Street Harassment: Hurtful, and Much of it is Illegal in California and Other States

Woman in despair against brick wall

Over 34 million people have now seen this video showing some of the harassment a woman experienced while walking the streets of New York City for 10 hours:

Hollaback!, the non-profit organization that produced the video, wanted to start a conversation, and they got one – both positive and very, very negative. The woman appearing in the video, Shoshana Roberts, has received plenty of rape and death threats for simply appearing in the video, underscoring the often vicious nature of harassment and of those who perpetuate it.

Hollaback! is dedicated to ending “street harassment” which they describe as “a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces” and is based on intimidation. They describe the problem as such:

“Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. Comments from ‘You’d look good on me’ to groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals. But it is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay.”

No doubt this is true, but the video shows only the first type of harassment mentioned, sexually harassing comments and gestures. Those of us who want to have a more civil and respectful society certainly want this behavior to stop, but should it be criminalized or do we instead need to work to change attitudes about what is acceptable? Hollaback! does not clearly state whether they want to criminalize this form of harassment or not, but would you be surprised to find out that much of it is already illegal in many states, including California?

While every state in the country criminalizes groping, flashing and assault, the laws on harassing comments or gestures in public vary widely between states. Many states, including California, have laws against “lewd conduct” which can include sexually explicit comments or catcalls, or obscene gestures or language. Some states also have laws against following people, as one person did to the woman in the video for 5 entire minutes (awkward!), and laws criminalizing abusive language or conduct that disturbs a person’s movement in public.

In California, it is also illegal to intentionally block the free movement of others in public spaces, for 2 or more people to gather together to harass people on the street, or to engage in “boisterous or unruly” behavior on public transportation. See more key laws about harassment in our Key Laws to Know section. Do you think we need more regulation of harassment? Less? Feel free to comment below.

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