If not, Stop Street Harassment has you covered. Yesterday, they released the Know Your Rights: Street Harassment and the Law toolkit, which details the laws in each state that address different forms of street harassment–from obscene comments to up-skirt photos to groping–and provides information on how to report these crimes. On the website, you can skip directly to each state’s section to find the information for your state. It also highlights the best laws in the hopes of encouraging advocacy in other states to improve theirs.
Similar to campaigns like Know Your Title IX, the resource aims to empower individuals to be aware of their legal options. As lead author Talia Hagerty explains, ”This toolkit helps citizens know when street harassment constitutes a crime and gives us additional power to say ‘this is not ok.’” Given how pervasive, normalized, and hard-to-define street harassment is, that’s definitely a worthy goal. Knowledge is power, for sure, and I’m thankful this resource now exists.
Still, in many cases, I’m deeply ambivalent–at best–about turning to the criminal system to address street harassment. And I’m glad that SSH acknowledges the risks of an approach that focuses on criminalization. Emphasizing that there’s no “right way” to respond to street harassment, SSH’s executive director Holly Kearl notes in a press release that ”laws will never be THE answer.” In fact, as they write in a post announcing the toolkit, “We know that reporting harassment to the police or criminalizing harassment are not the only ways to end street harassment. In some cases, these may not even be the best ways. Criminalizing behavior can be problematic when laws are disproportionately applied to low-income communities and communities of color.” SSH goes on reiterate that ending street harassment requires a multi-pronged approached and encourages people to “engage with your local law enforcement to ensure the law is always applied fairly and that your community handles street harassment in the most constructive way possible.”
That’s certainly an important long-term goal, but the fact is that currently laws are disproportionately applied to poor communities of color. And given that reality, I think we have an obligation to think critically about our individual responses to street harassment. Perhaps even more than other gendered crimes, street harassment–occurring as it does in public space (usually) between two strangers–is deeply embedded in larger power dynamics. Both its intention and meaning and how it is received and experienced are highly individual and contextual.
For example, as a young white woman in NYC, I had a zero tolerance policy on street harassment from businessmen on Wall Street or drunk bros in Midtown, yet I mostly tolerated, humored, sometimes even appreciated, the cat-calls of my West Indian neighbors in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. Hell, even within the context of a single BK block, tone of voice and body language could spell the difference between a “Hey, snowflake!” that seemed to say, “You don’t belong here” and one that said, “Welcome!” (Both of which I considered fair responses to my presence.) My reaction to harassment in various contexts was influenced by community norms, my position vis-à-vis the community, and the vastly different consequences had I ever turned to the police (which, thankfully, I was never tempted to do).
To be clear: I’m in no way trying to downplay the real damage that street harassment does by effectively excluding some people from freely moving through the world. Everyone–in any community–should be able to walk down the street without constantly bracing themselves against unwanted attention. And there are definitely some serious crimes–like public masturbation or stalking–that I might report regardless of the context. But especially when it comes to verbal harassment–when the line between a compliment and a violation is not, truly, very bright or consistent–I think determining the “best” response requires acknowledging all the power dynamics at play–not solely gender. And it demands an honest recognition that the most constructive community-based efforts to create the real cultural change needed to end street harassment are often hindered by blunt and racist instruments like the criminal justice system.
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.