Sexual Harassment in the Public Space – Unfit for Legislation?

The issue of sexual harassment in public places has been given relatively little attention in the media and in research, although some experts say interest in the issue is now increasing. In most parts of the world, it’s still a somewhat murky area to address though, lacking clear definitions and legislation to govern it. Definitions and legislations, which some say are crucial to fully understand the scope of the issue, and combat it.

Many countries have no legislation in place dealing with sexual harassment in the public space. Of course, the reasons behind this are many and vary from country to country – in some, sexual harassment may not be considered wrongdoing, while in others, the problem may not be profound. But common for most of them is the lack of attention and awareness about the issue, which has generated little attention and serious research compared to sexual harassment in the workplace, according to Margaret Crouch, Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. In an article in the journal Social Philosophy Today, she writes that there has so far been greater focus on harassment in the workplace because, for many countries, there are laws in place, which govern the issue and make research possible. The conundrum is of course, that part of the reason why there’s legislation is the fact that there’s research to inform it.

Research and legislation about harassment in the workplace has been possible due to a number of factors, which the issue of harassment in the public space lacks: the workplace is a concrete and clearly defined physical place, in which very specific rules for behavior and interaction applies, rules which can be examined and modified. There is a clearly defined hierarchy in place, where some individuals are vulnerable to others, which makes it easy to equip the former with rights, while the hierarchy also means that there are people at the top, who are responsible and can be held accountable for what happens at the workplace . The public space has none of those features. In most countries, there are no clear social rules for how people can act and interact, save for threatening or violent behavior, and there is no hierarchy between members of the public, who can address each other however they like. Mostly, this is a good thing, of course – how we engage with each other in public spaces is and should be largely unrestrained and free. But it also makes it a lot trickier to legislate about harassment and may be part of the reason why so few countries do. Some areas are trickier than others – a clear definition for cat calling may be difficult to agree upon, when different individuals will feel offended by different things, while uninvited, physical groping is a much more concrete offense. Margaret Crouch, in her article, argues that the distinction between the work place and the public space should be completely dissolved to allow for a clear definition of what is acceptable and what isn’t, and make the latter punishable.

In the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, lawyer Olatokunbo Olukemi Laniya writes that the issue of sexual harassment in the public space needs to be “named, blamed and claimed,” meaning the issue must be defined, the perpetrators identified, while its victims must push back against it by openly addressing their experiences. While sexual harassment in the workplace was completely unrecognized just fifty year ago, we have since come a long way in recognizing and addressing the issue and regulating it through legislation. But, writes Laniya, the conversation on sexual harassment has largely been limited to that area since, while any experiences of harassment in the public, which fall short of physical assault and rape, are taken less seriously. Laniya writes that there is a clear tendency to think of sexual harassment as harmless, reflected in the lack of legislation. In reality, sexual harassment and sexual violence are much more closely linked than most people tend to think, she writes, and refers to studies about the escalation of sexual harassment into sexual violence at public events in New York City. Harassment and violence both are motivated by the same perception of female subjugation and male entitlement, and when only some of these acts are seen as serious, it enforces the belief that men can act upon women. Laniya adds: “When social and legal rules allow some injuries to women to go unregulated, there is much more potential to slide down a slippery slope.”

However, exactly because the issue is harassment in the public, which belongs to us all and, in most democratic societies, is governed by the right to free speech, any possible proposals to legislate the issue are bound to be met by resistance. In the US, attempts to illegalize sexual harassment would undoubtedly meet constitutional challenges. Whether such legislation is feasible or not, advocates, who are pushing for the law to recognize the negative effects of street harassment, are at least shaping a conversation, which might in itself have an impact.


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