Does The Cat Have New York City’s Tongue?: What Can New York City Do To Address Concerns Over “Catcalls”?

Jason Riegert, Albany Government Law Review Member

Every day, young women in this country are faced with challenges.  One challenge that many women face are “catcalls.”  A catcall is “a loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman.”[1] An example of a catcall might be something as innocent as: “hey baby, what’s up?,” if shouted to a female stranger passing by.  While such remarks may appear harmless, the problem that arises from these catcalls is a question of harassment.  Are these statements being said in a way that threatens women, or are these simply a form a flattery that women should take as compliments?  Those are the questions that the New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues is attempting to answer.  The committee met October 28, 2010 to discuss the potential of banning “cat-calls” in New York City.[2]

At the meeting, testimony was heard “from women who said men regularly follow them, yell at them and make them feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”[3] A number of women were called in to discuss the effects that catcalling has had on their lives, stating “[t]his harassment limits the rights and freedoms of women and girls to enjoy a simple walk outside . . . .”[4] These women gave examples of the challenges they face and described the problem as being “an issue of safety.”[5] One organization, known as “Hollaback,” was formed five years ago to stand up to such harassment and “is now pushing the city to commission a study, a public awareness campaign, and perhaps even legislation creating ‘no-harassment zones’ around schools to protect young women.”[6] While Council members are open to many of the ideas, they are still in the process of determining what can be done about street harassment.[7] If legislation is put into effect, a vital issue will be enforcement, “since the concept of no-harassment zones could encroach on First Amendment rights.”[8] This scenario begs the question: can New York City effectively ban catcalls?

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