“Dear catcallers and wolf-whistlers, my body doesn’t belong to you”

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Susan Devaney
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The year is 2017, and yet we are still living in a catcalling, wolf-whistling culture. But, with new statistics from YouGov revealing that not all women count wolf-whistling as sexual harassment, is now the time to re-evaluate these tragically commonplace behaviours? Here, digital writer Susan Devaney argues why we need to follow in the footsteps of the French and look to ban wolf-whistling once and for all.

I still remember the first, and only, time I’d seen it happen to a man.

He had just hopped on the tube, still in his sweaty T-shirt and shorts from his Saturday morning workout. The adrenaline was pumping to the point that I could see his chest was puffed.

It was the weekend in London, so everyone was heading somewhere at a sedated speed.

“Well, would you look at that tight butt in those tiny shorts!” one commuter exclaimed towards the young man.

A few heads turned, some eyes lifted – but I watched as his whole body recoiled and his head lowered in rhythm with it.

“I mean, could those shorts be any tighter! You’re so hot,” she yelled again, giggling loudly.

Now she had everyone’s attention – while he was searching for an exit.

And I sat there and thought: ‘Now you know how we feel, don’t you? It’s not a compliment after all, is it? It’s not so easy to shout back, right?’

Don’t get me wrong, I obviously have nothing against that particular individual – after all, I know exactly how he feels – but it was an interesting role reversal to witness. If that was, as I suspected, the first or only time that had happened to him, some would say he got off lightly. After he hastily hopped off the tube at the next stop, I sat there and wondered how would he have responded if a woman had slowed down her car and crept along the tarmac beside him, confidently rolling down the window while slightly revving the engine to make him feel vulnerable, before asking, “Want to get in my car?”

As women, we’re often subjected to loud wolf-whistling and sexually driven comments from men. It happens when we make our way to Tesco to quickly grab some dinner; as we hop off the tube from a long day’s work at the office; as we pound the pavement on a Sunday morning run to nowhere.

It happens every day, everywhere – and it builds up. 

As women, we’re often subjected to wolf-whistling and catcalling from men 

The behaviour may be commonplace, but in my mind it is a criminal act. And it seems the French think the same – the country is considering banning wolf-whistling, as proposed by women’s minister Marlene Schiappa. Under the suggested legislation, any man caught whistling or being “aggressively lecherous” to women on the streets across the country could be given an on-the-spot fine. And President Emmanuel Macron is welcoming the move by envisaging the rollout of extra community officers to patrol the streets, and asking French MPs to create a definition of what constitutes harassment.

Some naysayers have said it’ll be impossible to track and control. But if this happens, regardless of the outcome, the French are still sending out a message: your ‘locker room behaviour’ will no longer be tolerated, any time or any place. 

But why is now the time to have this conversation? Women have put up with this kind of lecherous behaviour for years, which could explain why there’s a generational divide on the subject. New statistics from YouGov indicate that women of different ages have different ideas of what it means to be catcalled or sexually harassed – with younger women more likely than older women to say they’ve been harassed in the first place. 

By conducting a survey with respondents of various ages, YouGov found that more than 80% of both women and men identify behaviours including “up-skirt photos, bum pinching, flashing and requesting sexual favours” as “either always or usually sexual harassment”. 

However, the issue of whether wolf-whistling constitutes sexual harassment proved contentious among women of different age groups. Younger women were much more likely to identify wolf-whistling as sexual harassment than older women. In fact, 64% of women in the 18-24 year age group labelled wolf-whistling as “always or usually” being sexual harassment, while the figure fell to just 15% among women aged 55 or over.

This could also help explain why, here in the UK, only three police forces currently recognise catcalling and wolf-whistling as the gender-based hate crimes that they are, including Nottinghamshire and, as of last month, Avon and Somerset.

And I get it, because it’s easier to turn a blind eye as he wolf-whistles you once more while you head for the bus stop, and maybe because you get tired, really tired, of always saying something back, and of perhaps risking a nasty confrontation. And it’s easier to recall a catcalling story by describing what you were wearing first, before going into details of what he had the audacity to say to you on the street, as a means of trying to understand the behaviour.

Plus, if the Weinstein effect has taught us anything, it’s that women who speak up about sexual harassment – no matter how big, or how small – have historically been rarely listened to. It’s a sad fact of women’s lives that everyday occurrences can build up, and catcallers can eventually shame us into silence. 

But perhaps now, as we finally open up the floor to talk about sexual harassment, with the topic being debated and analysed in the news every day, the men around us will start to understand how it really makes women feel - the young man on the tube. And we can stand, together, to make a change.

Images: iStock