PERHAPS it was a mistake for Poppy Smart to go to the police when men on a building site continually cat-called her as she made her way to work. Not because, as others have suggested, her complaint was so trivial it didn’t merit intervention, but because, by doing so, she became the target of a more insidious sexism: the kind that seeks to portray all women who stand up for themselves as humourless, attention- seeking man-haters.
In the few days since she raised her head above the parapet, Smart has been on the receiving end of a torrent of online abuse, either telling her she is so ugly she should be flattered any man noticed her, or suggesting a good shag would sort her out. But it is the institutional prejudice, reinforced by some of the press coverage, that is the more telling and damaging aspect of her experience: the publication of selfies taken in low-cut tops, for instance, to suggest she was practically begging for strangers to ogle her, and the emphasis on the wolf-whistling over the sexual remarks in an attempt to downplay the significance of the builders’ actions.
‘It says a lot about how seriously society takes sexual harassment’
Indeed, the way Smart has been vilified says a lot about how seriously society takes sexual harassment. No-one would bat an eyelid if a house-holder phoned the police to break up a rowdy party or settle a heated parking dispute; yet if a woman dares to complain about having lewd remarks shouted at her every time she sets foot outside her house, she is “a silly girl” making a fuss about nothing.
Being small-chested and sullen, I have not been greatly troubled by wolf-whistling over the years. And the frequent “Smile, hen, it might never happen” quips that have come my way have less impact on my self- esteem than my son exclaiming after last week’s Question Time: “Nick Clegg is 48? He looks younger than you, mum.”
Much of the street harassment aimed at women, however, is of the more intimidating “show us your tits” variety. Smart put up with the builders whistling, shouting and, on one occasion deliberately blocking her path, for a month before she took action. To those men who are still suffering a failure of empathy, I say this: imagine waking up every morning with the knowledge that, before you can start work, you have to run the gauntlet of half-a-dozen leering inadequates who believe making sexual gestures with their hands or tongues is the height of wit. I have known women so demoralised by the constant attention, they considered having breast reductions.
Any misconception that what happened to Smart was just a bit of harmless fun was, in any case, quickly dispelled by an interview with the chief offender, Ian Merrett, a repellent bundle of self-entitlement, who showed neither contrition nor insight. He said wolf-whistling had proved an effective way to pick up girls in the past, that he couldn’t be guilty of sexual harassment as he hadn’t seen her face and that she must have “ideas above her station”. His casual disrespect for her specifically and women in general was reinforced when it emerged he had once been jailed for hitting a man during an argument on a train which began when his (Merrett’s) drunken friend indecently exposed himself to male and female passengers. Yet Merrett’s attitude is not unusual; many builders interviewed after the story seemed to view wolf-whistling as a perk of the job which unreasonable women were trying to deny them.
In an ideal world I wouldn’t contact the police about men like that. I’d sit on the top of my car, Thelma and Louise-like, and shoot the tyres of their JCBs with my revolver, while shouting: “Where do you get off, behaving that way with women you don’t even know?” Then again, in an ideal world men wouldn’t do these things and, if they did, a quiet word with their bosses would be enough to make them stop.
In the real, unsatisfactory world, however, women’s options are limited. And post-Poppy Smart, the police have been explicit that “insulting, disparaging or offending” women in this way is not on, and asking for their help is a legitimate course of action. This is important because, although the coverage of the story might give the impression women are running off to the authorities at the slightest provocation, the opposite is true. In fact, women put up with all sorts of abuse they shouldn’t have to because they are embarrassed. It’s high time more of them took a stand.
In the end, though, it isn’t police intervention or enforcing building site guidelines that is going to end street harassment, it’s changing attitudes. Young men need to learn what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour; and that kind of education is best delivered in the home and at school.
We know that whenever women are victims of abuse, the emphasis is on telling them how to keep themselves safe. Two weeks ago, a judge suggested women who drank too much alcohol were placing themselves in danger. Then, last week, Smart was told she should have deflected the builders’ comments with humour. This is all wrong. What should be happening is for boys to be taught to be respectful. They should learn that whistling is what you do to summon dogs, not “flatter” human beings. Because, although some people with a vested interest would like us to believe otherwise, it wasn’t the woman who complained about the cat-calls who wasted police time, but the builders who harassed her.