Catcalling: should it be criminal?

The undiscussed offense of calling out to strangers on the street

Kiera Liblik argues that street harassment is more than a mere annoyance.
Kiera Liblik argues that street harassment is more than a mere annoyance.
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I asked a street harasser, “Why?” His answer was simple, but spoke volumes. 

Last week, I was walking down Princess St. to work, like I do almost every day. Enjoying the sun, I heard a car slowly roll up beside me and, like almost every day, I was yelled at by a man in his car. 

“Hey slut, looking good.” Unfortunate, but not unusual. 

Fed up, I asked, “Why?” 

His response: “Because you’re hot.” 

It’s a simple statement that exhibits the unacceptable normalization of harmful behaviour in our community. It holds a significant amount of meaning to a sub-culture of men who lack the education to appropriately address someone who they find attractive.

Not only does this behaviour warrant further explanation, it should be criminal. 

In 1981, Canada ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW is a UN document that seeks to eliminate discriminatory behaviour based on sex. It outlines what constitutes gender discrimination and how these acts can be prevented. 

By accepting the CEDAW, Canada committed to gender equality and the elimination of discrimination against women in all forms. The behaviour associated with street harassment is incongruous with this document. So why isn’t street harassment criminal? 

Criminal law is meant to punish and prevent acts that are anti-social and harmful. It seems right that street harassment should fall under this. 

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) defines sexual harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” Derogatory comments from strangers can clearly be classified as “unwelcome”. Despite this, the examples of sexual harassment the OHRC provides pertain exclusively to workplace, school and landlord-tenant based harassment. 

There’s no mention of harassment in a public setting, like walking down the street.

As for Canada’s Criminal Code, unless someone directly threatens a person’s safety, no punitive action can be taken. While comments usually shouted at women on the street are unwelcome, they’re seldom threatening. 

However, even throwaway statements about a woman’s looks can be harmful. Eighty per cent of Canadian women don’t feel comfortable walking alone in public, partially due to the threat of harassment. This causes an intra-societal conflict where women strive to become independent but don’t feel safe when they’re alone. 

It creates stress and feelings of helplessness in women, along with a dependency on others, to be accompanied when they’re travelling at night or in areas that they consider dangerous. This puts women in a vulnerable position and takes away their power to feel comfortable in their own body, due to perverse and invasive remarks.

It’s no wonder that young women and men alike are starting to accept street harassment as a part of their everyday lives. It’s not a criminal act and it’s not even directly acknowledged on the official Ontario webpage meant for the identification and support of sexual harassment. 

But by normalizing public sexual harassment, we also normalize feelings of dependency, vulnerability and helplessness in women and enable those who harass them. 

While men are also affected by street harassment, the problem with these feelings of vulnerability in women is that they promote the stereotype of them as the weaker sex. It  diminishes their ability to establish themselves as equal to men in terms of the capacity to be independent. 

Street harassment has become a neglected issue in the shadow of more blatant forms of sexual harassment and assault in professional settings. 

This is understandable and justified, but perhaps street harassment is more harmful than it has been considered until now and thus should be criminally punishable. And yet, our country still fails to criminally punish those who actively and intentionally undermine this pursuit of equality.

For now, women and men who experience street harassment must take steps of their own to counteract it due to a lack of support from police and Canadian legislation.

Even if the law doesn’t protect you as well as it should, it’s never your fault if you’re sexually harassed or assaulted, no matter what you’re wearing, where you’re walking or what time of night it is.

Kiera Liblik is a second-year Life Sciences major at Queen’s.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault, Queen’s offers a free and non-judgemental counselling service. You can call to book an appointment at: 613-533-6000 ext. 7826 

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