Imagine this, you’re walking home late from the library one night and approaching you is a group of five boys. One of them wolf whistles and the others break out in to raucous laughter. Your heart is pumping that little bit faster, not because you are in immediate danger but because of what the whistle represents: misogyny.
Yet now, top police officials are arguing that those boy’s actions should be classified as a type of hate crime. If any crime qualifies as a hate crime then it automatically receives a longer prison sentence. That is not saying you will go to prison for wolf whistling but it’s saying any assault or incident that is deemed misogynistic in nature could be classed as a hate crime and if the victim feels like they want to take action, will be prosecuted as such. It is as of yet uncertain if the groundbreaking change in classification will be solidified and whether it will be backed up in a change of legislation or merely recommended to police forces to act upon at their discretion.
The Home Office current definition of a hate is – ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. At the moment there are five broad categories for what constitutes a hate crime: religion, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity – which encompasses transgender identity. Individual forces can add other definitions as they deem fit. Yet missing from this list is a definite category for crimes against female identities for being female.
The new debate on changing the classification of misogynistic crimes to hate crimes comes after a highly influential pilot scheme carried out by the Nottinghamshire Police in 2016. The scheme classified any acts of misogynistic behavior as a hate crime, defining them as any – ‘incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a women, and includes behavior targeted towards a women by men simply because they are women.’ Nottinghamshire’s Chief Constable, Sue Fish, said – ‘What women face, often on a daily basis, is absolutely unacceptable and can be extremely distressing.’ It is not altogether surprising to women that it falls to a female police constable to advocate such a change.
The scheme in Nottingham saw cases being reported every three days in July and August, including wolf-whistles and street harassment to the more extreme cases of kidnapping and assault. In addition to this, the Office of National Statistics reported a rise of 19% in the number of sexual offences recorded by police in the year ending June 2017 (up to 129,000), and an increase of 22% in recorded rapes (up to 45,100). The highest figures recorded since the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in April 2002. It is important to remember that this does not include those crimes that are not recorded, police suspect many victims still do not come forward at all. That being said cases such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo campaign are working to increase victims willingness to speak out.
The sheer number of reports from Nottinghamshire and nationally led to Mark Hamilton, the assistant chief constable, to speak to the Women and Equalities Committee in December 2017. He declared that if the case was deemed a hate crime and had enough evidence then a tougher sentence would be handed down. He admitted the “time was right” for the definition of a hate crime to include misogynistic acts against women.
He remarked – “So it’s not about a new crime of hate, it’s about adding another category to the enhanced process that layers on top of an offence when it occurs.” Certainly to women throughout the country this marks significant progress in stopping the daily harassment faced when walking down the street. Yet what does it mean if we add women to the list of minorities who experience hate crimes – does it imply a phallocentric understanding of the world? Women are after all 51% of the population in England. Or it is an admirable effort to equal the playing field? The change could at least acknowledge the crimes women face and will hopefully result in a change of attitudes. There would be undeniable improvement in victims receiving justice with greater accountability for the perpetrators.
Hamilton left the committee with this thought: ‘Even if a crime hasn’t been committed, the debate now is …. should we be taking action of some variety to address the behaviors before it escalates into the crime?’
Undoubtedly grass root action is needed to eradicate sexist thoughts and actions, one way being through better education and teaching on gender equality. Yet there is some hope for the future, in imagining how much of a deterrent to young boys it will be not to act in a misogynistic manner after seeing men receive life long prison sentences for the possibly newly defined ‘hate crimes’.
Mark Hamilton quoted by Lydia Smith writing for the Independent, ‘Sexism could be treated as a hate crime, says top police official’ 7th December 2017 and by Duncan Geddes writing for The Times, ‘Make sexism a hate crime’ published 7th December 2017.