Catcalling, or street harassment, as it’s officially known these days, doesn’t usually find its way onto many lists of “Planet Earth’s most Pressing Problems.” This is probably why whenever a feminist complains in the press about some guy yelling obscenities at her on a city street, she is met with an army of eye rolls that seem to say: “Aren’t there more important causes you girls can focus your efforts on?”To which this feminist would like to respond: No, not really. After all, what’s more important than a person’s right to a pleasant stroll down the street? Equal pay for equal work doesn’t count for much if you can’t walk to your job unmolested by leering creeps. American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with writing the popular inspirational quote sewn onto many a throw pillow: “Life’s a Journey, not a Destination.” But it’s obvious that Emerson, a man, was never a victim of cat calling. Because when you’re a woman — i.e. when your walk to work, school or the corner store is, at some point in your life, invariably interrupted by a guy hollering “Suck it beautiful!” out of a car window, it’s the destination, not the journey that you celebrate. All this is to say I wholeheartedly support French politician Marlene Schiappa’s new campaign to target street harassers and cat callers in France. Schiappa, France’s official Secretary of State in charge of Equality between Women and Men, and the youngest member of President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet (she’s 34 years old), would like to see French authorities apprehend street harassers on the spot and issue them a steep fine. In other words, she’d like to see street harassers and cat callers — overwhelmingly men who shout at, grope, and follow women on the street — publicly shamed in a similar fashion to shoplifters and people who refuse to pick up after their dogs.Read more: A condo party registry would help separate the partiers from the parents: TeitelSpending big money on millennial weddings? Blame the boomers: TeitelSchiappa doesn’t appear to have worked out the details of a policy targeting street harassment (for example, how it will be written so as not to infringe on free speech rights), but the general idea behind it is a promising one: shift the shame and embarrassment women feel when they are cat called back onto the guys doing the cat calling. Not only would such a policy give street harassers a dose of their own medicine, but the threat of a stiff monetary penalty might dissuade them from harassing people, even if such a penalty was rarely doled out. With any luck, it would also help dispel the myth that street harassment is no big deal and that women need to toughen up. This is a myth I once believed myself, because I was a) insensitive and b) extremely lucky. Most of the crude dudes I’ve stood up to in my life were pretty easy competition: teenage boys who became immediately bashful and remorseful when confronted about their inappropriate behaviour and idiots shouting from cars who disappeared in an instant (my profanity laced retorts a distant echo in their ears). But I’ve since come to realize that not all cat callers fit neatly into the category of all bark and no bite. Some get angry when rejected. Others follow you. Some, practically foaming at the mouth, call you a f---ing dyke after you refuse to give them your phone number outside a Pita Pit at one o’clock in the morning (true story). Others follow you, egged on by a group of their rowdy peers. This latter scenario is one all too familiar to Marlene Schiappa herself. The politician told NPR recently that as a teen in Paris, she and her sister “took alternative routes” to avoid “bands of boys” prone to cat calling and groping women on the street. In the end, the French leader’s proposal to crack down on street harassment in her nation may amount to nothing more than a series of debates and columns like this one. And no doubt backlash from conservatives who demand to know why a feminist in a first-world country is complaining about men making lewd remarks in a jewel of a democracy like Paris when she could be fighting to end the far worse subjugation of women in the far East (that a feminist is capable of doing both of these things at the same time, conveniently never seems to cross their minds). But Schiappa’s proposal will be successful even if it changes no laws, because it will redefine street harassment in the public conversation, from an inalterable fact of urban life to a problem that can and should be corrected.
TorontoStar, August 29, 2017