Calls for crackdown on "catcalls"

October 28, 2010 2:47:11 PM PDT
Whistles, catcalls and lewd come-ons from strangers are all too familiar to New York City women, and now lawmakers are examining the age-old practice. A City Council committee heard testimony Thursday from women who said men follow them, yell at them and make them feel unsafe and uncomfortable.

Dominick, who will not give his last name, says he has a daughter and he's sick of the catcalls at high school girls.

"I will not tolerate it," he said.

Thing is, the students must walk by his shops to take a footbridge to Panamerican High School, so there's no way to avoid the alleged abuse.

We talked to two 14 year olds.

"They say that we have nice butts, nice body. It's disgusting," one said.

"I feel like they should have more respect for themselves and for us. We should feel comfortable to walk down the street," said the other.

This is the kind of testimony that was heard at the council committee meeting -- specifically focused on street harassment.

"A lot of women here are saying we are not giving up on men. We need to make noise -- educate -- get word out how disrespectful catcalling is," council member Julissa Ferreras said.

Not only a call for education, but also for formal complaints and even police involvement so girls and women can walk down the street in peace.

"If somebody like the police would tell men doing this it's not okay, they might start to get message," Natalia Aristizabal, Elmhurst youth leader, said.

"This is not our way of not being able to take a compliment," said Nefertiti Martin, who testified at the hearing. "This is an issue of safety."

Street harassment of women is as old as cities themselves and is common around the world, but the pushback against it is a more recent movement. Volunteer activists in Cairo are planning to launch a website, Harrasmap, where women can instantly report cases of leering, groping and other sexual threats.

Soon, the group Hollaback, an organization formed five years ago to stand up to street harassment, will release a smart phone app allowing women everywhere to do the same.

Hollaback told councilmembers that women have left jobs, broken leases and skipped school all just to avoid incessant unwelcome advances from strange men they pass on their commutes.

Holly Kearl, author of "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women," said she informally surveyed more than 800 women from 23 countries and 43 states, and 99 percent of them had been harassed by strangers.

"Because of street harassment, from a young age women learn that public spaces are male territory," Kearl said. "They learn to limit the places they go, they try not to be in public alone - especially at night - and when they are alone, they stay on guard."

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, chair of the women's issues committee that held the hearing Thursday, recalled learning as a young teen how to "speedwalk" to dodge certain men, and which corner stores she should always avoid.

"This harassment limits the rights and freedoms of women and girls to enjoy a simple walk outside," she said.

Hollaback is pushing the city to commission a study, a public awareness campaign and perhaps even legislation, including "no-harassment zones" around schools to protect young women.

"Too commonly, street harassment is believed to be the price women pay for living in New York City," said its executive director, Emily May. "But we're not buying it."

Councilmembers said they are open to many of the ideas, but said they are in the early stages of exploring just what can be done. If there were to be legislation, a key issue would be enforcement, since the concept of no-harassment zones could encroach on First Amendment rights.

Some information from The Associated Press

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