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Women are first wolf whistled in their teens, often in school uniform
Walking alone as a woman can be scary, and attention from strangers can make matters worse
Many women know the feeling, walking home, to work, to a friends or just going for a stroll is hard enough to do alone as a woman. But then they hear that high pitched two note sound, usually from a man, and the body tenses. They’re being wolf whistled. Thoughts start swirling in their minds, ‘am I in danger or is this just an immature man not realising the weight of his ‘flattery’’. When you don’t know them, it’s impossible to know the intent.
Earlier this year, news surfaced that wolf whistling and other street harassment could become punishable by up to two years in prison. However, since then there has been little news to follow up so it is unclear whether this will happen. In France they already have such laws, with those who wolf whistle risking being fined up to €750. Similar laws in the UK could be so beneficial, helping women and girls feel safer walking home.
It is girls especially that need this law. In a small survey of women over 18, conducted by us here at Hybrid Magazine, it seems most women who have been wolf whistled first experienced this when they were a teenager. A small percentage even reported being first wolf whistled under the age of 13, when they were just a child. To make matters worse, many women report being in their school uniform when they were wolf whistled or cat called.
Suswati Basu, an editor and journalist, shared her first experience of wolf whistling with Hybrid Magazine, recalling feeling ‘very scared’ at the time. ‘I was about 14 when I was wolf whistled at in my school uniform from a car, it was awful’, she says.
‘I was just a child and these were grown men from a car. I actually ran behind some cars. It really shook me, because I knew there was something wrong at wolf whistling at a 14 year old.’
‘Women are on edge when they walk down the streets, with always one eye and ear on their surroundings. A wolf whistle is part of a wider spectrum of harassment. It serves no real purpose to the woman and it's only for the benefit of the person doing it.’
Other women shared similar stories, as Tori, 21, said she ‘got catcalled most when I was in my school uniform. The older I’ve gotten the less frequent it is but still happens’.
Some people claim that wolf whistling should be taken a compliment, that we should be flattered. But when so many women are wolf whistled at such a young age, when they’re obviously under 18, this claim becomes completely baseless. Wolf whistling at teenage girls isn’t flattering, it’s sinister.
However, those making these claims are often women themselves. Not all women feel immediately threatened by jeering. Gabby, a 21-year-old student, says ‘I know that my self worth shouldn’t be determined by a man but sometimes I feel good about myself if I get wolf whistled or catcalled’. She explained that whilst she hates wolf whistling, the attention from males who do so provides her with ‘some sort of validation’.
This feeling is not hers alone. Whether they like it or not, many women often feel validated by male attention, be it catcalling in the street or simply just commenting on their appearance. Why is it, when deep down we know it’s not complimentary, that a wolf whistle can so easily boost our self-esteem?
Speaking to a counsellor, Georgina Sturmer, she suggested several reasons that women desire male validation. One major reason may all stem from the media we consumed and the stories we were told as children.
‘If you’ve grown up in a patriarchal, heteronormative society, then chances are that you’ve absorbed a specific outlook on what success looks like. The celebrated powers of Cinderella, Rapunzel and Belle all boil to one thing. Their ability to attract, and hold on to, the attention of the male protagonist’, she says. ‘These stories have also fed into our fears of the future. Of loneliness or spinsterhood. Subconsciously this drives our behaviour.’
Many of the female characters in children’s fairy tales didn’t live happily ever after until they found their princes. On the other hand, the antagonists are often old witches who live alone, this apparently being the reason for their unhappiness. So, from a young age, we have internalised these narratives and subconsciously are always on the lookout for our prince charming. Therefore, even unwelcome and inappropriate attention from a stranger on the street may alight a good feeling inside.
Sturmer suggests some ways that we can combat the subconscious, and often unwanted, desire for male attention. ‘When you’re choosing your outfit, your hairstyle, your makeup, ask yourself who you are doing it for. Notice whether it feels like an independent choice, or whether you’re making choices to please a guy - real or imaginary.’
Even with the fleeting validation we may experience, there’s still a part of any women who feels wary afterwards, a feeling that is hard to shake. Spending time alone, and being comfortable doing so, is so important to our growth but little things like catcalling from men can stop that from happening at all. We just hope that the UK can make some legal changes and take steps towards making women feel safer to be alone in public.