This July, Marie Laguerre of Paris, France, was catcalled in a cafe. Laguerre responded by confronting and reprimanding her harasser. He then slapped her in the face, hard. Unbeknownst to both of them, there was video surveillance of the incident, and it quickly went viral. French lawmakers responded by banning gender-based harassment in public spaces and imposing a fine.
France, in other words, banned catcalling.
Laguerre expressed some hesitance about this step. She wondered about both enforcement of the measure—How is a women on the street to go about having a man who catcalls her arrested?—and the effectiveness of punitive measures relative to education.
It is “almost a joke,” Marie Laguerre told the Associated Press. “I don’t think it’s realistic because it means having police officers on every street.”
She said officers would need training to recognize harassing behavior.
“The law sends a message, but for me it’s not enough,” Laguerre said.
Laguerre told AP she thinks education is needed to change people’s attitudes on sexual harassment. She believes that would be more effective than punishing harassers.
Still, the measure, which took effect in September, has already seen an arrest and a fine. That’s right—a man has been fined for catcalling a woman.
PARIS (Reuters) – A man who slapped a woman’s bottom on a bus near Paris has been jailed for three months and, in a first under a new law against cat-calling, also fined for lewd remarks about her physique.
The man, inebriated when he boarded the rush-hour bus, smacked the 21-year-old on the buttocks and made an insulting comment about her breasts, before a squabble with the bus driver, who jammed the doors shut while police were alerted.
A judge in Evry, south of Paris, sentenced the man, in his 30s, to three months behind bars for the slap, considered an act of outright sexual aggression, and added a fine of 300 euros ($353) for the offending comments.
Laguerre’s concern about enforcement comes to mind—in this case, the perpetrator was apprehended and prosecuted because a bus driver confronted him, trapped him on the bus, and called the police. Had this happened on the street, he would likely have walked away unscathed. After all, street harassment is typically perpetrated by strangers who in this way easily go unidentified, and it often takes place without witnesses—at least, without witnesses who will stop, make police reports, and testify in court.
It is also true, of course, that in this case verbal harassment was combined with physical harassment. Would the bus driver have taken action if the exchange involved only words, without the accompanying bottom smacking? It is impossible to know.
As I read about this case, my mind was drawn to season 3 of the Serial, a podcast that investigates aspects of the criminal justice system. The first episode of this season deals with a bar fight. The fight begins when a woman, Anna, angrily confronts two men who were slapping her bottom in a bar. After this, another woman, presumably friends of the men, confronts Anna—and a fight breaks out. When police arrive they arrest Anna. They initially consider taking the men into custody as well, but the men’s friends vouch for them, and police let the men go—without stopping to check the surveillance video, which verifies Anna’s story.
In a sense, Anna’s story confirms Laguerre’s concerns—the man on the bus was only taken into custody because the bus driver recognized what occurred as a crime and apprehended the man. Had the bus’s occupants responded as Anna’s fellow bar patrons had, the outcome would have been very different. Still, I do wonder whether criminalizing street harassment may itself lead to more education, as individuals learn that catcalling (and other forms of harassment) are not just wrong but also illegal.
Critics of the criminal justice system might raise another concern as well—without giving anything more away, I’ll simply state that that same episode of Serial also deals with the effect that fines levied by the court can have on individuals who cannot pay. These fines accrue, and may eventually be turned over to a collector. Besides, fines in general are regressive—the same fine is levied on the rich as on the poor. This leaves many unsure of the wisdom of using fines as a deterrent more generally.
Only time will show the full effect of France’s new fines for catcalling and other forms of verbal street harassment. We can—and should—ask questions about unintended outcomes of the criminal justice system, and about effective enforcement of such measures. Still, in the era within which we live, it feels good to see someone taking harassment against women seriously.
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