Catcalls, following, up-skirting, a “casual” brush against your body: public sexual harassment can take many forms. While New York and other states have public harassment laws baked into their criminal codes, many women and girls don’t know what to do when they are targeted on the street. Here’s what you need to know about your rights in the face of sexual harassment in public.
British Survey Says Over Half of Girls Experience Sexual Harassment in Public
The British girls’ rights organizations Plan International UK and Our Streets Now surveyed 1010 young women ages 14 to 21 and 1000 parents in late 2020. The survey showed that 51% of all the young women experienced harassment over the summer, and 19% had experienced it even while the country was on a Coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020. They reported being:
- Up-skirted (nonconsensual photos are taken up a person’s skirt)
Eighty percent of the parents surveyed were worried their daughter would experience sexual harassment in public, and 10% were worried harassers would target girls younger than 11. Forty percent said they don’t let their daughters go out after dark for fear that they will be sexually harassed in a public space.
Women Speak out Against Public Harassment, Calling it a #CrimeNotCompliment
The survey is part of a new advocacy campaign, #CrimeNotCompliment, spearheaded by Our Streets Now.
“[Public sexual harassment] has become a normal part of being a girl and that is not ok. . . . We have to draw a line in the sand and say we deserve to feel safe and we deserve to be safe in public.”
Maya Tutton, co-founder of Our Streets Now, told Sky News. She and her co-founders are calling for public sexual harassment of girls to be made a specific criminal offense in England. They hope that by creating a single, clear law criminalizing all forms of sexual harassment in public will encourage women and girls to report incidents and raise awareness that the behavior is a crime.
Public Sexual Harassment is Illegal in New York
While in New York, as in England, there is no one statute that applies to all forms of public harassment, there are a variety of crimes that could apply to specific sexual acts committed by harassers. Depending on the words said and actions taken, a harasser can be charged with:
- Disorderly conduct (for abusive or obscene language or gestures in public, or blocking a street or sidewalk)
- Harassment, Second Degree (for alarming, annoying, or threatening you at least twice)
- Harassment, First Degree (for following you at least twice)
- Stalking (if the street harasser causes you fear of harm or interferes with your life)
- Loitering (around schools, busses, or camp facilities)
- Loitering for the purpose of prostitution (if the street harasser solicits sexual activity from you, even as “a joke”)
- Patronizing a prostitute (for requesting another person to engage in sexual conduct)
- Unlawful surveillance, Second Degree (for non-consensual photography or filming of your intimate parts, dressing or undressing, or under your clothing)
- Indecent exposure (if the harasser flashes or exposes themself to you in a public place)
- Public lewdness (if the harasser flashes or exposes themself intending that you see it)
- Forcible Touching (if the harasser forcibly touches your sexual or intimate parts to satisfy their own sexual desire or to degrade or abuse you)
- Aggravated harassment, Second Degree (for physical contact intended to harass, annoy, threaten or harm based on a protected trait like gender or sexual orientation)
- Hate crime (if any of the above are committed against you because of a protected trait like gender or sexual orientation)
It is up to the police and prosecutors to decide which criminal charges are appropriate. However, if you report a specific crime, rather than a general idea of being harassed, it can improve the way the police respond to your call.
What to Do if You are a Victim of Sexual Harassment in a Public Space
If you are being harassed in public you are entitled to call 911 and report it to the police right away. When the police respond to the scene they are more likely to be able to identify the street harasser and make an arrest.
If the moment has passed, you can still call your local police department’s non-emergency line and report sexual harassment after the fact. If you do, take the time first to remember and write down as many details about what happened as possible including:
- Exactly where it happened
- When it happened
- Who else saw it happen (get their names and contact details if possible)
- What the street harasser looked like
- What the person was wearing
- Where they went when the incident was over
This will help you respond to the police’s questions and improve their chances of finding the person after the fact.
You may also want to talk to a sexual abuse attorney or private victim’s advocate. If the police and prosecuting attorney decide to press charges a victim’s rights attorney will often be assigned to the case. However, a private victim’s advocate can put pressure on police to fully investigate the report and on prosecutors to build and pursue the case. You may even be entitled to restitution or civil compensation for any physical or emotional harm the sexual harassment may have caused.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced sexual harassment attorneys and sex abuse advocates understand what it feels like to be sexually harassed in public. We know how the New York criminal code and other laws protect young women and others who find themselves targeted for abuse on the streets. Contact us to schedule a consultation at our office in New York City, or over the phone.