Instantly, upon reading that title, feminist hackles are raised. But how sound are the reasons for that? The news in the past week that the British building company Wimpey has banned its workers from wolf-whistling at passing women comes as no surprise to me:

“In the 21st century the wolf whistle is out of place. Our buyers know what they want and the general feeling is that women won’t stand for being whistled at by builders.”

Is it really ‘out of place’ in the 21st century? What’s changed? Wimpey has every right, of course, to impose restrictions on their workers in this regard, particularly if its female customers really are feeling uncomfortable because of it (and it certainly doesn’t seem a very professional way to sell condos). But I’m a little less sure about the official justification here, that wolf-whistling belongs in the past.

Back in January, journalist Flic Everett was asked to comment on the wolf-whistle on BBC radio. She said:

“I do think it puts back the cause of women at least 40 years, if not longer, because I think, you know, we’ve striven for equality, we’re equal in the workplace, we’re equal in the home, and I find it really offensive actually that you can walk down the street and be sexually judged by a man who’s never met you. …. I think it’s very oppressive and intimidating.”

Everett makes it sound as though the wolf-whistle is an insult, rather than the compliment that men tend to feel they’re giving. ‘Judged’? Isn’t she just being told that she’s attractive? She replies:

“This isn’t to do with attraction, this is to do with sexual judgment. They’re not saying, ‘You seem like an interesting person, I’d really like to get to know you.’ I’m not inviting them to judge whether I’m a ‘bit of alright’ or not; I’m not an object to be paraded for men’s approval or disapproval.”

She seems to feel strongly about this. Yet her implication of judgment here is interesting, of whether men approve or disapprove. ‘Disapproval’ never enters into it, does it? There isn’t a version of the wolf-whistle which men can vocalize disapproval, by which they can let a passing woman know that they think she’s ugly or monstrous. There is literally no such equivalent. The wolf-whistle is only a compliment on physical attractiveness, not a judgment on physical attractiveness. It seems to me that Everett can only get away with using the word ‘judge’ if there is the possibility of receiving a negative judgment. If the only judgment ever being made is positive, then I’d suggest ‘judge’ is an inappropriate word to use; rather it’s more of a tribute to physical beauty or attractiveness, albeit an uninvited one. (And it seems to me that some of the best kinds of tributes can be the uninvited ones; such tributes are not contrived and therefore guaranteed to be genuine.)

There are two ways Everett could claim that such a tribute is still unwelcome. The first is if she doesn’t value her own physical beauty or attractiveness, in which case it may be unwelcome by virtue of the fact that it is meaningless to her. Of course, I don’t believe that’s the case. And, while it may be personally unwelcome to her, the fact that she lives in a society with others who don’t feel the same way means it would be prudent to accept it as a fact of life, an uninvited pleasantry as it may be.

And the second is if she feels intimidated, in the sense that she fears for her safety or simply feels uncomfortable in the situation. This is always due to the threat of other factors: the number of men he’s with, other actions he may make, words he may use, that rise to the level of harassment. In that case it is not the wolf-whistle itself but these other factors which intimidate.

The truth is that feminists of a certain sort are fundamentally conflicted about this, as they are so much else. They construe a man wolf-whistling at a woman as an entire culture which may descend back into the throes of maximal patriarchy at any moment (note the assertion that wolf-whistling puts back “the cause of women by 40 years”). They see this act of appreciating female beauty as being at the expense of appreciating anything else about a woman at all, and that is the central problem with Everett’s argument: it’s illogical.

It doesn’t follow that because a man wants to indicate his appreciation of a woman’s physical beauty that her physical beauty is the only attribute she has worth appreciating. Perhaps if he had heard her sing first, he would appreciate that before her physical attractiveness. Perhaps if he had read one of her business reports, or heard her on the radio, or been engaged in conversation with her, he may have indicated his appreciation of those attributes of her existence instead.

But it just so happened that she walked by his building site, and he displayed his appreciation of the way she looked. I’d suggest there’s often – or usually – nothing more to it, and that women like Everett should learn to love the wolf-whistle and thus value all of her own attributes rather than the ones selected for her by the feminist ideal.