Has a wolf whistle become a crime? Is all body language bad?

Like all mothers, I was pretty shocked  to hear of some of the apparent statistics surrounding sexual assault at university – having had two daughters graduate I have a reasonable inkling of what goes on, and indeed what doesn’t, at the Students Union or Club nights in Town.  However, mostly relationship problems of students appear to be centred around who to share a house with, being dumped by someone you fancy or being hit on by a friend you don’t, being excluded from groups or peer pressure to spend up financially or act extrovertly when you don’t feel like it. Just one of the many  lessons in life you get when you strike out on your own.

However, by the sounds of it, the murkier side is very unpleasant indeed.  That’s according to the latest report by the NUS That’s What She Said.  So much so the Conservative government is to launch an inquiry into sexual harassment and assault on university campuses.  When I was the Tory Candidate for Nottingham North it was one of the major concerns raised by the student lobby.

Tom Slater of Spiked  Online writes that the affair has been somewhat sensationalised  and ‘serious incidences of rape and sexual assaults is mercifully low and that lending credence to the rape-culture panic, he concludes, the government is hindering women, not helping them:’

Discussing rape at the Nottingham Rape Centre

Discussing rape at the Nottingham Rape Centre

There is no doubt that nightlife today is a lot more boorish,  exhibitionistic than it used to be. It’s hard to relate the conduct of today’s teenagers with that of the 1960s Top of the Pops audience shuffling up to the DJ. And I’ve met and spoken to girls who are close to tears just describing the vulgarities and pervy behaviour that seems to have become an almost acceptable part of social life on Campus when they move on to Uni. But what’s to be done about it when some women actively encourage it?

Anyone who has had a daughter who has been raped, even if they haven’t reported it and it’s been one of those difficult situations which you can’t prove and therefore don’t want to report, will be ambivalent about what should be done about this latest report.  In it many of the statistics are related to `inappropriate’ behaviour and conduct which is more of a social standard than a moral indiscretion. So should zero-tolerance policies on ‘banter’ and ‘sexual comments’ be introduced? Or is that just going to make it harder for victims of more serious abuse to be believed or helped?

Sexual consent is one of the most complex political issues of our modern age. It is very difficult to structure hard and fast social rules around what is in essence body language – a subtle way of sending and picking up signals of whether someone ‘s sexual move is wanted or not. It’s not what it is, but who it is, how it’s done, when it’s done and why.  It’s also not helpful to bundle up wolf whistles and innuendos with sexual assault.

The problem with official inquiries is that they end up with someone having to be seen to ‘do something about it’. Which invariably ends up with a one rule fits all.

Tom Slater suggests that ‘Getting gropey in the club isn’t on, but most young women clearly think it warrants a slap rather than a spot on the sex offenders’ register.’  And that is of course the concern.  What comes next?


About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
This entry was posted in feminism, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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