-OpEd-

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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