David Cameron Backs Legislation to Outlaw Street Harassment in Europe

UK Prime Minister David Cameron


It is laudable that UK Prime Minister David Cameron will be signing the Council of Europe’s convention, which will include legislation that criminalizes “unwanted verbal, non-verbal violence and physical” sexual harassment against women, particularly as yesterday was International Women’s Day. This may include criminalizing some forms of street harassment, as the convention lays out a definition of sexual harassment as any act “violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

Rather predictably, this has raised stir among those who can best be described as street harassment advocates, the idea that women might be anything but grateful for receiving the “gift” of unsolicited attention from lecherous creeps is apparently distressing. As others have quite rightly pointed out, though:

“Harassers needn’t worry too much that they’re going to hear sirens the next time they shout obscenities at a woman, and fears that building sites across the land will now be raided at the first sign of a puckered set of lips are probably unfounded.”

Despite widespread claims that the convention will outlaw “wolf whistles” and comments of “Heeeeey sweetheart”, Prime Minister Cameron’s spokesperson has apparently “downplayed the issue of sexism and street intimidation, saying ‘we have harassment laws in this country’ already.”

Unfortunately, since the news broke there has been a collective media fail. Many news outlets have run sensational headlines, leading with rumors of criminalizing catcalling, while crying freedom of speech abuses, leaving a sentence or two at most to mention the legislation that will more strictly monitor issues of forced marriage, forced genital mutilation and the ability to prosecute British citizens who have committed acts of rape or sexual assault abroad.

Regardless of what types harassment ultimately become criminalized, our friends in London rightly observe:

“Whether it’s leering, catcalls, shouts or whispers from strangers, defending this behaviour is a gateway to the cultural acceptance of much more serious crimes across the spectrum of gender-based violence. Dismiss the smaller issues, and the bigger issues go unchallenged too.

It’s hard for some people to get their heads around, especially those who have never experienced it, but these seemingly harmless interactions with strangers on the street can build up a well of resentment, internalised shame and guilt in the people who live with them.”

Cameron commented earlier this week: “Stalking is an abhorrent crime. It makes life a living hell for victims. That is why we are explicitly criminalising stalking to make sure that justice is done.”

While this may be a mere political ploy to garner more female supporters, David Cameron and the European Union are at least giving some long-deserved attention to the culture of violence directed at women worldwide. Maybe next year, they’ll devote an entire week to us.

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