Let's ban catcalling

France has banned catcalling. Why can't America?

A man harassing a woman.
(Image credit: Illustrated | asmakar/iStock, Tatomm_iStock)

In these crude and dispiriting times, it's always worth celebrating when a rare blow for decency is struck anywhere by anyone. Following fast upon their recent triumph on behalf of children's welfare over the international smartphone lobby, French legislators have just approved a package of laws that make it a crime for louts to harass women in the street with catcalling and lewd comments. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

This bill was passed following a lengthy campaign by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, partly in response to a video seen by millions in which a woman has an ash tray thrown at her head after telling a catcaller to piss off.

It's wonderful to think there is still at least one country in which the head of state advocates on behalf of such popular causes as decency and good manners and against boorishness and obscenity. I have not always had uniformly kind things to say about our NATO allies, but here I think the case can safely be made that Macron is, with the obvious exception of His Majesty Hans Adams II, the most interesting European leader now living. How long till he asks Pope Francis for a concordat, I wonder?

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America should follow the lead of her oldest ally here. It's difficult, of course, with our 50 states and countless municipalities to imagine how we could get something passed uniformly. Even the Koch brothers cannot convince all of our (mostly Republican-controlled) state legislatures to pass uniform laws for the purpose of their own enrichment. To address this problem at the federal level would mean making the harassment of women the business of the FBI and the United States Marshals Service.

Is it ridiculous that this doesn't seem to me a bad idea? Certainly there are worse things to which our federal law enforcement agencies could be devoting their time than the defense of women against pigs. With the legalization of dope all but imminent even in Michigan, they are going to have to find something else to do with their time. The image of some doofus whistling at a poor woman on her way to the office suddenly being pummeled to the ground by an armored FBI agent would do a lot to revive many Americans' waning faith in the agency.

It would be an exaggeration to say that every single woman with whom I am acquainted has been the victim of this behavior. There are some with whom I have simply never discussed the issue — my grandmother, for example. Catcalling is a problem in which statisticians are not much interested. Still, the numbers one gets from informal surveys are all but unanswerable: Ninety-nine percent of respondents say they've been harassed in the street on multiple occasions.

By this time I suppose the libertarian reader is itching to argue that existing laws against harassment are sufficient — indeed they may be too stringent already. Besides, one can hear the smug voice asking, isn't it true that some women report finding catcalls flattering? Perhaps. But what of the millions of other women for whom it is the source of crippling anxiety and even terror? The law is a teacher, and a society in which we are forced to accept crude words and gestures as a fact of life is one in which some men will take things much further. The fact that 37 percent of women say that men have masturbated in their presence in public settings makes me wish our nuclear codes would get screwed up, dumping the whole arsenal on the Land of the Free.

Besides, there is a good argument to be made for banning catcalling purely on the grounds of revenue collection. The new French law carries a fine of nearly $1,000, issued on the spot at the time of the offense. How wonderful it would be to fund our schools and health care and missiles with the no-doubt ill-gotten means of perverts and fratboys! The idea is irresistibly heartening.

That said, I would just as soon not have the money. Some liberals insist that flogging is an example of "cruel and unusual punishment," even though there was nothing unusual about it at the time those words were written and adopted. Catcalling and sexual harassment are among the large number of crimes that would be better punished with 20 lashes than with a fine or a jail sentence. Fines do no good when the criminal hasn't got the money to pay. Our prisons are brutal places that degrade the sensibilities of those who enter them, including their staff. Flogging is the swiftest, fairest, least bureaucratic approach, and, I suspect, the most likely means of preventing recidivism among catcallers.

Aux armes, citoyens.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.