A major review into hate crime in England and Wales is currently underway. But what will it actually mean if misogynistic offences are recognised as hate crimes? Stylist investigates.
If you’re a woman who’s ever been outside, you’ve probably experienced street harassment. It’s an often unavoidable, and depressingly unifying, part of the female experience – and for generations, it’s been accepted as something that we simply have to put up with.
According to research by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, more than two-thirds of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in a public place, a figure that rises to a staggering 85% of women aged 18-24. In 2018, a landmark report by MPs concluded that women and girls across the UK face “relentless” harassment and abuse in public, ranging from cat-calling on the street to sexual assaults on buses and trains.
Now, though, change is afoot. The Law Commission, the independent body that examines laws in England and Wales and recommends changes where needed, is currently carrying out a major review into hate crime legislation. As part of this effort, it’s exploring whether misogyny should be recognised as a hate crime – a move that could help police clamp down on the harassment of women in public places, as well as other gendered crimes such as groping, indecent assault, stalking and kidnapping.
Specifically, the Law Commission is examining how sex and gender characteristics are treated under existing hate crime laws, and assessing whether those laws should be updated. Currently, hate crime is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as “a range of criminal behaviour” – including verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying – “where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity”.
As it stands, hostility towards women isn’t mentioned in hate crime legislation. But many of us have been subjected to these exact behaviours, from harassment to verbal abuse and assault, in ways that are intrinsically linked to our femaleness. And because misogyny often interacts with different forms of bigotry, women who face prejudice against other aspects of their identity can be particularly vulnerable to street harassment, abuse and violence in public. Many black women report experiencing racist abuse after rejecting sexual propositions in public, while data from monitoring group Tell Mama shows that Muslim women make up almost 60% of victims of Islamophobic hatred on UK streets.
Last year, Labour MP Stella Creasy put forward an amendment to the Voyeurism Bill – the legislation spearheaded by upskirting activist Gina Martin – that would have made misogyny a hate crime. She later withdrew the amendment after the government promised the issue would be considered as part of the Law Commission review, in order to avoid delaying the bill.
“Women are rightly protected from harassment in the workplace, but that changes as soon as they step out onto the street,” Creasy tells Stylist. “Research shows us that sexual harassment in public is a huge problem, yet the vast majority of women never report such incidents. Making misogyny a hate crime will give women greater confidence that if they report their experiences to the police, it will be taken seriously.”
Some newspapers and male daytime talk show hosts would have you believe that making misogyny a hate crime will lead to men being arrested for wolf whistling. But that’s really not the case. In fact, recording misogyny as a hate crime won’t criminalise any behaviours that aren’t offences already. But it will allow police to collect better data on the public harassment and abuse of women, enabling them to assess how serious the problem is in their area and identify hotspots where women are particularly vulnerable.
Supporters of the policy say that making misogyny a hate crime would also empower more women to report men who harass or abuse women in public. Nottinghamshire Police began recording the public harassment of women – as well as more serious offences like assault – as misogynistic hate crimes in 2016, a trailblazing pilot scheme supported by Nottingham Women’s Centre. As Helen Voce, the organisation’s chief executive, puts it: “The primary objective of the policy change was not to see hundreds of prosecutions, it was to let people know that this behaviour isn’t acceptable and will not be tolerated in Nottinghamshire.”
Finally, making misogyny a hate crime would allow judges to hand down harsher sentences in cases where someone had committed a crime against a woman on the basis of her gender. This already happens in hate crime cases related to other protected characteristics: a judge could decide to give a longer sentence in an assault case that was found to be motivated by racism, for example.
“It is odd that in some quarters there is more concern about some men’s rights to wolf-whistle, than women’s rights to live their lives free from sexist abuse,” says Ella Smillie, head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society, which is backing the campaign to make misogyny a hate crime.
“We need to recognise the serious damage misogyny does – it is at the root of violence against women and girls. This legal change would mean we could recognise in law the additional harm those crimes do to women across society, and support the police in tackling them.”
However, not everyone thinks that misogyny should be recognised as a hate crime. Notably, Cressida Dick – the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – has made clear that she doesn’t consider the issue a priority, saying last year that police officers should instead be “focusing on the things that they public tell me they care most about”.
But evidence suggests that the public does care about this issue. In 2018, a major report by Nottingham Women’s Centre found that over 87% of people in the county agreed with the decision to make misogyny a hate crime, despite the fact that the policy had resulted in just one conviction in two years. Just 6.5% of survey respondents thought the initiative should be scrapped.
“Women of all ages in my constituency of Walthamstow regularly contact me about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse – and they are not alone in being frustrated at a lack of action on these crimes,” says Creasy. “This isn’t about wolf whistling. Women want the same freedom as men to be able to walk down the street or take a bus without being frightened they are at risk.”
How you can you help make misogyny a hate crime: a 3-point guide
1) Contact the Law Commission
The Law Commission will be presenting its final report, containing recommendations on if and how hate crime legislation should be reformed, in early 2021. It will then be up to the government to decide whether to act. But it will be much harder for political leaders to ignore the issue if the Law Commission strongly endorses making misogyny a hate crime – a conclusion that can genuinely be shaped by the voices of real women.
If you live in England and Wales, you’re entitled to contact the Law Commission with your personal experiences of misogynistic incidents in public life at firstname.lastname@example.org. The body will be conducting a formal consultation on its reform proposals early next year, part of which will involve listening to the views of ordinary people.
2) Share your experiences with Citizens UK
The charity Citizens UK, which has been involved in the anti-misogyny campaign since 2014, is currently surveying people about their experiences of all kinds of hate crime. It will be presenting its findings to the Law Commission further down the line – so taking part in the survey is a great way to get involved if you’d rather not contact the Law Commission directly.
From the end of August, Citizens UK is also running a series of evidence hearings in Newcastle, Birmingham, London, Cardiff and Manchester, where people can come together to share their experiences of hate crime. Find out more about the events here.
“The #MeToo movement showed that with thousands of women coming forward to share their stories, we can change attitudes and hold powerful men to account,” says Dr Helen Jarvis, a Citizens UK member and academic at Newcastle University, which is hosting one of the evidence hearings on 29 August.
“Sharing your experiences in the survey will help the Law Commission make clear the case for better protections for women to be included in hate crime legislation to make our public spaces and institutions a safer environment for women.”
3) Act local
There are also more local ways you can take action on this issue. Remember, all police forces could follow Nottinghamshire’s lead and start recording misogyny hate crimes of their own volition: police in North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset and Avon, Surrey and Gloucestershire have already done so. And pressure from local residents can be an effective way of persuading police to take an issue seriously.
Citizens UK community organiser Martha Jephcott launched the Nottingham branch of anti-street harassment campaign group Hollaback in 2014, and later helped train Nottinghamshire Police officers to respond effectively to misogyny hate crimes. She recommends finding out if there’s a branch of Citizens UK, Hollaback or a similar organisation working on making misogyny a hate crime in your area. If there isn’t, start one yourself.
“First, find out how your local police force currently logs misogynistic hate crimes,” Jephcott says. “Some forces tick a box called ‘hate crime other’ when recording misogyny hate crimes, and some don’t record them at all.
“Then gather some women you love and start a local group. Set up a social media profile with an easily-recognisable hashtag so women can tweet you their experiences, or put on events where women can share their stories.”
Once you’ve gathered a bank of stories, ideally with details on when and where the incidents took place, take that information to police. “Capturing the human side of the issue is really important,” says Jephcott, “and it also gives police data they can work with.”
Perhaps most importantly, remember that misogynistic harassment and abuse – from cat-calling to assault and everything in between – is not the price women should have to pay for existing in public.
“I am confident that this campaign will win in the end,” Jephcott says. “Women know how debilitating living with these incidents can be, and we must make bold decisions to protect women and girls and allow them to feel safe to live their lives fully. I truly believe we will look back in 20 years and wonder what took us so long.”
For useful tips on how to respond to street harassment, visit Hollaback’s website. If you have been a victim of sexual assault or another gender-based crime, you can find resources offering advice and support at endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk
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