Wolf-whistling is not a crime. Let’s be clear about that. If the law is to be used against a friendly whistle in the street, does it mean it’s also illegal for a man to smile at a woman he fancies on the train?
What about saying hello to a stranger in the street? In an age when most of us spend so much time staring at our phones that we barely notice our fellow human beings, it would be a shame if a bit of gentle social interaction was out of bounds.
Whenever I get whistled at – and I admit this happens less often than it used to – I laugh it off. Maybe it is everyday sexism, but when it has happened to me, the circumstances have been far from intimidating.
What Poppy Smart experienced, however, was not gentle social interaction – though if you’d read the headlines in some newspapers, you’d be under the impression it was. “Call for the Wolf Whistle Police!” went one paper, “PC Britain” said another.
The 23-year-old started getting wolf whistles as she walked past a building site on her way to work in Worcester. She tried to ignore it, but it went on day after day, with the builders coming out of the site as she went past. There were also “disrespectful comments”. One day, after she tried to ignore this cacophony, one of the workers approached her on the pavement and blocked her way. Although he didn’t touch her, Smart said he was in her “personal space”, which is incredibly intimidating. “I’m quite a nervous person and this has made my anxiety worse,” she said. It was at this point that she went to the police.
Of course Smart was right to do so – this was a daily, intimidating campaign of harassment which culminated in a man trying to block her way. This is not about wolf-whistling, but anti-social behaviour or breaching the peace, which do fall under the law. If a stranger invades your personal space, your immediate thought is: “What next?”
This should go without saying, but since this young woman has been attacked on social media for being an “attention-seeker” and a “money grabber”, it apparently needs spelling out. Most of the coverage of the story has encouraged critics to go for Smart. The debate has turned into the question of “Should wolf-whistling be illegal?” without a proper understanding of Smart’s ordeal. This conflates the innocent-sounding “wolf whistle” with the creepy behaviour of lecherous men. But the two are not the same.
Those who say Smart should have changed her route are wrong: why should a woman be made to walk a different and less convenient way to work because of harassment? It is the same as suggesting a woman should not walk the streets at night in case she falls victim to an assault or worse. In these circumstances, women are not the perpetrators, so why do we ask them to change their behaviour?
The police investigated but took no further action, although the builders were disciplined by their employers. By reporting them, Smart has got the message through to the men involved. Hopefully she can now ignore the second round of jeering in the papers and online, and listen to the applause she deserves for taking a stand.
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