Catcalling in the city? It might soon get you a fine!

Foto van Tamar Fischer

As of 1 July, 2024, sexual harassment in public will be criminalised. This means that reports can be made against street harassment, and municipal enforcement officers (BOAs) and police officers can issue fines when they catch perpetrators red-handed. Sexual street harassment makes many people, especially women, feel unsafe on the streets. However, is the new legislation merely symbolic, or will it make a difference? Tamar Fischer, Associate Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, discussed sexual street harassment in Rotterdam in the program Pointer, the podcast Stadswandelingen, and The CIA Podcast.

So, what exactly constitutes street harassment? Fischer explains that this is not an easy question to answer because it has a subjective element. As she stated in Pointer and Stadswandelingen: "Some people do not necessarily find certain behaviour intimidating, while others do. There has been much debate about this over the past few years." What Fischer particularly noticed in her initial research on street harassment is that many women do not label various behaviours by men on the street as harassment. However, they adjust their behaviour to avoid men or prevent escalating situations. She notes that the women in her study reported changing their clothing or walking different routes. Fischer explains: "I think we have long ignored behaviour that can make women feel unsafe. I think for a long time, we all said: Well, that is just something you have to deal with."

A Men's Issue 

Harassment has recently been a major topic in the news, partly due to incidents like those on The Voice of Holland, and movements like #MeToo have shed light on the issue. Fischer points out that this has sparked a broader discussion, which can be seen as a positive development. It has become clear that sexual harassment is not confined to any specific demographic group. "There is a tendency to point fingers at certain groups, but it happens just as much in studios or offices. It is similar behaviour with a slightly different expression, leading us to conclude that it is not a problem of certain groups. It is really a men's problem."

In her 2021 research, Fischer found that women are predominantly the victims of sexual harassment, and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. Fischer states in Stadswandelingen: "Due to the physical, natural differences between men and women, and the power dynamics that have historically existed in our society, women end up being the victims." However, she emphasizes that it is not only women who are affected. There are also many young men or individuals from the LGBTQI+ community who experience street harassment.

Increased Awareness 

Fischer's research indicates that there has been a growing awareness of sexual harassment in recent years. Women have become more conscious that street harassment occurs and that it is something they should not have to accept. According to Fischer, this is a very positive development. She notes that this increased awareness could lead to more reports being made to the police or other authorities, as women are more likely to label certain behaviours as sexual harassment. Fischer explains that, for this reason, we should not expect the statistics to drop immediately. Another positive development is that bystanders are also becoming more aware of sexual harassment. Fischer notes that more men in women's social circles are becoming conscious of street harassment. They can affirm to women that harassment is not a problem caused by women but one caused by men, society, and how we deal with it. "This helps women feel supported and less uncomfortable."

Fischer believes that the solution to street harassment primarily lies in the awareness of bystanders. She states that as long as men do not change their behaviour and continue to feel the need to act in certain ways on the street, it is crucial to have people in specific situations who know what they can do and thus play an important role.

The New Law 

Under the new law, effective July 1, 2024, perpetrators caught in the act can be prosecuted. Municipal enforcement officers or police can file a report, which the judge can then use to determine if criminal acts have occurred. An important question is: will this new legislation make a difference? Fischer explains in Pointer: "There are different aspects to consider. I think we should not overly rely on the idea that the new legislation is a silver bullet that will solve everything. It is a type of behaviour that is very difficult to tackle. Therefore, in terms of enforcement, there will not be many legal cases against people who have committed street harassment." Fischer continues: "If you bring this behaviour into criminal law and start a sort of witch hunt against the perpetrators, you could also see a hardening of behaviour and an even greater aversion from these men towards enforcers. Additionally, such prosecution for street harassment could even enhance status within the group, ultimately only encouraging it." On the other hand, as Fischer explains in Stadswandelingen, the new law could bring about positive change. "One function of a law is to set a norm in society, thus raising awareness."

Associate professor
More information

The Pointer program can be viewed via this link (Dutch).

The podcast Stadswandelingen can be listened to on Spotify or via this link (Dutch).

The Criminologie In Actie study association has also created a podcast on this topic. The podcast is produced in collaboration with Fischer. Listen to it here (Dutch).

Want to read Fischer's research yourself? Click on the link (Dutch).

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In several media, criminologist Tamar Fischer explains why awareness in society is essential in the fight against street harassment.
Foto van Tamar Fischer

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