Wolf-Whistles: What They Really Mean

Earlier than usual — maybe 7.30 am — the BBC rang: What did I think about the woman who’d gone to the police over a wolf-whistle from a building site? Should she have gone to the police?

The incident had not crossed my radar. But in any case I found myself in a generational fade: Going to the police, a wolf-whistle…?

Unsure how to think about it; there had to be more to this story but I didn’t know what it was, and pointed the caller in the direction of Everyday Sexism who, to be sure, would know how to think about it.

Click here to read what their founder Laura Bates had to say.

The Daily Mirror’s version on 29 April was this: ‘Builder quizzed by police over wolf-whistle says he was complimenting ‘silly little girl thinking things above her station’

The paper asked its readers whether they agreed with the action taken by digital marketing director Poppy Smart: Would you go to the police over a wolf-whistle? 8 per cent said YES, 92 per cent NO.

If I didn’t know what to think beforehand, now I do know: Poppy Smart did not complain to the police about a wolf-whistle. She contacted the police and the site contractor about her daily encounter en route to work with a group of men she didn’t know; they didn’t know her either but they presumed to show her what they thought of her in a daily performance of what in any other context would be interpreted as sexual harassment, intrusion and insult.

She didn’t just contact the police, she contacted the site contractor after deciding that this sexism was similar to racism, she shouldn’t have to put up with it.

European directives on sexual harassment are clear: It is behaviour that is unwanted, that is designed to violate the dignity of a person, that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Employers are expected to ensure that their workers do not engage in such behaviour.

Poppy Smart’s story is illuminating both because she challenged behaviour that many men tenaciously affirm as, variously, banter, a joke, a compliment irrespective of what women might feel, behaviour that is deemed weightless yet worth defending to the bitter end, and also because her complaint prompted the police and the building company to actually do something.

One of the perpetrators, a 23-year-old Ian Merrett, protested in his old-fashioned chivalrous way that wolf-whistling was a compliment, he’d done it many times and ‘snogged so many girls off the back of that’ .

Poppy Smart ‘must be thinking things above her station,’ he said. Thinking things? Station? Two crimes: Thinking and trespassing. Here was a woman who seemed to think that she could occupy terrain — her own body — as if she owned it; that she could exercise both freedom of movement and freedom of thought as if she wasn’t living in Saudia Arabia.

Merrett had form. He told the press that in the past he’d get ‘pissed up and fighting’; he’d received a 12-month jail sentence when he and a dozen or so pals provoked a fight on a Worcester-Birmingham train in 2009.

His friend had ‘indecently exposed’ himself to other passengers after he accused one of them of looking at him. Merrett punched another passenger, who received stitches to his face.

But he was a reformed character, he said, he was only doing what men on building sites do.
The Daily Mirror conducted a poll among its readers on 1st May: 92 per cent supported the men and 8 per cent the woman.

However, police showed the men Poppy Smart’s video of their behaviour, ‘so we stopped doing it.’

She achieved something rather remarkable (despite the mass media’s trivialisation): she showed men dedicated to sexual harassment what it looks like and made them stop it.

Poppy Smart also offered us her own version of events: read it, be sad; be inspired.

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