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Why Do Some Men Still Think Women Love Wolf-Whistling?

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Illustration by Anna Sudit
Last night on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here, a debate kicked off between the campmates which raised the eternal (well, very 2016) question: Why don’t great swathes of men understand that catcalls aren’t compliments?

To recap – in case you’re one of the few people not addicted to watching Larry Lamb cook crocodile feet over a campfire – the task was to correctly answer the question: “What percentage of women surveyed said that wolf-whistling was sexist, even if it was intended positively? 45% or 54%?” Adam-from-Emmerdale said the answer couldn’t possibly be 54% because, “If someone whistled at me, I’d be like: Hi guys!” Comedian Joel Dommett added that he’d “absolutely love it” if someone whistled at him.

Well, trick question, everyone. Wolf-whistling is inherently sexist, because I don’t hear any straight men catcalling other straight men. “Get your dick out for the lads! Not because I find you attractive personally, but I believe everyone should get the chance to be made to feel uncomfortable!” Nope. That doesn’t happen.

But the answer on I’m A Celebrity was 54% and let’s be honest – the real figure is probably much, much higher. Scarlett-from-Gogglebox, ever the voice of reason, told the lads: “I couldn’t name one of my friends who would say it was a compliment. It doesn’t bother me, but I don’t think there’s any need,” and went on to ask former footballer Wayne Bridge if his wife would think it was a compliment if someone wolf-whistled at her. Now, Wayne seems like a sweet man; a gentle soul with an inexplicable fear of tiny goats. But his answer was: “I don’t know but I don’t think she’d be that bothered.”

No, Wayne. Just no. Now, I don’t know your wife, Frankie-from-The-Saturdays, but I highly doubt she considers a wolf whistle or a catcall a compliment. Here is a compliment: “Oi, love! I enjoyed your music when you were in The Saturdays, you were great on Strictly Come Dancing and I respect your work as a charity campaigner!” Here is a catcall: “Oi, love! Get your tits out!” See? Very different.

Part of the problem, I think, is that men just have no idea how much it goes on. Recently, my boyfriend tried to make a joke about how gutted I must be that two of our neighbours are finishing up their building work because “there would be no more handsome scaffolders to look at”. He was mortified when I had to explain that I didn’t dare make eye contact with, or even look in the direction of the three groups of scaffolders that I pass every morning on my way to the tube; that I cross the road, and pull my hood up. Day in, day out, I’ll get a whistle, or words to the effect of “Give us a smile, love” from these men. I’ve stopped eating a banana on the walk because, well… yeah. I’d love to brush it off as “banter” but it’s relentlessly annoying and 7.12am is the exact time of day I’m at my least tolerant.

It’s an intimidation tactic: a way for a man to let you know that he’s watching you, he sees you and he has power over you.


“It never happens when I’m with you”, my boyfriend said. Yeah, weird that. Weird that it never happens when I’m standing next to a 6ft 4in man built like a rugby player. But I've never told him just how much it does happen because – as I imagine many women feel – it’s so depressingly common, what’s the point?

I surveyed a small handful of my male friends; men who’d never catcall a woman but just… didn’t really think it was still a thing. “It probably happens more than most decent men realise,” says Steve. “I’ve been really aware of it happening in other countries, when I was travelling, but I have no idea how many times it happens to most women in a normal day in London.” Steve is woke enough to realise: “It’s not a compliment. No one thinks a wolf whistle will end in marriage. It’s just showing off – I mean, it’s never when men are on their own, right?” James adds: “It’s happened so many times when I’ve been out with my rugby team, and they’re all shouting at girls and I’m like: I wish this wasn’t happening. I hate it.”

Australians are stereotypically 100% mad banter so I asked my friend Chris, originally from just outside Sydney but now living in London, and his feelings are mixed. “I’ve been around mates who do it, and there are definitely different levels – there’s the sexually aggressive one, where it’s more about how the catcaller is feeling than how he wants the woman to feel; then there’s the old-school wolf whistle, which is generally older men who probably think that’s actually a compliment. It’s happened to my girlfriend when I was around and I just laughed and thought: fair enough.” Still, he was surprised to hear that it's such a big problem. “I had no idea that you get pestered twice a morning. Well done!” He was joking. I think.

In a way, men are conditioned from a young age to think that women love negative attention. If I got teased at school or a boy pulled my hair, my mum would say, “It’s probably because he fancies you!” (Spoiler alert: No one fancied the bitingly sarcastic, 5ft 8in 11-year-old. No one.) Then Neil Strauss’ handbook for '90s teenage boys, The Game, formalised this as "negging" and here we are: a generation of men who think that a furious woman giving them the finger is the modern equivalent of a coquettish giggle.

In recent years, campaigns like Hollaback! have taken action on street harassment – but the stats are still depressing. A survey by the group last year revealed that 90% of British women have been harassed in the street before the age of 17, and Nottinghamshire Police have had to reclassify catcalling as a hate crime. A friend in the building industry tells me it’s now “a big thing – when we induct people onto the site, we make a big deal about it: 'Don’t hang around and say things to people not on the site. Don’t speak to anyone who’s not on the site.' It’s made very clear and taken very seriously.”

And while it’s unlikely that any of the I’m A Celebrity cast – Joel, Adam or Wayne – will find themselves hanging out of a truck or van window describing exactly what they’d like to do to you in bed (we’ve all had that one, right?), it’s still worrying that they think street harassment is a compliment. It’s an intimidation tactic: a way for a man to let you know that he’s watching you, he sees you and he has power over you. When you’re just trying to go about your daily life, quietly and quickly and safely, a shouted comment from a building site or a smoking area is a mood-changer, a day-ruiner, a horrible reminder of your vulnerability. And it’s definitely not a compliment.
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