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Is being wolf-whistled in the street really that offensive?

Kathryn Thomas tackled offensive sex pests head-on, but how should we handle 'regular' cheap chauvinism, asks Niamh Horan

Published 26/10/2015

Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer

It's been years since I've heard the shrill sound of a wolf whistle.

There's a group of builders that I pass walking to work each morning but all I get is a polite nod and smile. It appears that I'm in the minority.

According to recent reports, for many women, a walk down the street has become so fraught with unwanted male sexual attention that they feel like victims - sexually objectified and oppressed.

In recent days RTE presenter Kathryn Thomas spoke out about her own experience. She said, "A pack of men were shouting sexual obscenities and I walked up to the main player, right to his face, and asked him if he thought his behaviour was acceptable. The lads told her she should be able to take a compliment and, with bruised egos, insulted her as she walked away.

For many women, Kathryn says, drawing on her own experience, "unwanted attention generally happens when women are on their own and men are in packs, making us feel even more vulnerable."

But she's not alone.

Another young Irish woman wrote to a national newspaper to say that verbal abuse in the capital had made her feel objectified and angry.

The despicable words of abuse uttered by the yobs who harassed her were too crass to print. But let's be clear: such extreme rudeness and /or physical contact is never acceptable.

But here is the thing: there is a difference between such extreme abuse and a mere whistle of appreciation or a polite 'hey sexyyyy' to a girl. The latter being low grade and manageable sexist behaviour.

I understand most women don't necessarily want their appearance commented upon by strangers either way.

But if one is subjected to old-fashioned chauvinist behaviour then all it takes is an eye-roll or a cheeky comment to tartly put a man back in his place.

Not everyone agrees.

As one irate female journalist put it on social media: When a man says "hello sexy… the subtext is clear. It's a man's world and sluts like me just live in it."

Wait. What?

That is all it takes? Some tasteless compliment to make you feel like that? This attitude, that cat calling reduces women to helpless victims, feeds the belief that women are the weaker sex. We are not.

Women are constantly taught tearfulness and vulnerability. They say they feel threatened and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are afraid to walk the streets at night. But in reality, men are far more likely to be the victims of a street attack at any time.

Unless you want to go down the legal route, you can't control other people's behaviour. But you can control how you react to it.

You could take a leaf out of comedian Amy Schumer's book and try to see the funny side of cheap cat calling. Arguably, the greatest - certainly the wittiest - feminist to emerge in recent times, her satire takes aim at issues like sexual double standards and stereotypes.

As one commentator put it: she deals with "the same issues that smart women have been screaming about for ages - except that Amy's words actually manage to echo beyond the choir."

In a recent sketch on the Ellen Degeneres Show, she called out the fact women's attitudes toward milder forms of sexual objectification quietly change as they get older.

She explained: "Cause I'm like 33, I'm starting to really appreciate that … you know what I mean?

"In your 20s I feel like you walk around and like you walk by a construction site and you're all like 'ooooooh oooh don't look at me' but in your 30s you're like 'what about this?'" She said, pointing to her rear end as she dramatically sticks it out. "Like my skirt is over my head and [the builders are] like 'urgh we're eating'. It changes. It really does."

I get that there is a problem with sexual oppression. But this is not the battle. Women's self-esteem is constantly assailed by society in other ways. Unequal pay in comparison to our male colleagues, not having your voice heard or valued in meetings, getting overlooked for promotion, having to face the fact that your career will suffer when you want to raise a family.

All of these things, and many more, make women feel angry and, like the spark on an oil field, all it takes is one idiotic comment from a cat caller to ignite an angry response.

But the powerless, common or garden heckler - who is so enthralled by you that he has to cry out on the street - is not the real enemy. So my advice is save yourself for the bigger fight.

Niamh Horan, Sunday Independent

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