Portugal has made street harassment a crime – why hasn't the UK?

Street harassment

Around the world, countries are introducing stringent laws specifically to deal with street harassment. But we might do better to enforce the laws we already have

A number of countries have taken steps to make street harassment illegal. Portugal’s Social Democratic party has made verbal sexual abuse a crime, with offences incurring a fine of up to €120 (£95) or a year in prison. In Peru, a recently passed bill defines harassment as any act impacting the freedom and dignity of movement or another person’s right to physical and moral integrity, with such offences in public spaces carrying a maximum sentence of 12 years. And in Belgium, a law passed in 2014 introduced considerable fines and imprisonment of up to one year for street harassment crimes.

Why don’t we do the same?

In some ways, we already have: some of the Portuguese legislation actually echoes that currently in place in the UK. Exposing yourself in front of somebody else in public, for example, is already a crime under section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, while the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it an offence to engage in a course of conduct you know, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of another person. Touching another person in a sexual manner without their consent is also illegal.

These provisions do not exclusively relate to street harassment, but could be considered to pertain to issues such as being followed or verbally abused in public spaces. But the Portuguese law goes further, particularly in respect of verbal harassment and unwanted advances, as it specifically highlights “formulating proposals of a sexual tenor” as an offence.

In Argentina, activists have argued that legislation relating explicitly to street harassment is important in order to close the loophole that prevents more general laws from being applied to the harassment of women in public, because it is not generally considered a violent or damaging act.

Certainly, specific street-harassment legislation creates more targeted provisions to address the bombardment of abuse, comments and intimidation that many women, people of colour and members of the LGBT community disproportionately face. It might help those affected to feel better able to report incidents, and it could combat the normalisation that currently causes the problem to be frequently dismissed. (In reality, it has a huge impact on people’s lives, from forcing them to change their routine and travel plans to preventing them from exercising outside, to incidents that escalate into serious violence and even murder.)

But new legislation also carries risks – Debjani Roy, deputy director of anti-street harassment organisation Hollaback! has talked about the way in which such laws could be abused to disproportionately target particular communities. And legislation won’t necessarily force behavioural change – just as other laws haven’t proved a magic bullet in eradicating issues such as workplace sexual harassment or maternity discrimination. Nor would it address the media portrayal of street harassment, in which the problem is repeatedly downplayed and victims ridiculed. One Portuguese news outlet responded to the new legislation by describing street harassment as piropos (“flirting”, or “compliments”), and when 23-year old Poppy Smart recently reported a month-long experience of daily harassment to the police, the Daily Mail front-page headline read: “Girl calls in police after wolf-whistles”.

What we really need to see is a cultural shift in the normalisation and widespread acceptability of street harassment. We need to change the mindset that automatically sees women’s bodies as fair game for comment, judgment and public ownership in shared spaces.

The same is true for other offences, such as the euphemistically termed “groping”, which is actually defined as sexual assault under UK law, but which many victims don’t feel able to report to the police because it is seen as a regular occurrence ( as well as the lack of response or support from bystanders when it happens).

But deciding that legislation may not be the most effective way forward shouldn’t mean shrugging our shoulders and accepting that the problem will inevitably continue. Ironically, one preventative measure that could be more effective than new legislation would be the discussion of such issues, and of young people’s right to bodily autonomy, in compulsory school sex-and-relationships classes – a measure the UK government recently rejected, reportedly in the face of strong objections from female members of the cabinet.

Even if new legislation is not the answer, this is an issue on which our political leaders have an opportunity to impact societal norms simply by raising awareness of laws that are already in existence and ensuring they are taken seriously.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Laura Bates, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th February 2016 09.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010