If you have a Facebook account or follow more than three people on Twitter, it’s likely you’ve seen this Public Service Announcement or at least its hyperlink gone viral on social media and across national news media this week. Produced by the group Hollaback!, the video “shows a woman walking around the streets of New York in a tshirt and jeans, and captures the slew of harassing shouts and hollers she endures during this normal daily activity.” The advocacy group’s aim is to “generate awareness about and ultimately end” this type of street harassment. But San Antonio attorneys agree with the legal assessments provided in this AVVO NakedLaw investigation when they admit that legally, very few protections are in place for ladies who experience catcalls.
Firstly, outside a person’s place of employment, where labor laws govern codes of behavior and ethical standards of employee treatment, sexual harassment is pretty much a free-for-all in our society, legally. San Antonio attorneys concur with the California blogger who concedes that in public, sexual harassment is legally little more than “rude behavior,” which is neither a crime nor a civil offense. And while occasionally rude behavior can become a civil offense if “it reaches the point of extreme and outrageous conduct intended to cause severe distress,” San Antonio attorneys like Micah McBride warn that these standards are difficult to assess, and more so to prove in court. Since the “conduct must be heinous and beyond the standards of civilized decency or utterly intolerable in a civilized society,” being shouted, “Hey girl, hey!” at probably wouldn’t qualify, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it feels when it happens to you.
Other attorneys polled for the AVVO Naked Law blog post agree: Ignore the provocative catcalls. “It only gets them more revved up when they know it bothers you.” “There is not much you can do other than to put these guys in their place or ignore them.” And the worst news yet for harassed ladies on the streets of the cities: “There are likely First Amendment protections [for the perpetrators] too.”
Our guess is that the Hollaback! group knows these sad legal truths all too well, thus their massive effort to engage with the public through PSAs and conversations via social media. How well their strategy will work remains to be seen. This issue is probably largely still divided in sentiment, with disbelief as to the severity of the problem and doubt that it even happens as portrayed coming from individuals living in rural and suburban areas. But for ladies living in large urban areas New York City, it is a daily reality. Maybe some of them do like it (another argument from doubters as to the importance of awareness or change), but for most who experience catcalling, it’s a pain, and can be pretty frightening, taking a toll psychologically.
So while San Antonio attorneys like McBride can’t offer these ladies legal protection (unless a “person’s behavior reaches the level of stalking”—gee, fun), and the best advice from lawyers across the U.S. are phrases like “keep your head high and ignore the background noise,” we say props to Hollaback! for at least starting some sort of a conversation.