The Feminist Case Against Catcalling Laws

'Nice legs baby!' Argentina has taken steps to make certain kinds of verbal harassment a punishable offense — much to the chagrin of some feminists.

Nancy Giampaolo


BUENOS AIRES — Last month, the Argentine Senate — the same lawmaking body that squashed a highly touted abortion bill in 2018 — unanimously approved a law with provisions penalizing "verbal harassment on the street." Such behavior will now be considered a form of violence that can be reported and liable to prosecution.

"Verbal or non-verbal conducts or expressions with a sexual connotation" — catcalling, in other words — will no longer be treated nonchalantly. Instead, commenting on a woman's backside or breasts could result in a fine or other legal repercussions, as happens in countries like Peru, Belgium, Iran, Portugal, France or Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, a number of renowned feminists, including Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia, in the United States, and the Frenchwomen Catherine Millet and Elisabeth Badinter, oppose these kinds of laws. From their perspective, cracking down on verbal interjections (with no physical contact) is actually a deviation in the fight for equality.

Sommers, author of the essay Who Stole Feminism? notes that for one thing, harassment on the street isn't always sexual. A Jehovah's Witness or a salesman, she argues, can be as bothersome as a man making bawdy remarks because he likes a woman's legs. And yet it would be absurd to punish them all, Sommers adds. She also disagrees with the idea that women — as helpless damsels unable to cope with words thrown at them — need protections that would never be afforded to other vulnerable groups, like the homeless, for example.

"I don't want flowers but respect" read a sign on International Women's Day— Photo: Roberto Almeida Aveledo/ZUMA Wire

What's more, such penalties are inherently classist, Sommers argues, pointing to an ad once made in favor of prosecuting catcalling. The ad showed a young women having to endure unwelcome attention while walking in a clearly rundown section in New York City. The advertising agency could have chosen a more upscale backdrop but didn't. The feminist author suspects that penalties in catcalling cases would inevitably target lower or working-class elements first.

Camille Paglia offers a further argument against these kinds of laws: The exact same words, she notes, can be taken as an insult, a tolerably rude comment or even flattery, depending on the listener's age, social class, education and sensitivity. Seeking "extra protection" from the police and judiciary, she states, is hardly in line with feminism's libertarian aspirations, and women will not be truly free until they learn to fend for themselves and take an egalitarian, non-victimizing view of themselves in relation to men.

The exact same words can be taken as an insult, a tolerably rude comment or even flattery

Catherine Millet, who prominently supported legalizing abortion in France, sees feminists as showing "pseudo-religious' fervor in their calls to tighten harassment laws. And for Elisabeth Badinter, such regulations merely reinforce the image of the "irresponsible girl-woman" who needs special protection instead of accepting that liberty is precisely the opposite of penalization.

Many Argentine women see this as a new landmark in the fight for their rights. But it could also be viewed as a hard line measure sought by certain sectors and based on the volatile criteria of subjectivity. Feminism is now caught in a struggle between demanding disciplinary measures, or helping build a society wherein all are judged with the same yardstick.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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