Wolf whistlers could soon be prosecuted in France under plans to make street harassment a criminal offence.
Following women down the street or repeatedly asking for their mobile number could also be outlawed in legislation proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, The Times reported.
Marlene Schiappa, the gender equality minister, set up a working party of five to plan the legislation. It would include a definition of what constitutes street harassment and possible penalties.
In June, Ms Schiappa flagged perpetrators could face on-the-spot fines of up to €5000 ($A7542).
“Twenty euros would be a bit humiliating, €5000 would be more of a deterrent,” she said at the time, as reported by The Guardian. “At the moment, many men are saying, ‘It’s not a big deal, we’re only having fun.’ And we say, ‘No’.”
Closer to home, Dr Bianca Fileborn, who has researched Australian responses to the possibility, said women had mixed responses.
“Overall, people were supportive of it, particularly in the sense that it was symbolically important,” the criminology and social sciences expert from UNSW told The New Daily.
“Having something enshrined in law has really strong communicative value. It says to the broader community that this is a behaviour we take really seriously, it’s not okay and you should have access to criminal justice.”
Dr Fileborn said while women were also supportive of the idea because it clearly let them know police would take the report seriously, “a lot of people – in fact most people – had some really strong reservations” about it.
The main reason people are hesitant to support similar legislation in Australia? It is not “pragmatic,” said Dr Fileborn, because harassment is often “fleeting”, particularly in the example of someone yelling from a car window as they drive past.
The other issue people had with outlawing street harassment was that it was not so much individual incidences that were problematic.
“You experience it again, and again, and so the cumulative experiences were what made it problematic and harmful. That’s not really something the criminal justice system can respond to.”
Dr Fileborn said people were otherwise concerned it could be “overkill” and doubted whether it would really have an effect.
But she rejected the perception that “political correctness” is driving the outlawing of street harassment: “That kind of response is just reinforcing the normalising and the trivialisation of street harassment in women’s lives.”
She said women restricted how they use and access public spaces and how they dress. Many women experience harassment so many times it has “psychological, emotional, physical consequences”, she said.
“People who I spoke to said it contributed to things like anxiety and depression, they had panic attacks in public spaces.”
More minor examples of harassment could still be so “annoying that it distracted you for the rest of the day.”
Dr Elise Holland, from Melbourne University, said she believed it would be “extremely welcome news to French women.”
She said her research showed young women in Australia and the US experienced catcalling, wolf whistling and ogling up to once every two days.
“Not only are these experiences common occurrences, they are also highly damaging.
“Other researchers have found that when women are attended to as bodies or objects rather than as people – and this is essentially what street harassment does, it reduces a woman to a commodity – they report greater disordered eating, depression, demonstrate reductions in maths performance, and even self-silence in interactions with others.”
She said it could hopefully change the culture and perception of street harassment.
“So many initiatives and so much of the focus to date has been on the victim rather than the perpetrator … What is so great about the new plan in France is that it shifts the focus to the perpetrator and holds them accountable for their behaviour.”
Both experts doubted on-the-spot fines for street harassment could lead to false reports, and said sexual violence was notoriously under-reported.