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Julia Molony: Battle of sexes just got trickier

The bar room chat-up has always been a high-risk venture. Those men brave enough to chance it have historically had to risk getting knocked back, or, worse (for those with no talent for flattery) perhaps getting a slap.

But the stakes could potentially be about to get a whole lot higher. New European laws could make a sexist come-on, or any verbal advance deemed as "humiliating or offensive" illegal, and those crossing the line could find themselves in trouble with the law.

A convention on violence against women could make wolf whistles and sexist comments illegal. Last week, the Council of Europe held a ceremony to mark International Women's Day, during which the UK endorsed the plans. France, Germany and Iceland have committed to sign up, and if Ireland follows suit, verbal sexual harassment could become a criminal offence.

The resolution aims to tighten up the terms of engagement in sexual relations between men and women. Sanctions are proposed for "unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment".

The problem with this sort of ruling is that it runs headlong into the troublesome territory of policing people's words -- a move that is, in all but the most extreme cases, (like incitement to violence) pretty hard to justify. We don't criminalise people who are offensive or humiliating in arguments. It's not against the law to call your sister fat. Even if you do it in front of her brand new boyfriend. So why should it be against the law to shout "nice rack" at a passing stranger? It's not a nice thing to do, but we can't make everything that's not nice illegal.

The tricky thing about over-legislating the imperfect arena of human relations, is that so much of it is interpretive. The notion of exactly what violates one's dignity varies wildly from one woman to the next. And indeed even from one day to the next for the same woman. What might be taken by one person as a compliment, could easily be offensive to another, depending on many things including what sort of a day they've had or how many other irritants they happen to be fending off at that moment.

Of course, sometimes attention on the street is plainly offensive. I still smart with outrage when I think of the horrid little man who barked an explicit instruction involving a delicate part of his anatomy at me out of his car window not long ago. Any stranger who shouts an order at me is likely to get my back up for a start. Does any decent person think it's acceptable to bellow x-rated commands at passing strangers?

But this is an issue of manners, and the man in question's glaring lack of them. I felt aggrieved, but no more than if, say someone had pushed in front of me in a queue, which to my mind doesn't make me victim enough to justify criminalising the oaf in question.

There's a danger too in wrapping up the relations between the genders in too much red tape. Romance, to be allowed to breathe, must be allowed to be (ooh la la) risque. The seasoning of impropriety is inbuilt into the game. How much more boring would life be if European laws succeeded in sanitising any suggestion of sex out of the process?

Under these laws, no sensible fella would ever risk telling an unknown woman that she had a nice bum again. Except perhaps, without warning her first, or perhaps sending a written request for permission to make an observation that is mildly sexual in content.

Personally, I think this would be a crying shame. I'd rather run the gauntlet of city streets and risk the occasional offensive remark, to defend the freedom of those gentlemen gallant enough to pay a lady a compliment.

While efforts to reduce violence against women must be lauded, it's time to be more sensible about what constitutes violence and psychological harm. Treating women as delicate flowers is condescending. Most of us are able to take the rough with the smooth.

Sunday Independent