Why is street harassment a public problem? Timon Studler via Unsplash

Why is street harassment a public problem?

Although street harassment is increasingly recognised as a problem and subject to regulation, how this problem is defined, and what regulation entails, varies from one context to the other.

At midnight on Saturday 9 March 2024, around 300 people marched through the centre of Leiden in protest against sexual violence and street harassment. The march was organised in response to three recent incidents of sexual violence against women, including the rape of a young woman on Breestraat, a street in central Leiden. The motto chanted during the march was ‘the street belongs to everybody’. Notably, many media reports on the march and the related incidents mentioned sexual assault and street harassment in combination. However, this link has not been systematically made in attempts to criminalise street harassment.

Street harassment: a public problem

Street harassment is in no way a new phenomenon, but it’s becoming an increasingly public problem. In the 2010s, NGOs such as Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment launched campaigns aimed at transforming street harassment from ‘a harm that has no name’ into an issue of societal and political concern. The global increase – from India to New York – in awareness of street harassment has also resonated on the European continent. In 2012, Flemish student Sofie Peeters used a hidden camera to film the harassment she experienced while walking through the streets of Brussels, in a documentary evocatively titled Femme de la rue. The title highlighted the difference in connotations associated with ‘the man on the street’ (i.e. ‘the common man’) compared with ‘the woman on the street’ (i.e. a prostitute or woman with loose sexual morals). Street harassment then operates as an effective instrument for policing gender boundaries and effectively limits access to public spaces. Defining street harassment as a public problem involves protecting equal access to public spaces for all.

Context-based definition of street harassment

The documentary Femme de la Rue played a key role in putting the issue of street harassment on the agenda in Brussels and other European political arenas. Laws aimed at criminalising this kind of behaviour have been introduced in Portugal (2016), France (2018), Spain (2022), and most recently, the Netherlands (2024). Interestingly, the legal trajectories in these countries have varied depending on how the issue was framed in public discourse. In France, for example, street harassment has effectively been put on the agenda by feminist lobby groups as an issue that features in the overall continuum of violence against women, and national legislation to criminalise it was introduced relatively quickly in 2018.

In the Netherlands, Ahmed Marcouch (former MP for the Labour Party, PvdA) proposed a similar national ban [link in Dutch] on street harassment in 2012. However, it was mainly right-wing parties that engaged with the issue, effectively framing it as a disturbance of public order. Moreover, these political parties connected the problem with migration and the perpetrators’ ethnicity, pushing the narrative that men with a migration background were the problem. Presenting street harassment as an issue of public order allowed the parties in question to emphasise the need for it to be regulated on a municipal level. Back in 2018, the Municipality of Rotterdam was one of the first to introduce a ban on street harassment [link in Dutch], known in popular terms as het sisverbod, which literally translates to ‘the hissing ban’. However, in that same year, the Rotterdam District Court ruled [link in Dutch] that street harassment falls under the fundamental right to freedom of expression. As municipal authorities lack the jurisdiction to impose restrictions on that right, the regulation of street harassment was subsequently referred to the national legislative level. In March 2024, around twelve years after Marcouch’s attempt to introduce national legislation, an article banning street harassment was added to the Dutch Sexual Offences Act [link in Dutch]. As a result, straatintimidatie (‘street harassment’) will be a criminal offence as of 1 July 2024.

Legal trajectories shape problem definitions

The legal instruments that legislators use – from local ordinances to national criminal law – affect how a specific social problem is defined. In Dutch parliamentary debates on national legislation banning street harassment, links to sexism, male dominance and gender-based violence came up much more naturally than they did on a local level. Whereas on a local level, the regulation had to align with existing public order legislation, on a national level, street harassment has been criminalised through the Dutch Criminal Code as part of broader legislation on sexual violence and sexual misconduct.

Understanding power dynamics through legal reform

No definition of a public problem can be neutral, and any definition has palpable implications for legal reform. The criminalisation of street harassment cannot be detached from the powerplay between right-wing parties and feminist organisations. After all, both are invested in propagating a specific definition of this social problem as either being about migration and race or about gender inequality. Now that street harassment is set to become a criminal offence, it will be interesting to see how these parties might use it in the future and how it might affect the power dynamics between them. If nothing else, this case shows how analysing the implementation of formal rules from a socio-legal perspective offers a powerful lens to help us understand the existing power dynamics within a society.

This topic and related issues will feature in the symposium on the theme of ‘Making Sense of a Trend: Legal Reforms on Sexual Violence in Europe’, to be held at Leiden Law School on 13 and 14 June 2024.


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