Washington, D.C. passes law that creates legal definition for street harassment

Other cities have done far less to acknowledge street harassment.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

The Council of the District of Columbia passed the Street Harassment Prevention Act as part of the budget on Wednesday, which would create a definition of street harassment, collect data on harassment, train government employees to recognize and intervene in harassment, and create education campaigns, among other measures.

Sixty-five percent of women said they experienced at least one type of street harassment and 25 percent of men have, according to a national survey. People in the LGBTQ community and lower income people were disproportionately affected by this harassment.

Historically, this kind of harassment hasn’t been taken seriously by policymakers. But researchers are calling it a public health issue. A Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health doctoral student, Paola Abril Campos, did a 2016 study on harassment in Mexico City and found that street harassment may affect women’s sense of trust in their community and isolate them from their community in a way that could have long-term effects on their mental health and whether they develop chronic diseases. Urban planning itself has historically had men’s lives and habits in mind — think of how many isolated spaces with no easy exits women have to go through to to access public transportation.

The bill passed on Wednesday — sponsored by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D) — creates a legal definition for street harassment. That includes “unwanted, disrespectful, or threatening comments, gestures, or other actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, directed at someone because actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, identity or expression, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic identified in the Human Rights Act of 1977.”


The legislation also defines “high risk areas” to include public transportation, cabs and ride-sharing services, bars and restaurants, educational settings, and sidewalks, parks and other public spaces.

The bill creates an advisory committee on street harassment made up of 15 members in offices including transit, mayor’s office of LGBTQ affairs, and human rights officials and community representatives from community organizations. Then the committee will establish guidelines to make sure District employees are trained on how to recognize and address street harassment and increase the safety of employees at risk for street harassment themselves. The committee will also have the authority to provide competitive grants for programs addressing street harassment.

In a year, the mayor will launch a campaign to raise awareness of and educate the public on street harassment and let victims know what resources are available to them. Three months after the awareness campaign launches, the committee begins work on a survey to collect data on street harassment, which will require they know the demographic of victims and occurrence rate of harassment. It also collects data on harassment of people experiencing homelessness.

Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), an organization that focuses on eliminating public gendered harassment and assault, has been working with Nadeau for years to make this happen. In 2015, CASS worked with Nadeau to convene the first roundtable on sexual harassment featuring street harassment survivors and allies.

Councilmember Nadeau introduced legislation in 2016 but it did not move forward. Then CASS worked with Nadeau and a number of organizations — including the Justice for Muslims Collective, Stop Street Harassment, DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence (DCCADV), the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Legal Resource Project (A/PI DVRP), and Casa Ruby — to develop the Street Harassment Prevention Act. This new version of the legislation broadened the definition of street harassment to include unwanted sexual advances and comments in addition to harassment on the basis of those protected traits.


Raven told ThinkProgress through email that the city needs data on street harassment to mitigate the problem in a way that works for all communities. It also lets survivors know they are being heard.

“Before we can develop effective solutions to address a problem, there must be data to help us understand the problem and the specific ways that it impacts different communities,” Raven explained. “Collecting data on street harassment sends the message to survivors that their experiences are being believed and taken seriously.”

Raven’s work on street harassment has emphasized community-based solutions to street harassment rather than criminalization. She said it’s key that policymakers know that police also subject people, particularly marginalized groups, to sexual violence and street harassment. She gave the recent example of a Black woman who D.C. Metro Transit Police officers straddled and held down after they suspected her of fare evasion. As she was pulled down to the floor, her shirt ripped and her breasts were exposed to everyone in the vicinity.

“Women of color are disproportionately targeted by police sexual violence. In order to develop effective solutions that build safety for everyone, we needed to look outside of a legal system that frequently inflicts more harm on marginalized communities,” she wrote.

Debjani Roy, the Deputy Director of Hollaback!, an organization that addresses street harassment, told CityLab that although men of all races and ethnicities harass people on the street, she is concerned that criminalization will only lead authorities to focus on men of color and white victims.

When asked why Raven thinks more cities haven’t passed similar measures, she said, “It’s a problem that has been historically dismissed and minimized as a nuisance or a compliment. By establishing a legal definition of street harassment, D.C. will become the first U.S. city to acknowledge on a citywide level that harassment is a problem that impacts public safety and must be taken seriously.”