I am female. I am young. I have legs, hips and lips. Because of these things, getting through life without a wolf whistle is unlikely. My first memorable wolf whistling moment was during a visit to Barcelona with my friend and her Spanish dad.
A group of men approached us in the street wolf whistling and even hissing at us until my friend’s dad chased them away, shouting in Spanish. Our 18 year old selves were left blinking at each other, reminded of our ape ancestry and wondering if we were being filmed for a wildlife documentary.
It was embarrassing. It was also a message that, because of our gender, we were going to get certain types of attention whether we wanted it or not and we are not always going to have someone with us to chase them off. That’s not to say women do not objectify men, of course some do, but I am yet to witness it in the same intrusive, intimidating and crude way. Or as frequent.
Only last week I was subject to the wolf whistle again. Walking out of my house I saw a group of builders working on the house across the road. Yes, that old cliché. All stopped working to watch me walk past, some wolf whistled and one stepped forward and said ‘Hiya love’. Not a big deal, not unusual, it’s even expected in some situations.
Yet on the walk home I called my boyfriend so I didn’t feel as vulnerable and self-conscious. Why was this strange man shouting ‘Hiya love’ repeatedly at me whilst his friends made animal calling noises behind him? I called my boyfriend; one woman called the police.
Poppy Smart had been faced with a similar group of builders when passing to get to work. She was faced with cat calling and ‘morning love’s’ for over a month – until she turned to the law for help. The police investigated the case of harassment but no one was charged, instead leaving it for the employer to deal with. But the publicity gained from the story was a smart move from Poppy. “I think more women should speak out about this behaviour – maybe it will make people think twice.” Poppy said. This has got people thinking. Should cat calling be criminalised?
Some people see this as harmless flirtation, a compliment, a natural dance between the sexes. It’s something that can put a spring in a women’s step and a smile on a hard working builders face. Others see it as a reminder of a patriarchal society – the objectification of young women’s bodies is so deeply entrenched it becomes acceptable to publicly make comments about a passing women’s body parts.
We don’t know the exact motivation but consider this – you never get a lone wolf whistler. You never get a guy in the supermarket so overcome by his sexual desire for the female form that he starts whistling in the face of a women on the check out.
When a boyfriend wants to compliment his girlfriend’s appearance he doesn’t run across the road and then start shouting obscenities at her and whistling. No, this is something that some men do when in the company of other men. Its male gang, chest thumping, king of the jungle type stuff. It’s not about the women, or about sex. It’s lad culture.
Britain is already signed up to outlawing ‘verbal, non – verbal and physical sexual harassment’ (Council of Europe) and putting wolf whistling within this is a fast way of protecting women from this sort of behaviour and saying ‘no’ to lad culture. Yet David Cameron has spoken out about this saying wolf whistling will not be considered a criminal offence. It pains me to say this but for once David, I have to agree.
Criminalising cat calling is a lazy attempt at curing an undesirable culture without looking at what may be the cause of it. Yes, we need the law to be firm in fighting violence against women such as rape, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation.
We need the law to be firm when dealing with inequalities against women such as wages, social opportunities and rights to contraception and abortion. But caging cat callers? Fining wolf whistlers? Criminalising someone for mere words, mere air escaping the lips is too much.
Would it extend to someone honking the car horn at you when they drive by? What about when the same guy keeps asking you to dance at a club? Or when an older man on the bus winks and tells you to ‘smile sweetheart’? All of these things repeatedly happening over a women’s life time can make the most confident women at times feel vulnerable. But to outlaw it is a bigger threat to Britain’s freedom of speech and expression than it’s worth.
We need change instead on a deeper, more meaningful level. We need more of this debate in the media, more women’s voices prepared to speak up and say ‘this is not what we want’. The sexist attitudes of our society is a collective responsibility – one we should keep an open dialogue on. It is there that the real change can happen, not through crime and punishment.