Last week, as I was waiting for my coffee in a local café, two sexagenarian men at a nearby table raised their hands together in prayer and – with a synchronicity that told me they had done this many times before – bowed reverentially in my direction. When I asked them what they were doing one of them delivered his punchline with a flourish: "Thanking the Lord for making women like you." Then they both burst out laughing.
I'm not going to lie: it made my day. I wasn't offended. I didn't feel threatened. I wasn't tempted to call 111 and report these two joyful old buffers high on spring sunshine and life for harassment. And I didn't consider employing any of the techniques suggested to female victims of "unwanted attention" either. Although according to campaign groups I could have "denounced their behaviour" by "looking them in the eye" and saying in "a clear, strong voice": "That is not OK."
Their little pantomime was, to me, the (imaginative) equivalent of wolf-whistling, and try as I might, I have never been able to work up any anger or resentment over the age-old two-note glissando used by men to show admiration for someone or something.
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I tried back in 2018, when as part of a new commendable set of laws to ensure "women are not afraid to be outside" the French decided to slap €750 (NZ$1246) fines on catcalling men. I have tried every time the topic hits the news agenda, and I tried again at the weekend after Nimco Ali, the Home Secretary's independent adviser on violence against women and girls, told the BBC's Nick Robinson that there has been "pushback" from the government against a plan to criminalise wolf-whistling, catcalling, telling women to smile and persistently staring, with offenders handed on-the-spot fines.
Plenty of things happen to women on a daily basis that are not OK. And I'm saying that in my clearest, strongest voice. Ninety-seven per cent of women in the UK aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96 per cent not reporting those situations because of the belief it would not change anything. One in five women has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Around 85,000 women are raped and more than 400,000 women are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year. But all too often when we decide to tackle an important issue now, we conflate and we muddle: we look at it down the wrong end of a telescope. When I interviewed Sharon Stone two years ago and asked whether she minded about "everyday sexisms" such as being called "darling", the actress made a point that has stayed with me. It's about "fighting the big fights", she said. "I just feel like all of that stuff is such a small victory."
Ali is all about "fighting the big fights", and as a survivor of female genital mutilation and one of the world's most effective campaigners against the barbaric practice, the 39-year-old was right to upbraid Nick Robinson on Twitter after he promoted their interview with the strapline: "The PM's adviser & Carrie's best friend blames him for blocking new law to ban street harassment." Her response? "Honestly, I talked about almost dying from FGM and wanting a better world for girls and this is what you go with." But this is precisely the problem we come up against when we bundle together a whole spectrum of social ills and evils.
Politicians do not have boundless time and energy. The police do not have limitless resources. So while they are tackling catcalling or trying to determine whether a man is guilty of "persistently staring" (how does one even begin to qualify or quantify that?), they are by definition not focusing on the greater evils.
In the context of violence against women and girls, can wolf-whistling really be called evil? Over the past decade, we have witnessed a kind of linguistic inflation that far from assisting progress has only imperilled it. We cannot use a word like "violence" to describe the sound made by a male pursing of lips and blowing, just as we cannot say that free speech "causes pain", and that an 18-year-old A-level student who questions whether critical theory should take precedence over biological sex in defining women is "transphobic". Because once language loses its meaning, eyes roll, cynicism sets in, and change is halted in its tracks.
I hope No 10 meant it when it said on Saturday that street harassment "remains a top priority", and I hope Ali keeps pushing for change. Kerb crawlers, upskirters, flashers, voyeurs and stalkers are all genuine threats to women, but by tarring wolf-whistlers and harmless banterers with the same brush (and, yes, there is such a thing as harmless banter) we only puncture the argument. And as Stone went on to say, with age comes the blessed ability "to sort out what really needs my attention – and what are just things and people that are going to fade away anyway".