Walking Tall – freedom from sexual harassment in Canada

Urban street at night

Urban street at night


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] got wolf-whistled last night as I walked home from my swim at the nearby pool. The almost full moon lent a silver hue to the gloaming, casting the sports field into a grey-green otherworldliness and giving the harbor the appearance of mercury. I had that sense of peace that comes with the contented tiredness of a body well exercised; loose-limbed, relaxed and pleasantly alert – movements fluid as water.

The day’s heat exuded from the ground beneath my feet and the warm night enfolded me. I inhaled deeply, savouring the moment. Anticipating reaching home, and the claim three small children make on a parent even whilst sleeping (tidying away toys, picking up clothes, preparing to do it all again tomorrow), I’d just wished the walk could go on forever when it happened. A motorbike roared past and the cheeky whistle hung in the air as the bike sped away behind me.

Two things sprang to mind: first – the predictable self-congratulatory flush of “YessssssStillGotIt!!!”, (well… none of us are getting any younger) then, the realisation that it was my first ever wolf-whistle in Canada. It reminded me of some observations I made when we hadn’t been in the country long and the very buildings I’d just come from were being constructed.

Back in those early days I retained my British-bred response to the sound of a car-horn when on foot. Fresh off the plane and still relatively friendless, I assumed it was some perv eyeing me up and pointedly ignored it. Without wheels of my own for the first year it took me a while to discover most Canadian cars automatically beep when they’re locked. That explained why it always seemed to happen in car parks… anyway, I digress.

Summers are hot and humid here in Southern Ontario. Short shorts and spaghetti-strap tops are so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Bare legs and arms are everywhere. Some carry it off better than others but it’s a safe bet that those in their teens and twenties, lean and lithe with seemingly endless limbs, positively radiate the athletic beauty and potential of youth. Put more prosaically, Canada has no shortage of drive-by eye-candy in the summer months.

So imagine my surprise when, on my many suburban walks (no car, remember?) I never saw drivers beep or heckle these bronzed amazons. Brits among you will be all too familiar with the helplessly potent male known as “White Van Man”, and I put the courteous silence down to the lack of that species here – dingy, aggressively-driven Ford Transits were conspicuous in their absence.  But what I thought to be the nearest Canadian equivalent – the haulage drivers in their imposing 52ft tractor-trailers, or the delivery drivers cruising with the doors open in their Purolator & UPS trucks – were surprisingly composed too. It seemed Canadian males were less inclined to objectify women, or at the very least, least less likely to advertise it.

The real test came when work commenced on the Abilities Centre. The 125,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility meant a huge construction site lay a little way down the road from us.

Construction sites mean construction workers and depending on the kind of gal you are a scenario like this will either be like water off a duck’s back, or will strike you with fear and dread and a sudden desire to divert your usual route. All my life I’ve hated passing construction sites, stiffening at the first sign my approach has been clocked as one orange-jacketed half-brain elbows his mate so they can ogle in concert. But it’s when you get within earshot that the Teflon mindset is really tested, that’s when they start yelling,

“Awright daaahlin”

“Show us yer tits”, “Lovely knockers!”

“Ow’s abaaht a quick flash fer the lads?”

“Wanna shag?”

I’ve never figured out the reason for this performance – whether they’re significantly mentally challenged to believe that women are flooded with wanton sexual desire and instantly crave a date, “What’s yer number, daaahlin’?” or whether they’re demonstrating to their peer-group just how fixedly they can cause a girl to stare straight ahead and blank them. I must be missing something, mustn’t I?

Eventually the day came when I found myself on the far side of the construction site obliged to pass by to get home. Workers swarmed over the steel frame, toiling in the hot sun like ants around their queen. I took a deep breath and forged ahead, facing forward but sneaking sidelong glances from behind my sunglasses. I walked purposefully, every sinew tensed, anticipating the first indication they’d clocked fresh meat. But it never came. Everyone continued working regardless.

After my initial skepticism – spent tensely awaiting the jeers/leers, believing the delay to be some new kind of torture – the relief was empowering. I stood taller; there was no need to project a smaller target or hunch over to shield my body from a lascivious gaze. Free from the hindrance of looks and judgments I felt a rush of heartfelt thankfulness towards these men whose dignity and respect meant I was spared the humiliation of being reduced to something less than human, to a mere sexual object.

There are few better indications something’s wrong than a feeling of intense gratitude for something that should be yours by right.  That I’d learnt to expect such derogatory treatment is a stain on our society that many still refuse to see. I’m glad to report the average Canadian man isn’t so blinkered.


By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I grew up in South America and that treatment is run of the mill. Women of all ages are subject to many kinds of sexual harassment, from wolf-whistling to groping (as I was, on many occasions: public transport, street, etc). When you’re young, you don’t know what to do and even feel ashamed to tell others. As an adult, I have answered back and even hit a guy on the train. On that occasion, I felt extremely embarrassed but proud of myself for standing up for myself. Unfortunately, it’s what you’re driven to do.
    However, I must admit that it never happened on every place I’ve lived since then (US< UK< Canada) but when I hear a wolf-whistle, inevitably I go "yesssss, I've still got it!" I'm not getting any younger either! 🙂

    1. Lol! Hi Ana, great to hear from you! It’s strange isn’t it, there’s an imperceptible line between unsought male attention being personally validating and personally invasive. No wonder men have a hard time working us out – I just wish more of them would err on the side of caution…

  2. Hmmm. This has me really thinking. It’s giving me some much needed perspective on an annoyance that has followed me through several countries (France and here in Indonesia, especially). Unwanted, uninvited male sexual attention gives me rage attacks, especially when I’m minding my own business, and more or less respecting cultural norms. Perhaps my rage at incidents like one recently where I was surreptitiously photographed in the back of a taxi by the leering driver stems from the fact that I never really experienced this growing up in Canada.

    Incidentally, I never realised that it was so bad in the UK. Yowzers.

    1. Hi Erica, You surprised me with France – I know Italian men have a reputation but didn’t know the same was true of the French.
      You’re very lucky to have grown up in such a civilised environment. I wondered if it was a recent development (finding it hard to get my head around after my experience in the UK) perhaps following some on-site legislation that forbids it; wonderful to hear it’s always been the case.

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