Amsterdam and Rotterdam take ‘hiss prohibition’ seriously

Written by Bárbara Luque Alanís

In an attempt to make streets safer for everyone, the Netherlands is now applying legal pressure to combat street harassment. A ban has been introduced, which for the moment applies only to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, on acts such as sexual exhortations, obscene gestures and hissing sounds. The action was proposed by council members and the ‘Stop Street Intimidation’ petition, which lays in the fight against unwanted sexual advances and harassment in the street. The aim is to make everyone feel safe, without needing, for instance, to avoid certain streets or spaces in the city.

The public warnings about this new plan started in Rotterdam on 1 January 2018, and state that anyone who is found guilty of street harssment will be punished with a fine of up to 4,100 euros or three months in prison. The ‘Approach to Sexual Street Intimidation’ statement by Rotterdam City Council elaborates on the ban on displays of annoying and intrusive behavior in public spaces, of which women have always been the main victims. Gays, lesbians and transgenders also report that they are increasingly often verbally and physically attacked in public spaces.

After research that took place on 2016 in Rotterdam, authorities became aware that street intimidation was getting out of hand. Newspaper AD states that “84 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 45 were found to have been approached in an annoying and intrusive manner. Nine out of ten women adjust their behavior, half of whom say they consciously avoid certain places in the evenings”. Adding to the awareness campaign, the municipality has opened a hotline for victims and bystanders of street harassment. According to AD, the city now also provides bracelets that dissipate an pungent smell when they are broken, causing harassers to back off. In other efforts, Rotterdam has appointed special undercover investigating officers, who can hand out fines for banned behaviour. It has also launched a special app, StopApp, where women who suffer from street harassment can report this anonymously and, with just a click, give advice directly to the municipality.

“Aggressive, intimidating, unkind or outright insulting behaviour. Hissing, sexual requests. It’s driving women in a corner”, alderman Joost Eerdmans (security), says. “Up until now, many women who were treated in this disgusting way adapted their clothes, chose other routes or held a phone to their ear to pretend they were calling. They did little to stop perpetrators”. He thinks that the StopApp can change this: “It is only one click and then we know, as the municipality of Rotterdam, where the woman is. So we will know the locations where a great deal of harassment takes places, and employ extra officers there.’’ As stated by De Telegraaf in December 2017, the municipality uses these app notifications to identify locations frequented by perpetrators. When apprehended, they can be fined a maximum of 190 euros. The main criticism about this action plan is citizens’ worry about how the government will follow through the ban. Many think the ban will be difficult to uphold, because harassment is difficult to prove. “You can hardly all place all police officers on the street”, said a woman to AD. According to VVD member of parliament Dilan Yeşilgöz, the new plan will not be difficult to uphold, as harassment mainly takes place around certain parks and station areas and during nights out. “You have to inform enforcers that, for example, scams and hissing are now prohibited and punishable, and that they should pay close attention to that.” Yeşilgöz added that the new proposal can make a real difference and that “people should also correct each other on the street, as a society.”

On the other hand, back in 2016, when the discussion started, police chief Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg of Amsterdam did not consider tackling street harassment a task for police and enforcement Reinforcing this idea, Rotterdam lawyer Frank van Ardenne said to that the plan of the municipality to impose a fine or prison sentence on men who harass women is, for the time being, legally unfeasible. ‘’If you want to tackle that, or if you want to put restrictions on it, then this must first happen at the national level ,’’ said Van Ardenne. After it became clear that this ban would only work if fines were actually given, the municipality of Amsterdam decided to ban harassment in the General Local Regulation (APV). On November 2018, the ‘hiss prohibition’ was first tested, when two men suspected of street harassment had to appear in court, the first time someone faced prosecution for this in Rotterdam. In December 2018, a man was fined for the first time for street intimidation. The man faced prosecution after reportedly harassing eight women at two separate occasions, included calling them names, following them, kissing them, making rude hand gestures and sitting too close to the women. The man was handed two fines of 190 euros each.