A widely shared video of a woman being attacked by a man outside a Parisian cafe when she told him to “shut up” after he allegedly used “dirty words that were humiliating and provocative” brought the issue of misogynistic hate crime to the attention of millions. But this wasn’t a one-off incident. It’s an example of something countless women endure every day – as we discovered during our research.
Our research focused on the UK, where Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the country to introduce misogyny as a hate crime in April 2016. Other forces have started to follow suit and police chiefs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being urged to support a national roll out.
Stella Creasy MP has argued that misogyny should become a national crime as part of the upskirting bill currently making its way through parliament, and a national roll out has the backing of the Fawcett Society, Citizens UK and a number of other pressure groups.
Two years on from the policy’s introduction in Nottinghamshire, our research assessed the impact that the policy has had on the everyday lives of the general public and the police.
Our research, consisting of surveys, focus groups and interviews with almost 700 residents, demonstrated overwhelming public support for a national roll out of the policy. Incidents of misogyny hate crime are highly prevalent in society, with 93.7% of respondents experiencing or witnessing street harassment in Nottinghamshire alone.
Many participants reported experiencing the same behaviours across the country, in locations where they have either lived or visited. This accords with the growing evidence base that demonstrates the endemic nature of harassment of women in public spaces across the UK and internationally.
A widespread problem
In our study, high percentages of women regularly experienced harassment at the higher end of the crime continuum, including unwanted sexual advances (48.9%), groping (46.2%), sexually explicit language (54.3%) and indecent exposure (25.9%). A quarter (24.7%) of respondents reported that they had experienced sexual assault. These incidents are taking place in a variety of public spaces, including public transport, workplaces, bars, clubs, restaurants, gyms and car parks, as well as on the street and online – a fifth of respondents reported experiencing online abuse (21.7%).
These findings are in stark contrast to the mass media’s initial trivialisation of the policy as political correctness gone mad, ridiculing it as the criminalisation of wolf-whistling. In fact, the law has not changed at all – instead, it is the way that crimes and incidents are recorded that has changed. Serious crimes are clearly taking place, and one of Nottinghamshire Police’s key goals is to assure women that they will be taken seriously if they come forward to report.
However, as with all hate crimes and crimes and incidents against women, reporting levels remain very low. Society has consistently underplayed violence against women and girls in contexts other than the street, including domestic violence within the home. In fact, only 6.6% of victims reported incidents of misogyny hate crime to police. This is partly due to factors including the “normalisation” of these incidents in wider society, fear of not being taken seriously and/or fear of victim blaming.
It is also due to the need for more publicity surrounding the policy. Of those who did report, 75% had a positive experience of interacting with the police. Most importantly, 100% of those who reported said that they would report again. Victims stressed the importance of the police “taking them seriously” and demonstrating empathy, which was often more important than potential prosecutions – often street crimes take place very quickly, with little chance to get decent descriptions of perpetrators. Nevertheless, victims value the opportunity to report and to know that their concerns are taken seriously.
Worryingly, 74.9% of women reported that incidents have had a long-term impact on them, with 63.1% changing their behaviour as a consequence. These incidents are having a damaging impact on women’s freedom of movement in public spaces, their fear of crime and are a clear infringement of their human rights. Notably, women from black and minority ethnic groups often experience misogyny hate crime and race hate crime simultaneously and report feeling doubly vulnerable to attack.
Men want to prevent it, too
The vast majority of male respondents found the behaviours characteristic of misogyny hate crime completely unacceptable and wanted to prevent it from happening. They valued the opportunity to be consulted and wanted to help by being fully integrated in discussions and follow-up initiatives. Many of the men we spoke to advocated the need for high profile male role models to be identified as supporting the initiative, akin to how anti-racism campaigns in sport have been successfully implemented. Participants also suggested on the spot fines for perpetrators, a policy which is already being used in France.
Some 45.6% of all respondents thought that education was key to changing societal attitudes, with 95.2% reporting that they perceived these behaviours to be part of a broader social problem. In our view, these educational initiatives need to start early, in primary school, and be prioritised within national and international teaching curricula, with mutual respect, healthy relationships and the use of inappropriate behaviours and language being openly discussed and addressed. These practices should be fully integrated with continuing initiatives into adulthood, including workplaces, community groups and other highly influential institutions, such as national sporting organisations.
Working in direct conjunction with policing initiatives, the implementation of strategies to make such behaviour socially unacceptable, as well as criminal, would be a clear step in the right direction to change such behaviour in future.
Written by Louise Mullany, Professor in Sociolinguistics, University of Nottingham