Watch out, folks. Political correctness is on the rampage again, eroding the human rights of blameless people who are just trying to be nice.
Catcalling is to be outlawed in France, subject to a €90 on-the-spot fine. In Belgium, a man who verbally abused a female police officer recently became the first person convicted under a law criminalising sexism. A British Labour MP wants catcalling and upskirting treated as hate crimes.
There have been more alarmist articles about all of this in recent weeks than about the freak Arctic heatwave or the plight of the 20,000 people in the most recent mass exodus from Syria. Some perspective may be called for. Nobody is suggesting we pay all men 14 per cent less than women, or take away their bodily autonomy. No man is being threatened with forced genital mutilation or denied their right to education. We're not even banning anyone from watching Top Gear. All that is being suggested is that whistling at – or yahooing over, or loudly appraising the "great tits" of – passing strangers is rude and unnecessary, and shouldn't be allowed in any society for which equality is a goal.
But some women love it, the voluble defenders of men’s right to catcall protest. The only women who give out about wolf-whistling are the ones at whom no one whistles. This isn’t about equality, they say, it’s about jealousy.
Let me give you a piece of advice, fellas. Catcalling is not a great way to find yourself a girlfriend. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that no relationship in the history of time ever began with the words “nice arse, love” bellowed at a stranger in the street.
It’s true many women say they don’t actually mind it. Some women like it. That’s fine. Some women like bikini waxes. And all women have been socialised to think that attracting the sexual attention of men – any man – is the highest order of validation for the female of the species. But the reality is that, whether or not it bothers the woman on the receiving end, catcalling is not a compliment, and it is never meant as a compliment. It’s not a coincidence that it only ever seems to happen when you’re alone, or outnumbered. So, no, it is not a compliment. It’s a reminder – maybe an unconscious one – of who holds the power in a situation.
If you’re a woman, and you are alone in a public place after twilight, you find yourself engaged in an internal monologue that would sound utterly insane if it was ever published out loud.
Does that laneway look reasonably unlikely to be occupied by rapists, muggers or large gangs of alcohol-fuelled men? Should I just go the long way around? Maybe I should get that taxi. Wait, though, that taxi looks a bit dodgy. Oh crap. Whose footsteps are those behind me? Is that guy actually following me? Where are my keys? Could I grab them in time? Oh good, it’s just a woman...
Catcalling and wolf-whistling are intrusive, crude and frequent reminders of our vulnerability
I have a friend who walks home alone at night after an evening out. She refuses to get a taxi; she lives close to town, she says. There’s no need. She feels safer on the street than in a taxi. But when she walks, she’s not alone with her thoughts. She’s not thinking about work, or daydreaming about her kids. She is in a constant state of hypervigilance. It’s all in the way you walk, she says. You have to look like you’re not afraid.
You have to look like you’re not afraid. That is the world women walk in.
That’s why I think it’s time we had a conversation about banning street harassment here too. Not because any of us are losing sleep over the occasional wolf-whistle or the odd crude remark. Not because I think it would be easy to enforce. But because as long as women – or people who are gay, or people of colour – are made to feel afraid or vulnerable simply by virtue of being who they are, equality will remain out of reach. Catcalling and wolf-whistling are intrusive, crude and frequent reminders of our vulnerability, and of the culture of straight male entitlement that still dominates.
A while ago, I was making my way home from a run. As I puffed my way through a country village, and took a right up a hill home, a younger chap came barrelling out the side door of a pub. He thought it would be great craic to run alongside me, on that deserted lane. He offered me a hug. I didn’t feel scared or threatened. Neither of us was Derval O’Rourke, but I reckoned I had more in the legs than he did. But when I’d left him behind, chuckling and probably congratulating himself on making my day, it occurred to me that this is just one more thing men don’t have to put up with.
Yes, a ban on street harassment would probably be unenforceable. But if you want to change a culture, you have to start somewhere.