It is time all of us – including police – treated hatred of women as a specific crime, argues Sam Smethers
The police are under huge pressure. For the Metropolitan police in particular, growing knife and gang violence on the streets of London is looming large as their top priority. The mayor of London Sadiq Khan is investing more resource but has also said that there is no quick fix and spoken of it taking 10 years to turn this around. I live in north London and used to work for the Edmonton member of parliament, Andy Love. News of the latest stabbings in Edmonton bring this home all the more starkly.
I understand why, then, when feminist campaigners like me start talking about recording misogyny as a hate crime the immediate reaction from our police service is to resist and say it is not possible. Both Sara Thornton, the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, have made plain their opposition to the change, citing scarce policing resources and talking instead about reverting to ‘core policing’. The police are under renewed pressure because the government has just announced that the Law Commission will be conducting a review of hate crime. The Fawcett Society very much welcomes this review, but clearly, there is a bit of police pushback going on.
So who defines what is a crime and what should the police regard as ‘core policing’? Sara Thornton was quoted referring to wanting to solve more burglaries. I have been burgled four times as a London resident. The police response each time was prompt, sympathetic but minimal with an emphasis on what I can and should do to protect my property, not what they should do to find the culprits. I understand that. For me, crimes against property are less of a priority than crimes against the person. Which is why misogyny matters. Because it is about hate directed at women because they are women.
The definition of what is or is not a crime clearly cannot sit with the service tasked with investigating crime. That has to be determined by society and legislated for by parliament. If we limit ourselves to only including on our list of crimes those offences which the police should deem to be a priority then we can all draw up a long list of things which we could cross off the list (car crime, vandalism would be on mine). But the law is not only about enforcement, it is also about regulating the behaviour of others and of ourselves. If we have any respect for the law at all then it does not take a police officer knocking on our door to make us abide by it. It can still send a strong signal and change behaviour.
Hate crime, as defined by the Crown Prosecution Service and National Police Chiefs’ Council, is: ‘any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender’.
The truth is, since the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and particularly online, we have become a society which is unacceptably at ease with hate. People dispense it towards each other at frequent intervals via social media. Women experience it more than men. But we see black women and Muslim women particularly targeted. Tell Mama has documented in detail the rise in hate crime against Muslim people on our streets and in public places. We have also seen a sharp rise in antisemitism. Whole communities are living in fear.
It is welcome that Thornton did not argue that the police should stop recording hate crimes on these existing grounds, just that she does not want to extend it to include misogyny. The discussion with Dick on the Today programme which followed went on predictably to trivialise misogyny hate crime as ‘wolf whistling’ so as to suggest that somehow this is the extent and focus of misogyny in our society. It is frankly offensive to caricature misogyny in this way. It dismisses women and misses the glaringly obvious point that misogyny comes in many forms and it most certainly meets the definition already ascribed to other forms of hate crime. Importantly, that includes those existing crimes, from assault to online abuse, which are misogynistic in their intent.
But let us be clear, when we have 12-year-old girls on their way to school who are ‘wolf whistled’ by grown men then that is intimidating. It is not flattering and it is not acceptable.
There are police forces now which have already started to record misogyny as a hate crime. In Nottinghamshire their experience has been that far from reporting wolf whistling women have actually been reporting harassment, abuse, sexual assault, i.e. crimes that the police should be dealing with already but which were not characterised as hate crimes and, most importantly of all, which those women felt less able to report as they did not think the police would take them seriously. By working together, Nottinghamshire Women’s Centre, Nottinghamshire Citizens and the local police have both educated and informed police officers about what misogyny hate crime actually is and how it is experienced by women on a daily basis, and they have improved reporting and clear up rates for serious crimes such as harassment and assault. Women have spoken of being able to walk with their ‘heads held high’. They feel like their police have got their back and understand them. North Yorkshire have since followed Nottinghamshire’s lead and Avon and Somerset have plans to do so.
So clearly it is possible to record misogyny as a hate crime, and it can work in terms of policing. The next question therefore is, could the system cope with the scale of it? Of course, that is the wrong question. In fact, we should be asking why we are not treating as a hate crime something which the Crime Survey of England and Wales already shows is a common form of hate crime. New data, which – in response to a request from the Fawcett Society – the Office for National Statistics has recently released, shows that hate crime based on gender, and interestingly also on age, is more common than that based on disability, sexual orientation or religion. The statistics suggest that gender is equivalent to race in terms of the total number of hate crimes recorded (67,000 vs 66,000 personal crimes respectively). These figures are the tip of the iceberg – they only refer to incidents of violence, robbery or theft that the ONS asks about, not the additional harassment and abuse that the police are also tackling in places like Nottinghamshire.
For women, misogynistic hate crime by this ONS definition is by far the most common form of hate crime they experience – gender-based hate crime makes up 55 per cent of hate crime incidents where a woman was the victim, with age the next most frequent at 39 per cent.
For hate crimes where women were the victims, 55 per cent were gender-based crimes. Whereas for hate crimes where men were the victims, just 8.4 per cent were gender-based. For men the greatest proportion of hate crime targeted at them was race-based crime at 43 per cent.
We also need to consider whether these crimes are being experienced in an intersectional way, such as whether it is Muslim women, black women, older women who are particularly targeted. We need to get much better at recording data which actually reflects the experiences of the people we are talking to, otherwise we will never develop a true picture. At the moment hate crimes are not recorded by police in an intersectional way, that needs to change.
We have to understand the connection between misogyny all the way along the scale, from objectification, to ‘low level’ harassment, to more serious forms of abuse.
When we interviewed young women about their experiences we found that something that for example can start off as simply as a boy asking a girl for her phone number can quickly escalate into verbal or physical abuse if she says no. It is because he feels entitled to her and her role is to comply. Our society routinely creates a climate which both objectifies women and blames them if they are harassed or attacked. The message is she should change her behaviour, it is her job to manage his reaction. But what about her right to live in dignity, free from abuse and violence? Another Fawcett report, Sounds Familiar, found that there is still a prevalent blame culture against women. Sadly, 38 per cent of all men and 34 per cent of all women agree that if a woman goes out late at night wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is attacked then she is wholly or partly to blame. No. It is her attacker who is to blame.
One in four women experience domestic violence, two women each week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. One in five women over the age of 16 have been sexually assaulted. The CPS is currently failing rape victims who find that their personal sexual history is on trial more than the rapist. Much of the violence in our society is directed against women and takes up a huge amount of police resource. Unless we face up to the scale of misogyny in our society and start to challenge it wherever we find it, we will never change it. I was struck by the words of a teacher who said to me that it would really help her in her efforts to teach relationship and sex education at school if misogyny were treated as a hate crime, because the young men she is teaching just do not seem to take it seriously. As far as I am concerned, this is serious, this is core policing, this needs to change. It is time our police recognised that too. At Fawcett we stand ready to support the police to lobby for more resource to enable them to better do their jobs. So how about we work together to better protect women?
Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett Society
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