says has become unbearable.

"It's usually just like 'Woo hoo!' or 'Hey, baby!' It's disgusting. It's horrible. I've had guys roll down the window and make these little kissy faces at me," Ms. Aldridge told KHOU-TV. "I'm definitely going to be running with a camera and I hope all the other women in Austin are running with cameras, too."

Catcalling has been a topic of conversation for many since the group Hollaback posted a video montage of actress Shoshana Roberts walking around New York City over the course of 10 hours and being inundated with catcalls last October.  On Wednesday, outfitted women in New York with hidden cameras and later showed the results to the women’s boyfriends. (Please note that the videos contain language some may find offensive)

However, the issue is not limited to the US, or to women. According to the website Stop Street Harassment, a national survey shows that 65% of women and 25% of men in the USA – especially men in the LGBT community – had experienced it. Street harassment makes many people feel unsafe in public spaces and thus limits the places they feel comfortable inhabiting. It is considered by activists to be a human rights violation.

“I hope Anna Aldridge's petition will be successful,” says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment in an interview. “As a woman runner I, too, have faced hundreds of instances of street harassment by men while running, including being followed and chased. It's extremely frustrating and can be scary.”

Ms. Kearl says that last summer, "someone from the Austin City Council reached out to me because they were exploring what they could do about street harassment in their city.”

“I shared information about city council hearings, [like those in] New York City and Philadelphia; transit campaigns [like those in] Boston, New York City, Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles; and city ordinances against harassment [like those in] Kansas City, Mo.; Independence, Mo.; and Los Angeles ...  I never heard if they decided to do anything,” she adds. “I really hope this story gets enough publicity that the council acts.”

Rachel Dougherty, program assistant for Hollaback, writes in an email that her organization does not back the Texas petition. "Hollaback! does not advocate for increasing the criminalization of street harassment, knowing that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets low income communities and communities of color ... Our aim is to work with legislators on community based efforts and solutions," Ms. Dougherty writes. "Some examples of successful partnerships in addressing street harassment include: community safety audits, focus groups, the implementation of curriculum around street harassment in middle and high schools, trainings and workshops on bystander intervention, and others." 

According to Kearl, progress is being made because, “there are a lot more organizations working to address street harassment both nationally and internationally compared to just a few years ago. “

“Nationally, there are local governments taking actions, most commonly through a PSA [Public Service Announcement] awareness campaign, and also entities like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership are addressing the issue in their reports and materials,” she says. “Internationally, a number of countries have anti-harassment transit campaigns – like London, Delhi, Tokyo and soon, the whole country of France – and also a growing number of places have laws. For example, Peru just passed an anti-harassment law this year. Brussels has one. Countries like Chile, Panama, and Argentina are considering laws.”

Kearl has become a consultant for the United Nations. The UN has had a Global Safe Cities Initiative since 2010 that in part addresses street harassment.

“I just attended a forum for the participating cities in Delhi, India, in June and there were representatives from 22 cities, with some of the newest cities being Cape Town and Kabul,” Kearl writes. 

An important part of the solution, Kearl says, is getting men involved.

“Men are the primary perpetrators of street harassment against both women and men (and it is largely men in the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual,transgender, and queer] community who are harassed compared with their heterosexual male peers),” she adds. “We need programs educating young men on issues of respect and consent, we need social shaming of harassers, and we need men to model respectful behavior to their friends and family members. “

In Lima, Peru, for example, Everlast sponsored a staged PSA with a local activist wherein young men who were allegedly serial harassers were targeted in a video sting and tricked into catcalling their own mothers. (Please note that the videos contain language some may find offensive)

“That group in Peru was able to get a law passed,” says Kearl. “But the one thing that frustrates me about videos that go viral like the one in Lima, 10 hours of walking in New York and the Cosmo one is that we’re sharing our stories. We’re speaking out. Why don’t people believe us? Why does it have to be a video proving that women are being harassed on the street?”

Kearl says, “For men whose girlfriends, wives, sisters, daughters and mothers are facing harassment, the best thing they can do is listen, help them heal emotionally from the trauma, and do whatever they can to ensure that their own male friends, coworkers, and family members are not harassing anyone.”

The LGBTQ community is also at work on this issue. 

This week saw the launch of the Queer Review website which Kearl says is “the first and only online resource to help you discover Safe Spaces around the globe. You can rate and review businesses on a per-location basis regarding their treatment of the LGBTQ community.”

Stop Street Harassment recommends that those who want to aid the movement stand up for others when we see them being harassed, organize community action such as writing pro-respect messages on sidewalks with chalk, talk to city council members and transit workers, organize a safety audit, and mentor youth.

[Editor's note: Survey figures from Stop Street Harassment were incorrect in the original version of this article.]

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