“Making misogyny a hate crime won’t be enough to stamp out street harassment”

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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If we want fewer women to be harassed on the street, we need to tackle the ignorance at the root of the crime, says Stylist’s Moya Lothian-McLean.

Yesterday, the government announced a fully-funded review of hate crime legislation, with particular focus on whether misogyny should finally be nationally recognised under the umbrella term. The implications of the review resulting in a conclusive ‘Yes’ are so big it seems bizarre that the proposal initially made its way into the Commons as an amendment, tacked onto the upskirting bill by Labour MP Stella Creasy (who withdrew the addition after the government committed to the wider review).

I tried to imagine it, misogyny as a criminal act. A man leers at me on the street only to immediately fall to the floor twitching, brought down by a police taser. My friend is subjected to vile catcalls whilst waiting for an Uber – but immediately gains the satisfaction of a full SWAT team descending from the sky and manhandling the offender into a van. A hand reaches up and squeezes my breast while I’m waiting for a drink at the bar, and a full riot squad bursts from the pub toilets, shields and batons aloft.

Of course, the reality of officially criminalising misogynistic behaviour would look very different in practice. The changes Creasy is suggesting would simply allow sentencing judges to take into account whether someone convicted of a crime such as upskirting or voyeurism was “motivated by misogyny”. If the judge decided that they were, the offender could get a tougher sentence.

These changes, if approved, are an important step in the right direction. But the reality is that misogyny is so normalised, so embedded in our culture, that top-down changes – like new legislation – are not nearly effective enough. 

Let’s look at an area of the UK where misogyny is already treated as a hate crime. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in England to start treating misogynistic incidents as hate crimes as part of a pilot scheme.

The policy – under which reported behaviour is recorded as a ‘hate crime’ or a ‘hate incident’, depending on the nature of the offence – has certainly prompted more people to come forward with their experiences of misogyny.

However, research by the University of Nottingham shows that the problem is still greatly underreported. Almost two-thirds (65%) of Nottinghamshire women who took part in the university’s study said they still didn’t report street harassment to the police, despite the ‘misogyny hate crime’ scheme being in place.

Of the 6.6% of women who did go to the authorities with reports of misogynistic behaviour, only 1.5% said that officers managed to both track down and speak to the perpetrator. (In most cases, this is a pipe dream: a Nottinghamshire police spokesperson has admitted the force finds it “difficult to identify suspects in these cases”.) Two years since the pilot scheme was launched, it has helped secure just one conviction.

The vast majority of UK women have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives 

As well as underreporting, the Nottinghamshire policy’s general lack of success can also be attributed to a lack of proper education on the police’s side. Officers surveyed by the University of Nottingham complained that their training ahead of the pilot scheme was “particularly poor”, and overseen by people who “don’t know what they’re talking about”.

Equally disheartening were comments made by those within the force who dismissed the need to record misogyny as a hate crime in the first place.

“I think hate is a very strong word,” one police officer told researchers. “To label a bloke whistling at a woman walking down the street who he finds attractive […] I think to class it as a hate crime is problematic.”

This view was echoed by other members of the force who admitted feeling sceptical about the new policy. There was an overriding sense that misogynistic behaviour had so pervaded society that it should just be viewed as a minor irritant, and nothing more.

Of course, this is demonstrably not true; a number of studies show that any sexist behaviour – from humour to witnessing ‘locker room’ talk at work – causes serious distress and lower satisfaction levels for women, as well as causing misogyny to become further normalised.

Creasy’s amendment has the support of MPs including Conservative Nicky Morgan

But there’s the crux of the matter: misogyny is normal. It is the standard. Run of the mill. Labelling it a hate crime will do little to actually get the general public to see it as a hate crime.

Even the majority of women surveyed by the University of Nottingham did not see any point in going to the police about street harassment. They were aware of the damaging effects of misogynistic behaviour; how could they not be? But despite knowing that misogynistic incidents would be treated as a hate crime, they still couldn’t face taking the matter further.

So if misogyny does become a national hate crime on 5 September, the government needs to do more than simply sign on the dotted line. Support and proper training in understanding misogyny – not just as a neutral term, but as an offence that makes half the UK population feel like second-class citizens – should be given from the ground up.

I want to see this training delivered not only to police officers but all civilians, from children in schools to financial consultants sitting in glassy skyscrapers, by a mix of experts and real women who’ve suffered from it. We have to educate everyone about the importance of taking misogyny seriously first, or this policy will flop.

And we shouldn’t want it to flop, because Creasy’s amendment has the potential to finally put the law on the side of women, not street harassers. It could be a history maker. But only if we’ve tackled the ignorance at the root of misogyny to begin with.

This article was updated on 6 September to include the fact that the government has announced a formal review into whether misogyny should be classed as a hate crime.

Images: Getty Images