For some, the video of Shoshana Roberts being catcalled as she wandered through the streets of New York City was a shock. Released by anti-street harassment movement Hollaback, the video showed the actress being harassed more than 100 times in 10 hours. The video was viewed more than 15 million times in the first three days it was live, causing a hailstorm of comments and critique.
But for many women in Europe, as in New York, what the video revealed was all too familiar. Where the video may have brought new light to the issue in the US, sexual harassment of women in public is already hotly debated in Europe. And women and lawmakers on the Continent are trying a variety of tactics to address it.
There are very few statistics on street harassment in Europe – only very violent or extreme cases are reported to the police. Nonetheless, in Paris, 25 percent of women ages 18 to 29 say they feel afraid on the streets and 20 percent have been harassed on the streets at least once in the past year, according to a 2013 study by France’s national statistics body INSEE. In London, a March 2012 poll conducted by an activist group found that 43 percent of women ages 18 to 34 had been harassed during the previous 12 months.
Anecdotally, many European women say that street harassment is worse in Latin countries like Spain, Italy, and France, versus their Nordic neighbors.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” says Marylène Lieber, a Swiss sociologist who studies gender. “What is new is that there is a form of public debate now. There is a movement of young women who are denouncing this practice through different mediums: via the Internet and the media."
Women in Europe are finding ways to fight street harassment. In 2007, Italy opened a women-only beach along the Adriatic coast between Rimini to Riccione – dubbed “Pink Beach” – to stop leering, and there are an increasing number of exclusively female hotels situated across the country. In Rome, women can stay inside a 17th century convent-turned-hotel at the Orsa Maggiore or on the top floor of a palazzo in Florence at the privately-owned B&B For Women Only.
In France, women are adopting a more satirical approach. Comedian Bérengère Krief has incorporated witty comebacks to cat-calling into her regular stand-up routine, and actress Noémie de Lattre performed a skit on French public radio in which she addressed her offenders in vitriolic prose.
Perhaps the most influential attempt at drawing attention to street harassment – and foreshadowing the Hollaback video in New York – was Femme de la rue, a 2012 video portraying street harassment in Belgium. Like Ms. Roberts, student Sofie Peeters walked the streets of Brussels holding a hidden camera to record lewd male comments. In a similar outcry to the Hollaback images, Peeters’ video stirred debate in Belgium and beyond.
Ms. Peeters’ video also prodded legislators to act. Belgian law now penalizes perpetrators of street harassment to the tune of 75 to 250 euros ($93 to $312) depending on the gravity of the insult. However, since the law was passed, no police complaints have been made. Belgium is now set to introduce a new sexual harassment law with a punishment of 1,000 euros ($1,200) or a prison sentence of up to one year.
But Irene Kaufer, a project collaborator at Brussels-based women’s empowerment organization Garance ASBL, says actually applying the laws is extremely challenging. “If someone harasses you in the street, it’s very difficult to prove,” she says. “You need to find a police officer, show him or her the man who made the comment and ask him to repeat what he said.”
Is there a racial element?
Both Peeters' and Roberts' videos also raised questions about whether there was a racial element to street harassment. In both, men of color are shown making the comments. In Peeters’ case, it was primarily men of North African origin while in Robert’s it was Latino or African-American men doing the cat-calling. Some critics have questioned how the videos were edited and what was left on the cutting room floor.
Most experts in feminism and gender studies agree that the race issue in street harassment has shades of gray.
“The practice is more widespread in working class areas than in wealthier ones, and due to social relations, these working class areas are highly racialized,” says Dr. Lieber. “However once we look at other public spaces, women are harassed in other ways – like at the office – and there, white men are the ones concerned.”
Case in point: France’s then-Housing Minister Cecile Duflot was whistled at en masse during a meeting of the National Assembly back in 2012 for wearing a flowery "business casual" dress instead of a suit. Later, MP Patrick Balkany said that she probably wore the dress "so that we wouldn't listen to what she is saying."
The Duflot episode, as well as the sexual assault cases of former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, pushed legislators to pass a sexual harassment bill in August 2012 to fine offenders three years in prison and a 45,000 euro fine ($56,000). However, the effectiveness of the new law is questionable. While 1,000 sexual harassment cases are registered with authorities every year, only 80 cases from 2005 to 2010 have resulted in sentences, according to government figures.
While the 2012 law offers tools to deal with street harassment, some say changing France’s culture of seduction from an early age is key to solving the problem. France’s former Minister of Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem wrote on her website that education is the only way to combat sexism in France.
“Prevention is essential: in school, on our television screens, and in public discourse. Let’s examine our level of intolerance.”