Do harassment laws make a difference?
08-Oct-2017


It seems that not a day has gone by recently without Saudi Arabia announcing exciting progress in gender equality. The latest news to come out of the Kingdom is that the government is introducing a sexual harassment law. A draft anti-harassment law is to be implemented in 60 days, with jail terms and flogging as possible penalties. This is a great step in combatting sexual harassment in the Kingdom. However, it is important to reflect that, when it comes to stopping sexual harassment and assault, more needs to be done than simply passing a law.

Sexual harassment legislation is at various stages across the world. Elements of harassment might be included in sexual assault laws; often times the law focuses on workplace harassment. Criminalizing the broader spectrum of harassment, such as catcalling or street harassment has been slowly increasing. Belgium, New Zealand, Portugal and the United States all have laws criminalizing catcalling, with penalties ranging from fines to jail time.

Criminalizing sexual harassment, however, does not stop it from occurring. While one could say that no law completely eradicates a criminalized act, this seems to be particularly true for sexual harassment. Street harassment is against the law in New York, for example, but that didn’t seem to matter to the 108 men who catcalled a woman in a video that went viral in 2015. There are plenty of reasons why harassment laws achieve little success on a legal level. The simplest reason is that people—both men and women—aren’t aware of the law. The law might be unclear or broad: for example, sexual harassment might fall under “disorderly conduct,” which is therefore up to interpretation. It also may be difficult to “prove.” More importantly, women may be embarrassed—or in the case of workplace harassment, afraid—to come forward. They may also fear that the police may just dismiss accusations of harassment.

These laws will not make an impact socially unless the mentality regarding harassment changes. There needs to be greater discussion, not only about sexual harassment but also about respect and gender equality and how they are intertwined. Harassment does not exist in a vacuum: it is tied to sexism and women’s unequal standing in society. Until women are treated as equals and not as sexual objects, harassment will continue to be widespread.

There has been much progress in the past years in opening up the debate about sexual harassment and criminalizing such behavior. However, in order for laws to have a real impact, much more needs to be done in shifting society’s perception of women.


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