- Poppy Smart said she was faced with daily battle of wolf whistling builders
- 23-year-old said she received sexist comments every day on way to work
- Here, six women debate whether wolf whistling is flattering or intimidating
- Two men also give their views on wolf whistling being ‘traditional mating fun’
According to Dailymail, the 23-year-old said the whistles and accompanying sexist comments, delivered as she walked to work in Worcester, had become a daily occurrence. Here, six women – and two men – give their views on whether wolf whistling is flattering or intimidating…
Feeling victimised: Poppy Smart (left and right) complained to police about being wolf whistled by builders
After a month of being persistently harangued and wolf-whistled at on her way to work through Worcester, Poppy Smart thought of changing her route. But then, darn it, decided that in 2015 women shouldn’t have to reorganise their lives around the recreations of uncouth youths.
So she shopped the Worcester Whistlers to the Old Bill for harassment.
Extreme? You could baulk at her calling the police — far more effective to grass them up to their bosses, since building firms are always putting up placards assuring us of their courtesy — but it’s clear that this was nasty.
It went beyond mere high-spirited whistling from scaffolding above, and Poppy made it clear she was upset, especially when one accosted her on the pavement one day, barring her way.
Tougher women often say: ‘Oh, it’s quite flattering,’ or merrily shout back. (A cockney girl I worked with, when they howled ‘Big t**s!’ at her, would yell back: ‘Fit into your hollow chest, then, wimpy boy.’)
But some young women, especially if they seem vulnerable to the more bullying types, really suffer from suggestive verbal assaults. A very pretty black friend of mine, in her 20s, won’t go on buses at all because of the nasty sexual jeers she gets from black boys and white alike.
The real issue is that very young men have grown ruder. Feet up on train seats, shouty laddish banter across the heads of quiet fellow-passengers, late-night burping on the Chelmsford line. And it is so rare to get an offer of a seat on a crowded bus that it comes as quite a shock when you do.
So look, boys. Women don’t want to be treated as fragile “laydeez” all the time, we’re equal, we can work and earn and have our say and become PM or, horrors, your boss. But that doesn’t give carte blanche to any man to yell unpleasantries in the street.
And if guys do show a moment’s chivalry — well, we melt. And they are rewarded with a big smile and the satisfaction of feeling like a gentleman. Chaps should take heed . . .
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than being wolf-whistled at and that is not being wolf-whistled at. Shortly after I turned 40, three years ago, I remember walking past a building covered in scaffolding and bracing myself for the inevitable outburst from the saggy-trousered workmen perched on it. But none came.
At that precise moment, I realised I was middle-aged. Neanderthal men no longer hooted when I walked past. After years of fighting them off, I was now provoking deathly silence.
Poppy Smart will realise this one day, when she no longer gets the chance to be offended by builders who find her physically attractive. By then, the time will have passed for her to toss her head in the air and march haughtily past shouting: ‘Oh yeah? You should be so lucky, sunshine!’
That was my strategy, back in the glory days when the men in sweaty T‑shirts bothered me. Sure, it was inconvenient sometimes. But on balance, I’m glad I handled it myself, with humour and perhaps even style, rather than run to the police or an equality body.
Because I would hate to give succour to that faction on the Left that persists with the fantasy that you can get rid of something called ‘everyday sexism’, that you can make life fair. Guess what? You can’t.
A woman who can’t deal with a whistling man is not going to be able to deal with very much that this world is going to throw at her.
And let’s not pretend that we women don’t like to ogle men. The Diet Coke ad has, for years, featured a gaggle of giggling ladies egging on a hunky man as he opens a can, spraying himself suggestively with the drink.
All I’m saying is, if girls can giggle, then let men whistle.
It’s all too easy to dismiss 23-year old Poppy’s official complaint as a waste of police time and money. But when you look at the broader implications of fighting back against behaviour which is both upsetting and intimidating, you start to see that she has a point worth making.
Everyday sexism, even of the relatively minor kind, gnaws away at your self-esteem and undermines your confidence.
I’m not sure what you are supposed to do when you are assaulted by a wave of wolf-whistling. Smile and say thank you? Ignore it? Toss your hair and wiggle suggestively?
However you respond, the fact is that being whistled at puts you in a position of powerlessness, one in which men are literally calling the shots.
Ideally, Poppy would have been able to tell these guys to their faces that she didn’t welcome their whistles. But when you’re one lone woman up against a bunch of burly blokes, it takes a lot more courage than I know I’d have in a similar situation.
When one daughter of a woman friend did exactly that a few months back, she was accused of being a ‘bitch’, a ‘stupid cow’, ‘frigid’, a ‘les’. She may have been proud to have stood up for herself, but she arrived at the office that day shaken and in tears.
As a feminist since my teens, it’s ironic that while we’ve made great strides towards gender equality over the past 40 years, the result of these gains is that we are now expected to take so-called minor sexism on the chin and laugh it off. But it wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.
I’m not suggesting wolf-whistling should be criminalised. But neither is it harmless fun. It’s mindless and insulting. So thank you, Poppy, for being brave enough to blow the whistle on the wolf-whistlers.
There’s nothing like a blush of warm sunshine to bring out your inner Beyoncé. And so it did for me the other week, as I sashayed down the High Street in Manchester, freshly washed hair swinging over my shoulders.
And then came that heavenly sound. Well, not quite from heaven. Rather from the top of some scaffolding, where a bunch of hod-carriers issued a rakish wolf-whistle and warmly proffered: ‘Nice day, darlin’.’
Was I offended? Did I feel sexually objectified? Was this tantamount to harassment? No, no and definitely no.
When you reach middle age and your husband is more absorbed by the figures on the gas bill than your vital statistics, you crave affirmation that you still ‘have it’ (well, sort of).
That’s why there’s nothing nicer than an appreciative wolf whistle from a passing male. At least in the benign context of broad daylight, on a busy main road, with lots of other people around.
It may not be courtly love. But a wolf whistle semaphores to a woman that she’s still feminine, desirable and, crucially, that she isn’t invisible.
Of course, no woman should be allowed to feel physically threatened, as Poppy Smart clearly felt. And if wolf whistles are accompanied by vile language and obscene gestures then there should be recourse to the law.
But the fact that some commentators have compared wolf-whistling to racism is ludicrous. Being Jewish, I’ve been subjected to bigoted remarks in the street — and, believe me, being on the receiving end of such comments makes you feel threatened, frightened and utterly demeaned.
By comparison, infantile cat-calls from bored builders are innocent, unremarkable and yet can make a careworn, middle-aged woman feel momentarily glorious. So let me enjoy those appreciative cat-calls, too.
Gentlemen, as you were . . .
Poppy Smart’s victimisation-dressed-up-as-flattery went on every day for a month, all because she had the audacity to be on her way to work.
Every morning, every encounter, left her distressed and humiliated. For wolf-whistling and its ilk are nothing to do with issuing a compliment and everything to do with a patronising and aggressive attempt to make women feel like lesser beings.
Feminists such as myself are not opposed to flirtation (personally, I live for it), but stalwartly against a practice that makes women feel insulted and intimidated.
Flirtation implies interaction, a playful complicity — not being treated as some derided object.
Perpetrators claim such behaviour is harmless. However, the underlying meaning is clear: as a woman, one’s identity is effectively that of a mobile sexual opportunity. Whatever our brains, personalities, bodies and age, to be female and at large in the world is to be gratuitously exhibiting one’s sexual availability.
In 2012, Laura Bates established the Everyday Sexism Project, a website-turned-campaigning-organisation that invited women to submit their experiences of sexism as a means of exposing the prejudice we face — from minor to major — typically under the hashtag #ShoutingBack.
In doing so, she brought the world’s attention to the collective force of such day-on-day abuses; a drip-drip effect in which women feel frightened, bullied and belittled.
Thanks to smart Ms Smart, perhaps we can finally begin to treat such ‘minor transgressions’ as the big, daily deal they are.
Just wait until she reaches my age, 57, and Poppy Smart will be glad any man is prepared to down his Black & Decker drill to pay her a compliment — even if it is from a stranger on a building site.
I’ve been wolf-whistled at since I was a teenager. Well, it was in Australia, where a man’s idea of foreplay is: ‘Are you awake?’ But I always took it as a compliment. I also discovered that a big smile before walking on by was the perfect way to disarm the situation.
Especially as, like most young women then and today, I wanted to look attractive to men, and it was a harmless acknowledgement of what I was seeking to achieve.
Yet these days there can be a darker side to unsought attention.
I was talking to a friend yesterday who told me that his 15-year-old daughter had once been the target of truly offensive building site ‘banter’. One young man hadn’t just whistled, but shouted out, asking if she’d perform a sexual act on him. Another’s sexual intentions were too rude to repeat in a family newspaper. That really was sexual harassment.
She was distressed, her dad was incandescent. Yet he didn’t go to the police. Instead, he took down the company’s number on the site’s poster and went to see the boss.
The manager was mortified and said he’d deal with it immediately, which he did. His daughter has been able to continue her walk unhindered.
In Poppy’s case, a complaint was filed to the boss of the company concerned and she has not been harassed since. She hasn’t seen the wolf-whistlers again. So that has sorted that.
Considering that reported rapes increased by 29 per cent in England and Wales last year, surely the police have more important things to do than waste their time and our money on tracking down a man who says: ‘Morning love.’
Sarah, 25, from London, who is married with no children, says: ‘I always used to think wolf whistling was a bit of harmless fun – a compliment even. As a shy teenager, getting a bit of attention from a passing guy was a real confidence boost; a friendly acknowledgement that the time I’d spent getting ready to leave the house wasn’t going unappreciated and total strangers thought I looked good.
But the more it happened, and the more intimidating the situations became, the more uncomfortable these ‘harmless compliments’ made me feel. I can remember it happening once when I was on my own, taking my usual shortcut home, and suddenly feeling vulnerable in a way that I never had before, when men had whistled at me in more public spaces. Rather than a cheeky signal of appreciation, it actually felt quite sinister and frightening, and made me acutely aware that I was alone with a man much bigger and stronger than me.
Since then the tone of wolf whistling seems to have changed for me. I feel self-conscious and anxious around strange men, worried that they’re silently judging me even when they don’t whistle or leer at me. When I lived in Paris, being harassed by strange men on the street became part of my weekly routine, and what I’d once thought of as just a flirty bit of whistling became associated with much nastier, scarier things.
First it would be a wolf whistle, then it would be clicking their tongue or making kissy noises in my face, or an unwanted attempt to strike up a conversation, despite me having headphones in or my head buried in a book. If I didn’t respond, or at least smile back pleasantly, next would come the abuse – shouting at me, telling me I was ugly anyway (that’s obviously why he was so upset that I wouldn’t give him my phone number) or following me home. It was no longer harmless, flirty fun – it was petrifying.
I stopped going out on my own after dark unless I had to, I started carrying my keys in my hand, ready to attack any hypothetical stranger that tried to grab me, and several times I ran home from the station, convinced that the man who hadn’t left me alone on the train was now following me back to my flat. And I was one of the lucky ones – friends were groped, or had men expose themselves to them on public transport. Like Poppy Smart, I found that the sustained harassment made my anxiety increasingly difficult to live with.
The way some of these situations escalated made me realise how much wolf whistling is rooted in the same kind of everyday sexism as the more frightening harassment I experienced. Men saw me as part of the landscape – a piece of meat, or public property – and felt entitled to pass judgement on my appearance, whether positive or negative (or both, sometimes even within a matter of seconds!) Not only that, but they felt entitled to my attention in return – if I didn’t want to speak to them, I was being rude.
Men regularly seemed to know that the intimidation gave them a certain power over me. They’d whistle at me while I was alone and they were with a group of lads, and then laugh about it amongst themselves, while I walked away with my gaze fixed firmly on the ground in front of me. It couldn’t feel more different from the warm, confident feeling I get from my husband telling me I look lovely when I’m dressed up for dinner, my grandad greeting me as “gorgeous”, or my friends mock wolf-whistling when I show up for a night out looking especially fantastic in my latest H&M purchase.
These days, wolf whistling makes me angry more than anything else. The Everyday Sexism Project has highlighted just how many men feel entitled to whistle not only at women, but even at young girls in their school uniforms. Whilst I genuinely believe that plenty of men who whistle at strange women in the street do so with perfectly innocent intentions – hoping to raise a smile or make her feel good about herself – so few seem aware of how overwhelming, uncomfortable and intimidating it can be, or of how regular and frustrating an occurrence street harassment is in our everyday lives.
Frankly, regardless of whether they’re ‘just being nice’ or they’re a creep gearing up for a grope, there’s still something horribly sexist and patronising about men whistling at women they don’t know. Women don’t go out in public for the benefit or approval of random men, and plenty of us don’t want or need it. ‘
Olivia, 62, from Hampshire, is married with two children. The freelance journalist says: ‘As reported yesterday, a 23-year-old girl felt so harassed on her way to work by builders’ wolf whistles and one unwelcome comment, she felt she had to go to the police. I think she should have dealt with it differently, but she’s only young and the young, as I remember, often do foolish things.
A wolf whistle is just harmless fun that young men – usually working on a building site – have when a pretty young girl passes. I was young once, and terribly shy, but the wolf whistles did not bother me because I knew they were just innocent tomfoolery. I’d either smile – or once, when feeling brave – waved back. They actually brightened my day and put a spring in my Dr Marten’s clad step.
At this point feminists will be throwing their arms up in the air with calls of ‘sexist’. Yes, of course it’s sexist. It’s a man appreciating a girl. It’s the way of the world. (or it used to be) No damage is done.
How many women clock the look of a bloke’s bum in his tight jeans, or admire a pair of muscly tanned arms, or are even cheered by a cheeky smile? We women all do, I reckon; we just don’t wolf whistle. Why do we try to curb what is natural so that men have become emasculated?
We have become so politically correct; we can’t do anything spontaneous or sensible or have a laugh any more. Teachers can’t touch schoolchildren, even to give them a hug; nursery workers are not allowed to apply sunscreen; and now, men who wolf whistle are the sperm of the devil and the practice should be banned.
In this instance, since the girl in question felt intimidated by the men, she could have taken other actions. The coward’s way (and most of us are cowards, let’s face it) would be to choose another way to walk to work. Why should she? Because it’s the sensible thing to do, that’s why.
The other way would be to confront the men, or at least ask to speak with the foreman. You see, I think the problem got worse because she allowed it to escalate. Once she knew it was a problem for her, she should have nipped it in the bud by taking action. She allowed herself to become a victim. I’m sure if the blokes on the building site knew how upset she allegedly is, they would be quick to stop upsetting her.
Truthfully, most people – even men – are basically good people. I managed to get lost recently while abroad in a medieval town with identical looking squares. It was quite late and the streets were almost deserted. I saw a cashpoint with three young lads – probably early twenties late teens – hanging around nearby. I told them of my plight in broken Italian and they personally escorted me back to my hotel.
I don’t think this male/female divide does us any favours at all. I think we should appreciate our differences, but let’s not let our feminist/all girls in this together stuff get in the way. As you go through life, you make your mind up about things, and draw your own lines in the sand. It’s all down to confidence and being comfortable in your (increasingly wrinkly in my case) skin. If I heard a wolf whistle now I would expect to see a builder with impaired eyesight, or that he was being ironic. So I’d say, lighten up lady. Life is going to throw up some curveballs far worse than a wolf whistle…. ‘
‘IF SHE DIDN’T LIKE IT, SHE SHOULD HAVE GONE THE OTHER WAY TO WORK’: WHAT THE CHAPS THINK OF MISS SMART’S POLICE COMPLAINT
In my mating heyday I was a wolf without a whistle. It isn’t as though I didn’t fancy every pretty young woman who passed. Of course I did. But, quite apart from having not learned the necessary skill of sticking two fingers between my teeth to make any audible appreciation carry more than two yards, I would never have had the nerve.
It takes confidence to wolf-whistle. Supposing you did and the object of beauty glanced back at you, summed you up and then gave you a long dismissive, testicular-shrivelling look. That would put you in your place, wouldn’t it?
And wouldn’t your mates laugh at you? Because when a bloke whistles at a girl, nine times out of ten he has an audience of mates who are watching to see what reaction he gets.
In the animal world, it’s known as a mating call; among humans, usually only the cheekier young blades dare do it. It’s just one part of a centuries-old courting ritual.
Imagine yourself on the promenade at Blackpool with your mates, and below you on the beach are gaggle of girls. You’re looking for girls and they’re looking for boys. But how do you introduce yourself? It isn’t easy.
So, you whistle safely from afar to attract their attention, and a bit of banter is soon struck up. Soon, you’re on your way, arm-in-arm, to who knows what delights.
What poor Poppy Smart (which, incidentally, is the sort of name that almost begs to be whistled at) doesn’t seem to have understood is, irritating though the whistlers may have been, their behaviour wasn’t sexual harassment but simply a bit of traditional mating fun.
If she didn’t like it, she should have gone the other way to work.
Wolves have a reputation as dangerous, predatory creatures. That’s why the very term ‘wolf-whistling’ can imply an act of aggression: a man preying on a defenceless woman. But that’s also why ‘wolf-whistling’ is a misleading expression for an act that, nine times out of ten, is innocently, even generously meant.
Honestly, let’s be sensible about this. I have a wife and a daughter. I’m rather old-fashioned about protecting their honour. But would I be enraged if they were wolf-whistled in my presence? Not in the slightest.
Of course, that probably wouldn’t happen. Men don’t usually whistle at women when they’re with other men, which is another reason for feminists to shriek: ‘Sexism!’ But if they’ll forgive the metaphor, they’re crying wolf.
Where the wolf whistle is designed to intimidate, then by all means let’s censure it. But it is more often issued as a conveniently concise form of compliment, and it’s no more threatening, in most circumstances, than a group of women having a ribald laugh as a dishy bloke walks by.
To slap it down as the very definition of sexual harassment is, frankly, to forget what kind of nation we are. Angry feminists should save their energy for other, more important battles.