Should we – or could we – outlaw wolf whistling?

France is debating laws to combat sexual harassment. Whistling is in the firing line

France is considering police warnings for ‘everyday sexist’ acts such as whistles and comments about appearance

France is considering police warnings for ‘everyday sexist’ acts such as whistles and comments about appearance

 

Can you outlaw low-level everyday sexual harassment on the street, such as wolf whistles? France is considering such a move, in the wake of widespread debate, as scores of French women come forward to detail incidents of harassment and assault following the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

In the midst of widespread concern in Ireland about rape culture, and an awakening about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in work situations, is it time to attempt to legislate against casual and street harassment of women and girls here too?

Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says “at some level, sexual harassment is the same as hurling abuse of a racist nature. Here in Ireland racist abuse may be a factor taken into account in prosecuting a criminal offence. But sexual harassment has not been.

“Things are improving,” she says, “but we are still not a society when it’s possible to talk about sexual harassment in the same way as other types of harassment. We’re not there yet, but people are beginning to talk about it.”

French MPs are to debate tough new legislation to crack down on sexist or sexual aggression and harassment, especially assaults on children.

The proposed bill sets down a clear age of consent for minors following a shocking court case in which a rape charge was dropped when a French court decided an 11-year-old girl had consented to sex with a man more than twice her age. It will also give traumatised child victims more time to come forward to bring criminal charges against their attackers.

The announcement from France’s gender equality minister Marlene Schiappa, on Monday, could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, as French women relate their experiences of harassment.

A Twitter appeal by radio journalist Sandra Muller under the hashtag #balancetonporc (“squeal on your pig”), encouraging women to publicly shame their attackers, was top of French Twitter trend lists over the weekend. Another international hashtag #MeToo is now trending in France – and elsewhere.

Schiappa launched a pre-debate “citizens’ consultation” about the legislation, including the possibility of police warnings for everyday sexist acts such as wolf whistles and comments about physical appearance in the street.

“The point is that the whole of society has to redefine what it will accept and what it will not,” Schiappa said. “Voices are being heard, in France as in other parts of the world. Society is ready to reject this violence. There is a desire to act.”

Police, magistrates, psychiatrists, education and legal experts are also being solicited for their opinions, and a parliamentary commission is to study the question of harassment in public places. The information will be collated at the end of the year and a draft bill presented to the Assemblee Nationale in the first half of 2018.

Noeline Blackwell comments that: “What they are considering in France is a stick approach, not a carrot, in an attempt to end casual sexual harassment. In Ireland we need to look at it, but this approach isn’t the whole answer. We need first to understand that unwanted sexual comments, which might include wolf whistles, are sexual harassment, and try to stop them.

“Most people would just prefer this kind of behaviour to stop rather than to have it prosecuted.”

She suggests making this behaviour a criminal offence may not be practical or effective, and that it’s a better idea to first try to increase awareness of the offensiveness of certain behaviour. “People don’t understand the harm they’re doing. We need to get people to understand the potential harm in what they think is harmless.

“If that doesn’t work, then perhaps it would be necessary to make it a public order offence. We should watch how it develops in France.”

First, she says, we need to “drive home the reality” of how people may feel offended or harassed by “the level of casual sexual comments thrown at them”.

There is “scope for a much greater level of understanding of the harm done. Comments might look like a neutral act. But it is a real human being on the receiving end and we don’t know what effect the offensive sexual innuendo may have on them, and that people may feel threatened at the receiving end of comments.

“We need to believe that everyone deserves respect. And what was acceptable 20 years ago or 15 years ago or 10 years ago may no longer be.”

But Blackwell points out how positive it is that people are more prepared now to speak up and say they are offended or intimidated. People are starting to actually say “I don’t want it. It’s the #MeToo attitude. We are starting to name it, and that is new to us as a nation.”

Additional reporting: Guardian Service

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