Laws Banning Catcalling Won’t Stop Street Harassment in France, the U.S., or Anywhere Else

A protestor shows the messages #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc.
A protestor shows the messages #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc during a gathering against gender-based and sexual violence called by the Effronté-e-s Collective, on the Place de la République square in Paris on Oct. 29. Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, French lawmakers approved a new law prohibiting gender-based street harassment, threatening catcallers with 90 to 750 euro fines for subjecting women to sexist or sexually degrading comments in public spaces. The law was first proposed last year in the midst of the #BalanceTonPorc (#SquealOnYourPig) movement, the French analog to #MeToo, but gained urgency last week after a viral video showed a man physically assaulting a young woman in Paris after she told him to stop harassing her.

The woman, 22-year-old Marie Laguerre, got security footage from the café where her assault took place and posted it to Facebook. The video shows Laguerre telling the man to “Shut up” after he reportedly whistled at her; he then throws an ashtray at her, walks around the tables, and punches her in the head. Laguerre ended her post with the hashtag #NousToutes (#WeAll), and has started a website called Nous Toutes Harcèlement (We Are All Harassed) where other women can share their stories of sexual harassment.

The regulation is just one part of a broad bill on sexual harassment and assault, a piece of legislation that also reclassifies sex between an adult and a person aged 15 or under as child rape if the youth is deemed incompetent to give consent. That provision was inspired by a 2017 incident in which French prosecutors decided not to charge a 28-year-old man with rape for having sex with an 11-year-old girl. Women’s-rights activists had lobbied for a law that would have placed all sex between an adult and an under-15 child in the category of rape, but the Conseil d’État, France’s highest court and legal adviser to the executive branch, said that version might have been unconstitutional. The new law will also extend the statute of limitations for child-rape cases, giving underage survivors 30 years after their 18th birthdays to file a report—10 years more than was previously allowed.

When the idea of a harassment fine was first floated last year by gender-equality minister Marlène Schiappa, some critics suggested it would put an end to French romance—the je ne sais quoi de l’amour that leads people to place locks on bridges over the Seine, smooch in candlelit cafés, and, apparently, yell lewd remarks at random women on the sidewalk. More than 100 French women in entertainment, publishing, and academia, including Catherine Deneuve, published an anti-#MeToo letter in January, calling for “a freedom to bother, indispensable to sexual freedom” and condemning the movement for its purported “hatred of men and of sexuality.”

Schiappa told Reuters last year that a law against catcalling would not “kill the culture of the ‘French lover.’ ” “We want to preserve seduction, chivalry, and ‘l’amour à la française’ by saying what is key is consent,” she said. “Between consenting adults everything is allowed; we can seduce, talk, but if someone says ‘No,’ it’s ‘No,’ and it’s final.” In cases where verbal harassment is legitimately threatening—when a man follows a woman down the block screaming sexualized epithets, for instance—the new law will provide an avenue for women to seek retribution.

But in less severe cases, establishing a clear line between harassment and an unwanted but appropriate sexual advance won’t necessarily be any easier when the police get involved. Law enforcement officials only occasionally bring clarity to murky situations, but they always bring their own biases. In France, as in the U.S., police forces have brutalized and killed black men with impunity, making communities of color wary of giving officers of the law more reasons to make arrests. In all likelihood, police officers and prosecutors will disproportionately enforce any street-harassment law against men of color, as they do with every other civil and criminal offense. And they could easily use such a law as pretext for stepping up surveillance and policing of already-marginalized communities.

That was one argument made by journalists and activists in 2014, when the question of whether street harassment should be criminalized came up in the U.S. The discussion was spurred by a video from Hollaback, an anti-harassment organization, that depicted a woman walking around New York City for 10 hours, accompanied by a videographer with a hidden camera that captured the many men who harassed her that day. Viewers criticized the video for almost exclusively showing black and Latino men; the producer said that was a total accident, as he’d had to edit out the white men who harassed the woman because of audio issues. But the vision of street harassment the video presented, of an offense mostly perpetrated by men of color who have nothing better to do than hang out on sidewalks in the middle of the day, seemed to absolve white men of the role they play in subjecting women to an atmosphere of fear. As Dee Lockett, a biracial woman of color, wrote in Slate at the time, white men often harass women at bars, parties, and workplaces, while men of color may use street harassment as a way to “create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces that social constructs and institutional racism have never afforded them control over.”

That’s not to say white men don’t catcall women. But an anti-catcalling ordinance in the U.S. would entrench existing disparities in the justice system in the manner of any other law encompassed by the tenet of broken-windows policing, a model that aggressively prosecutes petty crimes like vandalism in the hopes that the resulting environment of fear and order will discourage perpetrators from engaging in worse criminal activity. The strategy was praised and put into practice by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who responded to the Hollaback video by comparing street harassment to the graffiti he strove to eliminate as mayor, arguing that both degrade “public decorum.”

Still, those who’ve grappled with the question of how to stop persistent street harassment without resorting to traditional law enforcement haven’t come up with many good answers. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the founder of the Stop Telling Women to Smile public art campaign, wrote in the New York Times around the release of the Hollaback video that “police sexually harass women, too” and “Some women are wary of bringing the police into their communities because of fears of brutality and profiling.” Instead, she suggested, men should “police themselves.” Maureen Sherry, who argued in Fortune last year that American men have a First Amendment right to harass women, suggested that women should shame catcallers in view of their friends and tell perpetrators to stop. Embarrassment, Sherry hypothesized, is usually a deterrent for aggressive men.

Shaming the harasser didn’t work for Laguerre, whose snappy comeback was met with a punch to the head. Her case demonstrates the cost-benefit analyses women are forced to make while moving through public spaces. Do I talk back to this guy, and possibly embarrass him enough that he never harasses a woman again? Or will he follow me down the street and put me in physical danger if I do? If a restaurant full of witnesses wasn’t enough to stop Laguerre’s attacker from striking her when she spoke up, the threat of a monetary fine probably wouldn’t have stopped him from wolf whistling, either.