If you are a woman and you’ve ever been bold enough to leave the house, it’s likely that you will have been sexually harassed at some point. Perhaps it came in the form of the male driver who pulled up to the kerb as you walked to work, then called you a slut when you declined to get in. Maybe it was the group of teenage boys who grabbed you, laughing, as you jogged past them, or the middle-aged man surreptitiously taking photos of you as you sat opposite him on the tube. Or maybe it was scarier than any of those.
Tackling the sexual harassment of women has not, historically, been a priority for police. But now, in an attempt to crack down on sexist abuse, a police force in England has said it will record uninvited sexual and verbal advances towards women – potentially including catcalling and wolf-whistling in the street – as hate crimes.
In a first for a UK police force, Nottinghamshire Police has expanded its definition of hate crime to include misogynistic incidents: where a woman is victimised because of a man’s attitude towards women.
“Examples of this may include unwanted or uninvited sexual advances; physical or verbal assault; unwanted or uninvited physical or verbal contact or engagement; use of mobile devices to send unwanted or uninvited messages or take photographs without consent or permission,” it says.
Hate crime is currently defined by the Crown Prosecution Service as any criminal offence carried out because of prejudice or hostility based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.
Some 85% of British women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places and 45% have experienced unwanted sexual touching, according to a YouGov survey published earlier this year. The study, commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, found that 64% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public places, and 35% of all women have experienced unwanted sexual touching.
“I’m delighted that we are leading the way towards tackling misogyny in all its forms,” said Nottinghamshire Police's Ch Con Sue Fish on Wednesday. “It’s a very important aspect of the overall hate crime work being conducted and one that will make Nottinghamshire a safer place for all women. What women face, often a daily basis, is absolutely unacceptable and can be extremely depressing.”
The Guardian suggests that this definition could be broad enough include wolf-whistling – citing as a precedent the police investigation of a building firm last year, after a 23-year-old woman reported the company’s employees for whistling at her.
Despite how that case was widely reported at the time, Poppy Smart did not go to Worcestershire police after ‘just’ one incident of wolf-whistling. Rather, she endured a month of taunts, sexual comments, whistles and physical intimidation from the men on her way to work – behaviour that would appear to meet Nottinghamshire Police’s new criteria for misogynistic hate incidents.
The 'Report it to Stop it' campaign aims to encourage women to report sexual harassment on public transport.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Agaisnt Women Coalition, told The Guardian: “It is great that police in Nottingham will be capturing the way a lot of harassment in public spaces is targeted at women and girls.
“It should also challenge the idea that women and girls in public or online spaces are ‘fair game’,” she added. “We know that ignoring harassment and sexist bullying creates the impression that other types of violence against women will be tolerated, so we welcome any action which counters this.”
While Nottinghamshire Police are the first UK police force to take such a strong stance on the issue, other independent organisations have been campaigning against misogynistic harassment for years. Hollaback London run events and workshops to educate and raise awareness of the issue, as well as inviting women and LGBTQ people to post stories and pictures of street harassment onto their site and mobile app.
The Good Night Out Campaign offers training, advice and support for clubs and music venues to tackle and prevent harassment. And after the ‘Report It to Stop It’ campaign was launched in April 2015, reports and arrests of unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport increased by almost 40%.