The history of wolf whistling and why it could be banned

One of the earliest examples of wolf whistling comes from a 1943 Tex Avery cartoon

Sabrina Barr@fabsab5
Thursday 18 October 2018 10:21
Cartoon from 1943 shows earliest forms of characters wolf whistling

While some may claim that wolf whistling should be taken as flattery, many women argue that it’s a form of sexual harassment that makes them feel objectified and unsafe.

Sergeant Richard Cooke, chair of the West Midlands Police Federation, has written in The Telegraph about why he believes police officers should stop wasting time investigating wolf whistles, so that they can instead focus on tackling “genuine crimes”.

“Are we really going to be required to routinely record, and potentially act on, incidents like a builder’s wolf whistle or an insensitive comment towards an elderly driver?” he writes.

“I do not believe for one second that this is what the public, outside of the politically correct ‘court of Twitter’, expects or wants us to do.”

Earlier this year, it was announced that men who wolf whistle at women in France could face fines of up to €750 (£658), with the law intended to ensure that “women are not afraid to be outside”.

Portrayals of wolf whistling have been commonplace in the media for a long time, often depicted as a lighthearted way for a man to get a woman’s attention.

So where does wolf whistling actually come from? Here’s everything you need to know:

What's the history of wolf whistling?

The term “wolf whistling” has quite aggressive undertones, implying that a man who whistles at a woman is powerful, predatory animal.

One of the earliest instances of wolf whistling appeared in a 1943 Tex Avery cartoon, called "Red Hot Riding Hood".

In the cartoon, the ‘Wolf’ whistles enthusiastically at a woman called ‘Red’ during her musical performance.

On radio programme A Way with Words, lexicographer Grant Barrett explains that while Red Hot Riding Hood may be one of the earliest examples of wolf whistling, he’s certain that use of the the two-tone whistle was used prior to the release of the cartoon.

According to Barrett, there are accounts in ancient Roman literature of people whistling or hissing at women in the same manner.

Furthermore, it’s theorised that wolf whistling may have actually originated from sailors, who would use a boatswain’s pipe to make a ‘General Call’ while at sea.

While the aim of the General Call was to call all sailors to attention, some believe that they would also use the whistle when docked in the harbour when they spotted an attractive woman.

However, having spoken to sailors about the proper use of the General Call, Barrett isn’t convinced by this theory.

Should wolf whistling be banned?

While some may think of wolf whistling as a harmless act of appreciation, others argue that it’s a form of sexual harassment that should be reported to the police.

In 2016, a 23-year-old woman called Poppy Smart went to the authorities after repeatedly being wolf whistled and catcalled by a group of men working on a building site who should passed on her daily commute.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Several news outlets criticised her for her “overreaction”, to which she responded: “I don’t think this is a case of ‘PC gone mad’ it’s addressing an issue that many women and men face every day, that makes your skin crawl and invades your personal space, and, moreover, is an unnecessary cause of stress and embarrassment for some.”

The government has recently announced that crimes motivated by misogyny could be brought under hate crime laws after a review.

The review is going to be taking place in order to place greater focus on hate crimes, with the Law Commission taking a close look at current hate crime laws and considering “if there should be additional protected characteristics, such as misogyny and age.”

The Law Commission currently reports data on hate crimes relating to disability, transgender identity, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments