The most serious sexual assault I have ever experienced began with a wolf whistle. Violence is not always physical. My perpetrator thought that both his whistle, and what he did to me after that (which definitely was physical) were equally permissible. Whether it’s leering, cat-calls, shouts or whispers from strangers, defending this behaviour is a gateway to the cultural acceptance of much more serious crimes all across the spectrum of gender-based violence. Dismiss the smaller issues, and the bigger issues go unchallenged too.
It’s hard for some people to get their heads around, especially those who have never experienced it, but these seemingly ‘harmless’ interactions with strangers on the street can build up a well of resentment, internalised shame and guilt in the women and LGBTQ people who live with them. The same goes for the collective consciousness of millions of sexual assault survivors. Hollaback activists from Mumbai to Mexico believe that any behaviour that stops you from feeling safe in public, even for a moment, is street harassment – that a ‘compliment’, even if well-intended, is only a compliment if it feels good. This is not ‘just how men are,’ either, as the many thousands of men who suffer from, organise around and fight against gender-based violence can tell you. This is not about being anti-flirting, but there is a huge gulf between paying someone a compliment with courtesy and respect, and invading their personal space or shouting uninvited remarks.
Today’s formal, albeit theoretical recognition by David Cameron that all women have the right to live free from violence is obviously a great step forward. However, the UK has had since last May to commit to signing it, and only did so after proposing changes that make for chilling reading, including deletion of the term “right to live free from violence” and the outright removal of the reference to “violence against women as a human rights violation”. Precisely what the impact a convention of this kind would mean when stripped of that clause, I’m not sure. On the one day of the year when these issues are given the priority they so desperately need, how will these changes realistically protect women every other day? It speaks volumes that the focus across the media has been in defence of wolf-whistling (“You women love it really” is rape culture 101) when this is the least serious of the many offences covered by the convention.
The fact that this convention recognises the everyday damage done to women and girls is something Europe should be proud of, but the coalition taking credit for the progressive sweep that this convention represents also is difficult to take against a backdrop of massive cuts to both police budgets and women’s services here in the UK. Harassers needn’t worry too much that they’re going to hear sirens the next time they shout ‘Nice tits love,’ and fears that building sites across the land will now be raided at the first sign of a puckered set of lips are probably unfounded. What this has done is raised the stakes for everyone to examine their own behaviour, like the harasser we heard about last night in a workshop at Queen Mary University, who shouted abuse while carrying his baby girl in his arms. Intervening in a safe and productive way when you see a woman being harassed might just make someone think twice about doing it again.
Another proposed change to the convention was to “weaken the obligation to take action to prevent violence against women through media messages.” Too much to handle? If we allow the merciless rating of women’s bodies in our magazines and newspapers, is it really any wonder that this message transfers to the streets?
So many of the crucial care, shelter, advocacy and counselling services for survivors of all forms of sexual violence across the country are now teetering on the brink. The next step in Cameron’s worthy crusade should undoubtedly be a full investigation into how we safeguard women’s services, lest the state itself becomes guilty of precisely what this convention seeks to prevent.
There is no reason that sexual harassment in the street should be any more permissible than racist language. We can change attitudes, with or without the government, and we will.
Originally published here, March 2012