One woman’s stance against sexist builders may have opened flood gates for stronger action
Poppy Smart is a 23 year old digital marketing co-ordinator in Worcester, England. She is a successful woman with a good career. Her life seemed to be going well, until she had to pass a building site on her way to work every morning.
Passing the building site, Poppy was subjected to wolf-whistles and harrassment in the form of sexual comments from the builders on a daily basis. On one occassion one man even deliberately blocked her path. Poppy described their behaviour as “incredibly intimidating”. This became so much of a problem for her that she considered changing her route. Instead, after a month of this harrassment, she decided one day to film the harrassment, and having done so, she made a complaint to the firm employing the builders and with her local constabulary, Mercia Police.
Police, armed with the video, visited the building site and interviewed one of the builders, 28 year old Ian Merrett, warning him that his behaviour constituted sexual harrassment, for which he could be charged. Poppy subsequently received some form of apology from the firm, and having accepted that, Mercia Police decided to take no further action.
Poppy Smart’s actions have led to a national debate in the UK, with a great many people standing against her and even sympathising with Ian Merrett. Disturbingly, the overwhelming responses have been one of blaming the victim.
Phillip Davies, Conservative Member of Parliament for Shipley, West Yorkshire, stated “I would have thought the police have better things to do.” One can only hope that women in his constituency remember his words when they vote in the forthcoming General Election on 7 May. Media ‘celebrity’ Vanessa Phelps stated on her BBC London Radio show, “Some people would say, if you don’t like it, then cross the street or get a bit more robust … You don’t think that your discomfort is worth using up valuable police time.”
Some reactions, both from the media and the public, have since made personal attacks against Poppy Smart. The Guardian (29 April) reported “Several of the discussions involved commentary on Smart’s looks. One article highlighted the fact that she was childless and unmarried. Some news outlets used pictures that seemed to have been taken from Smart’s social media accounts, showing her posing for selfies wearing a low-cut top – a decision it’s difficult not to interpret as a snide suggestion that she might have somehow been “asking for it”.”
And of course, the response from the public, particularly from keyboard warriors and online trolls have been predictable. Comments below a BBC report on the story included “I’d say she was very lucky to get a whistle. She needs a bag over her head”, “who would do that to her anyway ugly bitch”, and of course the inevitable, “What she needs is a bit of cock. That’ll sort her out!”
Ian Merrett, for his part, remains unrepentant. He told The Mirror (29 April) “It’s highly likely it was me who did that wolf-whistle. I’ve seen the news coverage and it’s not right. I’m a builder and my mates are builders. We are all hard working people and our reputation has been damaged. Wolf-whistling is part and parcel of working on a site, it’s complimenting a girl.”
Having admitted that it was probably him who did the wolf-whistle, Merrett then contradicts himself and tries to feign innocence by stating “I can remember that day when she [Miss Smart] took the video, we were under-pinning a wall that day, I only saw the back of her, I didn’t even see her face and you can see in the video the wolf-whistle comes after she had passed the gate. I didn’t even see her face, and I wouldn’t recognise her if I fell over her in the street, so I don’t know how that could possibly be sexual harassment. Police came to our site and said someone had made an allegation of harassment. They showed us the video so we stopped doing it.”
Then came Mr Merrett’s most astounding statements, which included not a little bit of wishful thinking methinks; “It’s not worth getting into trouble over some silly little girl. I don’t know why she complained, she must be thinking things above her station. I’m sure if she walks past again and she is lucky she will get wolf-whistled again. I have wolf-whistled so many girls and got so many birds and snogged so many girls off the back of that, and never had a complaint before. But I’ve got a girlfriend so need to be careful what I say.”
Yes, you read right; “silly little girl”, “above her station”. Ian, dear, this woman is a career woman in a highly-challenging field. You sir, are a brickie. Of course, both jobs – like all jobs – are valued for their own merits and are both deserving equal respect. Consider however that if Poppy left her job, she would be hard to replace. Your employer could fire you and have another brickie in your place within minutes.
And come on, the claim that “I have wolf-whistled so many girls and got so many birds and snogged so many girls off the back of that, and never had a complaint before.”? WHO is he trying to kid? He’s certainly not convincing me. He’s maybe trying to convince himself, and succeeding. However, as far as complaints are concerned, one can only wonder what his girlfriend (if she exists) makes of his behaviour. I certainly know if I wolf-whistled anyone (of either gender) in public, my partner would not only be far from pleased, I would be spending the next few nights on the couch – perhaps even for my own safety.
It is sad that Poppy Smart had to take this action, but I for one champion her doing so. In 2015, this sort of behaviour is simply not acceptable. In most countries nowadays sexually-orientated behaviour towards others in the workplace constitutes sexual harrassment, which is quite rightfully a disciplinary matter, and which if serious and / or repeated can quite rightfully lead to dismissal for gross misconduct. If it is wrong among work colleagues, how can it ever be “just banter”, as some are claiming, when directed at members of the public? The simple answer is it cannot. I have in my time worked in customer-facing roles. If in such roles I had wolf-whistled or made suggestive comments to even one member of the public, I would have been dismissed with immediate effect, the employer dismissing me would have been well within their right to do so, and with that on my record, I would find it extremely hard to find another post, with no-one but myself to blame.
Builders of the mindset of Ian Merrett and his colleagues, and anyone else whose work brings them into a public-facing role need to be made to realise that the public, women in particular, are not their property. Their wolf-whistles and sexually-charged comments are not compliments. Far from it, if anything they are insults. Their behaviour is not “banter”, it is harrassment of a member of the public who may want nothing to do with them, and whose space and peace of mind they are invading without permission from that individual. In that final definition, their behaviour could be classed as threatening, or even bullying.
And I am not alone in thinking that, the law happens to agree with me. Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester Police, who is also national (England & Wales) police lead for Stalking and Harrassment, quoting the Protection Against Harrassment Act and the Public Order Act, told The Guardian, “It is not only unacceptable for someone to disparage, insult and offend someone in this way, but it can be against the law.” He continues: “Just because someone somewhere has a personal opinion that wolf-whistling and boorish behaviour is ‘fun’ and not criminal does not make it right – try living with the day-to-day drip, drip feeling that someone is acting in a way that causes you fear and knowing that they just don’t care about the impact on you.”
There are of course those who would argue that Poppy Smart could have changed her route. The simple answer to this is why the hell should she? Why should she be inconvenienced, perhaps having to take a longer route to work, because of the behaviour of others? The answer is of course that she should not. To do so, not only would she have not so bravely confronted what is not just a problem for her, but for all other women having to pass that building site, and even on a national, and possibly international level.
Some may say this has never happened before. I would agree with that, but would add there is a first time for everything. Poppy Smart by her actions has opened the flood gates and has set a precedent where other women, empowered by her example, may now follow. Women tired of the unwanted attentions of a bunch of ignorant sexist men may now look to her case, and likewise make police complaints against them and their employers. Once the employers get the message, they will filter down to their employees the clear message that they are ambassadors for the companies they represent, and that the sexual harrassment of women cannot and will not be tolerated.
I leave the last word to Poppy Smart herself;
“Men will lean out of their cars or vans and shout comments about my appearance or whistle and I know and have seen this happen to others as well. I think more women should speak out about this behaviour, maybe it will make people think twice, Imagine hearing someone speaking that way to your sister, mother, wife or daughter. Personally I don’t think that such comments, even if they are considered complimentary by the perpetrators, are appropriate. It is very disrespectful and is comparable to calling out at someone of a different race or religion.”
Well said, Poppy. I could not agree more.