This might sound extreme, but any woman who has had an experience like this that has left her feeling humiliated, or even threatened, will understand why people like me are campaigning for wolf-whistling – or street harassment – to be seen as a hate crime.
I remember the first time someone wolf-whistled at me. I was around 8 years old, I was wearing my primary school summer uniform (checked yellow dress and white socks) and I was crossing a North London high street to get to my mum’s car when a van driver hooted and wolf-whistled at me.
I was so mortified that I tripped over in the middle of the road, dropped my Woolworths’ bag, and ran to my mum’s car blushing. Back then I didn’t have the words to explain what had happened to me, but now, 20 years and dozens of similar incidents later, I do. I was a victim of sexual harassment.
Right now, misogynistic acts like wolf-whistling aren’t dealt with by the police. But some police forces are starting to look into whether misogyny – defined by the police as ‘behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman’ – could be classified as a hate crime alongside crimes where victims are attacked for their race, religion or sexual orientation.
If that happens, the police wouldn’t necessarily arrest somebody for wolf-whistling or sending unwanted texts or taking photos without consent, but it could be reported. And if it was a repeated pattern, the perpetrator could eventually be arrested and prosecuted.
To me, this is the perfect solution to stop wolf-whistling in our society. If the police agree to classify it as a hate crime, then it sends out a clear message that it’s just not okay to harass a woman purely because she’s a woman – let alone a young eight-year-old girl. It will act as a deterrent, and it will allow women to have some power against repeat offenders.
Of course, not all women agree. Many feel that wolf-whistling is a harmless compliment, and some enjoy it. That’s fine. It’s a good thing that those women don’t feel threatened. But not everyone feels that way, and if some people do feel uncomfortable or frightened, then making wolf-whistling a hate crime will mean they have the choice to report it.
Some of it comes down to how each individual woman feels when being wolf-whistled in the street, but it’s also to do with the context and situation. I’ve been hooted at by men shouting sexual comments at me in broad daylight on a busy street, and I haven’t felt threatened. I’ve felt embarrassed and annoyed – do they really need to objectify me on my way to Tesco? – but not scared.
However, I’ve also had men make uncomfortable sexual comments to me when I’m walking home at 3am down a quiet road. It is a completely different experience. I’ve felt that same level of humiliation and embarrassment, but with an added layer of pure fear. Will this person attack me? How can I defend myself? Should I call the police?
These are questions that women shouldn’t have to ask themselves as they’re walking home at night, but so many of us do. It’s why it makes sense for us to have the option to call the police, knowing that we can report the behaviour as a hate crime, without being told, ‘sorry, but we can’t help you.’
Plus, as Helen Voce from the Nottingham Women’s Centre says, only when we target these examples of misogyny in our society will other more extreme examples disappear. “We believe misogyny is the soil in which violence against women and girls grows,” she explains.
“The same attitudes at the root of sexism and harassment are the same attitudes that drive more serious domestic and sexual violence. Classifying misogyny as a hate crime enables the police to deal robustly with the root causes of violence against women.”
It’s important in our society that we remind men and boys that wolf-whistling isn’t just a harmless pasttime or a way of complimenting people – it’s sexist, it’s scary, and in some situations, it can be the start of far more serious crimes.