The myth of the wolf whistle
Imagine a world where women could walk down the street without fear of being leered at, jeered at or whistled at. Photo: Getty Images
“Hey sugar tits” yelled the lurching, flannel-checked man holding a guitar a few weeks ago. I looked across the street to where the call had come from and astonishingly, did not see Mel Gibson, and I had not appeared to have time travelled to 1953. It didn’t matter that the catcall was deeply outdated and profoundly embarrassing (for him), I still felt the usual rush of fear, intimidation and anger. Because it doesn’t matter if someone is calling you beautiful, saying you have nice legs or, er, calling you sugar tits, street harassment, despite what some might think, is never complimentary.
Last week UK group End Violence Against Women (EVAW) released a report that stated that 41 per cent of British women under the age of 34 had been sexually harassed on the street. I can’t say I’m backed up by research, but I’m going to take a stab and say that it’s likely to be much higher. In fact I’d eat my chastity belt if it turned out that I had a single female friend, acquaintance, colleague or relative who had had not been harassed in the street. From the car loads of guys who honk their horn as they go by (this, by the way, I really don’t understand. Do they expect the honkee to scream “stop the car” and hop on in?) to wolf whistles, cat calls and much worse.
Being leered at, jeered at and admired as women go about their daily business is as common as a vaguely/once famous person appearing on a reality TV show. It happens all of the time. And we either pretend it didn't happen and mostly don't think too much of it. We might smile because we’re afraid if we don’t they’ll turn nasty. Or ignore them and hope that they’ll leave us alone. The braver of us might tell them where to go. But there’s always the fear that a wolf-whistle will become something else. And always, though the intention might be the opposite, it takes the spring out of your step.
As writer and feminist Laurie Penny noted in UK paper The Independent, this new research is important because while wolf whistling and cat calling might be easier to brush off, they both should be lumped in the sexual assault category along with groping and flashing. The consequences of both are significant.
“What street harassment tells women is that we should expect to pay a price for being female in public. Many young women, growing up, learn that it is up to us to "fend off" sexual harassment in public places – by dressing conservatively, taking the shortest route home, not travelling alone after dark. We learn, in short, that public sexual harassment is our fault. It's time we change to (sic) record,” writes Penny.
There are of course far, far worse things that can happen to women in the street. But the problem with catcalls is that we might say that they’re harmless. Or worse, flattering. This needs to change, and only will when a wolf whistle, cat call and 'conversation starter' is no longer thought of as innocuous - socially, culturally and individually.
As Penny notes, “A lot of men and boys don't understand what it's like to be a woman in a public place. The feeling that you have less right than a man to your own space, without being hassled, groped, or worse. Not every time you go out, but any time you go out, and that's what's important.”
Sometimes too, you will be whistled at enough to call bollocks on it. Writer and blogger Emily Gould wrote last year of a very small victory. "That's real blonde isn't it?" a man asked Gould on the subway. She ignored him. He asked again and she moved away, but she didn't hurry. Several years ago, wrote Gould, she would have smiled at him, laughed maybe. She would have been polite to somebody who did not deserve such treatment. Even though she wouldn't have wanted too. Sometimes it takes aging and hardening and wisdom to realise this. Being harassed in the street is not the fault of women, but we certainly don’t have to play along with it. And that, at least, is a start.