Tolerating wolf-whistling is the ‘broken windows’ of sexism

by Sep 12, 20183Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Culture, Opinion, Sexism and Sexual Harassment

Why tolerating wolf-whistling encourages further sexist behaviour

Tolerating wolf-whistling, is just one aspect of a male-coded society. Cultural expectations are built on the small actions of everyday life, so we need make sure those are right first.

Tolerating wolf-whistling has a generational divide. Older women think we younger women should keep our heads down and move on. We should get on with dealing with things that matter, the important things in life. Street harassment is an equal opportunity engager and impacts women of all backgrounds, sizes, shapes, race and cultures, although it does display ageism. There is a definite bias towards younger women. Women generally under the age of 40 think it’s a pain, because usually we are the ones who are being harassed on a daily basis as we go about our business and not older women. Tolerating wolf-whistling is the broken window of sexism. It is the thin end of a very long wedge.

Calling out and outlawing even the small things lays firm ground rules and changes cultural expectations. This is why we need to do the same with wolf-whistling.

tolerating wolf-whistling

The broken windows theory

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory thus suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.

In 1984 New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) began a five-year program to eradicate graffiti based on this programme and was followed by a similar initiative in London. Former US police commissioner Bill Bratton told The Sun newspaper that his “zero tolerance approach for low-level ‘disorder’ including graffiti, prostitution and fare-dodging in 1990s New York led to serious crime numbers plunging.”

Does your company have a zero tolerance approach to sexism? Ensure that you aren’t missing anything with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

Thin end of the wedge

Tolerating wolf-whistling is exactly the same thing. It’s an acceptance that on the streets certain types of behaviour are harmless. They think younger women who are normally the main targets should turn a deaf ear. Not only that but when they do complain, they are criticised for what they wear. Accepting this practise normalises a way of acting. It suggests that it’s OK for men to publicly show that they find a woman sexually attractive based on her appearance and body language. This encourages the harassment of girls and women and endorses unacceptable behaviour.

It is this behaviour that is so deeply embedded in our cultures that many, even women, think it’s OK. 85% of girls in the US report some type of street harassment before they have left High School. So the older women who think we should get over it –  how do they feel for their daughters? Do they think they should toughen up too? This is the very way in which unacceptable behaviour passes from one generation to another. We grin and bear it like our elders and internalise our discomfort.

In a 2017 YouGov poll of women across Britain, almost a quarter (24%) said they had experienced sexual harassment in a public place. This figure increased to more than half (52%) of 18-24-year-old women, who most commonly experienced harassment on the street and in pubs, clubs and bars.

Isabella a 29 year old Events Manager based in London says “getting around on a normal day can be a nightmare in London. Women have to run the gauntlet of whistling, leers, cat-calling from cars and even uninvited physical contact. This year when it was really hot most women wore sleeveless tops and skirts. We all complained about the increase of unwanted attention.”  

Street harassment and tolerating wolf-whistling is just the beginning. It is should never be the fault of any individual woman, but part of a global cultural acceptance of the unacceptable which can impact the mental health of many women.

Collateral damage of tolerating wolf-whistling

For those who tell women to “man-up” (what an irony), ignore it and walk on by, for many women it is not as easy. There is an unforeseen impact which can have a lingering effect.

# Anxiety and lack of confidence:

Sylvie who lives in Lyon, France told 3Plus “I developed very young. At the age of 13, I looked 18. Every time I stepped outside the house there was something, but I was too young to deal with it or to articulate how I felt. I grew up feeling objectified and self-conscious and responsible for my body. I started wearing large, baggy clothes and tried to make myself smaller by stooping and slouching to round my chest inwards. Twenty years later I realised that I shouldn’t have felt guilty at all. It wasn’t about me, but the poor behaviour of others. I’m glad the law is changing here in France.”  

# Self-distrust

In cultures that tolerate this type of behaviour in our towns, cities and streets, friends and family tell us to toughen up. This makes us question not only their judgement but our own. Kaylee from New York City had that same experience where her family thought she was exaggerating. “I was beginning to think that it was me who had it all wrong. Maybe I was being an over-sensitive wimp. I had to walk several blocks to the subway past diners and delis with men whistling and gawping. My family weren’t at all sympathetic. I think they thought I was bragging. One day my brother, who’s an ex-Marine, walked behind me to see for himself. He called out some of the men and even boys. It stopped on those blocks at least. But women can’t be tailed by male family members to feel safe. What if you don’t have a brother? It shouldn’t be necessary and it limits women’s independence, as if we still need male protection to get around in the 21st century during the day.”   

In the U.K., two construction workers were suspended when a man complained about them wolf-whistling his wife. It shouldn’t be necessary for a man to defend a woman in the streets in broad day light going to the office. In Paris a woman was assaulted by a man who when she objected to him harasssing her.

# Safety issues

Many women change their habits to avoid being exposed to any sort of street harassment. We go for coffee or a drink in a different place, change the routes we walk on to avoid walking past building sites, pubs, road works or taxi ranks. Now with smoking banned inside bars, walking past any pub can be stressful, even in the depths of winter. Many women recount feeling so nervous in certain parts of their cities, or in underground car parks, that if they are walking alone they have their phone on, with some one at the other end as their guardian.

Changing times

In a survey reported in the Telegraph, 25% of men working in construction still think there is nothing wrong with wolf-whistling at women as they pass. That means that 75% feel it’s inappropriate, although of that number 19% were afraid of legal action. So maybe it’s a question of legal repercussions first and then later changing behaviour.

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