Wolf whistles a crime?
by Linda Plenert
Dear Ate Anna
I recently heard about a police force in England that is making it a crime to whistle at a woman. My husband and I discussed this and think this might be a bit extreme. I don’t appreciate it if someone makes rude comments but a whistle is OK. My husband says men are just trying to let a woman know they think she’s attractive. What do you think about this law?
Thank you for asking about this. I did some research and found some interesting discussions about this story.
Firstly, it is important to clarify that people will not be charged with a criminal offence for wolf whistling, as many headlines suggested. The police force is now including misogynistic behaviour and harassment of women in their definition of a hate crime. In Nottinghamshire, England, a hate crime is defined as behaviour that is motivated by hostility or prejudice towards any aspect of a person’s identity. This includes aspects such as disability, gender identity, race, ethnicity or nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. It really makes sense that sex or gender is also included in that list.
What police will do is gather information about and monitor these types of incidents enabling them to create a picture of the problem and become aware of places where this happens more frequently. When notified of a hate crime, police in this community carry out a risk assessment and offer support to the victim.
Misogynistic behaviour is behaviour that is targeted towards a person simply because they are a woman. Uninvited sexual advances and unwanted verbal contact, including catcalling or wolf whistling in the street can be recorded as a hate crime in an effort to make the community a safer place for people who identify as women and girls. Police in Nottinghamshire decided this was the appropriate action after two years of consulting with the community and hearing testimony from victims of this type of intimidating behaviour.
This initiative will focus on behaviours such as “groping,” verbal abuse and harassment (including using mobile phones to send unwanted or uninvited messages) and taking photographs without consent. These are behaviours that affect some women’s lives on a daily basis. Ate Anna thinks that this discussion can help us understand the serious impact these behaviours can have on women. Until now, it has typically been ignored or reduced to something trivial.
A woman being followed from the bus stop by a man who is sexually propositioning her and refusing to take no for an answer; men making lewd gestures as a 15 year-old girl walks to school in her school uniform; a pregnant woman being groped on the bus; a female runner who has had to give up exercising outside because of repeated verbal harassment. These are examples that are familiar to most women.
This type of harassment can make women feel unsafe and affect their freedom to move about in public spaces. Women often have to work at finding ways to feel safe – avoiding parts of the city in which they live, taking taxis and sometimes texting the company name and taxi number to a friend, or leaving events in groups.
Some women’s groups feel that if all police recorded such incidents it would give everyone a clearer picture of the frequency and types of harassment that women and girls are subjected to. We might also have a better idea of how to reduce it.
So, while wolf whistles may seem harmless, they still send a message about women’s role in society – to be judged and commented on by men. Because we are so used to it, any objection is seen as an overreaction. Wolf whistles are part of setting up a power imbalance that leads to normalizing more serious forms of harassing behaviours. They send the message that women’s bodies in public places are there for male use and enjoyment.
Many men are concerned that their intentions have been misunderstood. Next month Ate Anna will write about how men can support their girlfriends, sisters, and friends who have experienced street harassment. In the end, this challenge is about respecting the feelings of all those women who have felt unsafe in these situations.
Ate Anna welcomes your questions and comments. Please write to: Ate Anna, Suite 200- 226 Osborne St. N., Winnipeg, MB R3C 1V4 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit us at www.serc.mb.ca. You will find reliable information and links to many resources on the subject of sexuality.