Strangers on a train ... under arrest?

A man gets 10 days in jail for staring intensely at a female commuter.

Published April 22, 2008 5:15PM (EDT)

If a man sits too close to a woman on a train or stares at her intensely for an hour or so, can that qualify as sexual harassment? Lawmakers in Lecco, Italy, apparently believe so. Though the Roman hands in the rest of Italy may have a penchant for harassing women in the street, a man in that northern town recently received 10 days in jail and the equivalent of a $63 fine for fixing his eyes on a female commuter on two separate occasions. The court claims that it will explain this odd decision in the future, but maybe now is the time to figure out where the boundaries lie.

Looks can't kill, but if a stranger keeps his eyes glued to your body for an entire hour without your consent, he's bound to make you profoundly uncomfortable. Yes, he. As many a liberal arts professor has noted, the intense gaze of a man can send messages that a woman's usually doesn't. These messages include unsettling predictions like "I am going to kill you," "I am going to rape you," or "I am going to kill and rape you -- it doesn’t matter in what order." Anyone who receives concentrated ogling from a guy she doesn't know is right to err on the side of caution. There's no way of knowing if he's merely fascinated by the color of your pashmina shawl. By breaking one social norm, he's suggesting that he has no problem shattering a few more.

However, we enter peculiar territory when we arrest people for acting strangely in public without causing any physical harm, or committing actual crimes. Under certain circumstances, we already find it acceptable to prosecute those who break society's rules. You can't yell theater in a crowded fire or make jokes about airport security while going through a hijacking, or something like that. But litigating against acts of improper looking could prove even more ambiguous than legislating speech acts. Unless they develop into violations of personal space, incidents of reckless eyeballing are more difficult to verify. People do so much benign viewing that rendering some mysterious portion of it felonious sounds unreasonable. Also, the potential for abuse is high. You might like to throw a sleazebag in the clink for making goo-goo eyes at you, but your own civil liberties are at stake the next time you're fascinated by someone's pashmina shawl. Let's look on the bright side, though. If some weird dude stares at you for an hour, at the very least he's giving you the opportunity to get to safety before it's too late.

By James Hannaham

James Hannaham is a staff writer at Salon.

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