I was ready to applaud when I spotted an article on the Express website about a building firm suspending employees for wolf whistling – until, that is, I read what the author (no doubt himself a master of the fine art of seduction) had to say. Seriously, it’s like SlutWalk never happened.
Men, don’t you know, are practically genetically compelled to wolf whistle and the Express rolls out the statistics to prove that we women love it really. The site quotes a recent survey which claims that, “one in three women enjoys being wolfwhistled while four per cent of females admitted they were very disappointed if they were not given the navvies’ tribute.”
Never mind what that might suggest about some women’s self-esteem, what about the two-thirds of women who don’t enjoy being wolf whistled and the 96% who are most certainly not very disappointed when they are allowed to walk down a street without hearing a stranger’s opinion on their breasts?
Being half-Trinidadian, I spent some of my childhood in the Caribbean. At the time, there was a culture of extreme misogyny that was far more visible than that in Britain, as well as even less effective policing and awareness of sexual violence. At the age of eleven I was being ‘sooted’ in the street. Another couple of years and I could barely turn a corner without a comment or catcall.
As a child, I was hardly ‘inviting’ this kind of attention and I was certainly not consenting to it. In fact, I felt embarrassed, intimidated and even violated – and I was powerless to stop it. That is how street harassment works: it relies on women’s silence.
Beth Ditto, in an advice column for the Guardian, puts it better than me: “If you find yourself feeling powerless after someone has shouted at you, you need to remember that this is the masterplan of sexism. The guys in question may not know it, but every time they ‘catcall’ a girl they are reminding her of her vulnerability in a system designed to do just that.”
The recently published Express article salivates over famous examples of women wolf whistling men, as if it were some kind of counter-argument. Well, it’s not; mainly because a man may feel uncomfortable if he is catcalled by a woman but it will not serve as a reminder of his unique vulnerability to sexual assault and subordination. To quote HollabackUK, “this has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with power.”
The Express article concludes, “If the company continues to be blind to this ancient British tradition it may be the time for it to consider moving out of the building trade and into something just a little less macho.” These days, when I return to Trinidad, I am pleased to find a culture that is becoming ever less ‘macho’ and violently misogynistic. At the same time, my sister and I noticed on our most recent visit that we experienced far less street harassment. I use Trinidad as a prism because, as a relative outsider, I do not yet take its culture for granted: it is undoubtedly a specific context but, to me, there is a clear correlation.
Movements which tackle street harassment need to consider different strategies for different global contexts. Meanwhile, people who try to tell me that wolf whistling is ok because a few women ‘enjoy’ it need to take a long, hard look at the power imbalance that street harassment represents and the varyingly violent ways in which it plays out across the globe. It’s called wolf whistling for a reason.