Ella Whelan

Let’s not pretend misogyny is a hate crime

Let's not pretend misogyny is a hate crime
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Have you ever met a real misogynist? Probably not, because misogyny is a very strong word. Coming from the ancient Greek misos (hatred) and gyne (woman), it should only be used to define extreme behaviour: woman-hating to be exact. 

And yet some people seem to think that British streets are full of woman-haters. Misogyny was made a hate crime in Nottingham two years ago, meaning that anyone caught wolfwhistling at women, being sexually explicit or generally mean to the fairer sex was liable to be investigated by the police as a woman-hater. This pilot scheme has been deemed to be a success; now some campaigners are calling for misogyny to be classed as a hate crime across the whole of the UK.

This is a bad idea for several reasons, not least because the experiment in Nottingham has actually been something of a monumental failure. Over the last two years, only 174 reports were made by women. Of these, 73 were recorded as crimes and 101 were classified as incidents. A misogyny epidemic? Hardly. Nottinghamshire's population of 810,000 people means that just over 0.02 per cent of Nottinghamshire residents reported a misogynistic hate crime over two years.

Not to be deterred, some are apparently still desperate to suggest that misogyny really is out of control. The 'Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report', carried out by the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, concluded that ‘nine out of 10 (residents) had either experienced or witnessed street harassment’. 'Whistling' was at the top of the list, with ‘sexually explicit language’ in close second. But if this is really the case, why weren't more of these incidents reported?

It's also worth asking whether it is wise to add another hate crime to the growing list. Indeed, even the very concept of a hate crime is questionable: there are already laws which criminalise assault and harassment, so labelling something as ‘hateful’ doesn’t seem to add much to the pursuit of justice. Nottingham Women’s Centre chief executive, Helen Voce, even admitted that prosecutions weren’t the point of this exercise: ‘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.’ In other words, calling something a hate crime is largely symbolic – it’s about sending a message.

But who is the message for? After all, the small number of men who do these things already know it’s unacceptable; that’s why they do it. But more importantly, women also know it’s unacceptable – and very rarely put up with it. I nearly lost a boot as a teenager after attempting to kick a guy through an open car window who’d told me one too many times what explicit things he’d like to do to me. Most people who responded to Nottingham’s university researchers said they dealt with it by walking away. Street harassment is rare, and often unpleasant, but it’s not something women can’t handle. The fact that women don’t get catcalled on a regular basis today is down to the fact that our mothers and grandmothers were the kind of women who shouted, spat and fought back against street harassment – and changed behaviour as a result. (And they certainly didn’t need a law to help them.)

Those calling for misogyny to be classified as a hate crime should be careful. In allowing misogyny to be redefined as simply ‘being rude to women’, they are demeaning the seriousness of incidents in which woman hating is still very real. Asking police to intervene every time someone uses ‘sexually explicit language’ means there are fewer officers to respond to calls of domestic abuse or rape. This policy change is being cheered on by point-scoring politicians and column-hungry commentators who feel comfortable speaking for all women. The reality is, most women don’t want this policy change. Don’t believe the hype: misogyny isn't a hate crime and it's wrong to treat it as one.