should catcalling be classified as a hate crime?
As Labour MP Melanie Onn asks parliament to make sexist abuse a hate crime, we consider issues raised around freedom of speech, classism and the fear that men will be banged-up for whistling.
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On Wednesday, Grimsby’s Labour MP Melanie Onn made a speech in parliament calling on the government to classify catcalling and other forms of sexist abuse as hate crimes. “All forms of abuse are committed disproportionately against women and girls, and the perpetrators are usually men,” she told Westminster Hall. “Violence against women and girls is part of what is stopping women achieving equality,” Melanie said, explaining that lower-level misogynistic incidents are so ubiquitous -- 90% of women have experienced street harassment before they are 17, and 85% of women aged 18-24 report receiving unwanted sexual attention -- that it has “become the wallpaper of their lives”. And it isn’t simply that lower-level incidents are so pervasive, so quotidian; but that a clear link has been found to more serious offenses. Citing findings from a Nottinghamshire Police pilot that has investigated sexist abuse as hate crimes since 2016, Melanie told Parliament that it “found men who carried out more serious sexual assaults ‘took part in this kind of low-level targeting or harassment of women.’”
Since the aims of Melanie’s speech were reported in the press earlier this week, the MP says she has experienced a furious backlash, all before she even had the opportunity to make her case. “The fact that I have had the temerity to call for this debate -- this exploration of ideas -- has provoked a backlash of vile fury. I have been told that I am in some way a man-hater, that I have no sense of humour and that I should most certainly learn to take a compliment,” she explained. Saying she would continue to discuss the issue, because she is ”not a snowflake, as has been suggested,” Melanie added that the backlash only “highlights why women and girls are so often put off from directly challenging behaviour at the time the incidents occur. They are put off from even reporting them, given that the potential response is so aggressive.”
It is not the first time that classing misogyny as a hate crime has been mooted. Six years ago, on International Women’s Day 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron (and coalition pal Nick Clegg) signed a European convention on violence against women. In doing so, they pledged to take “necessary legislative measures” against those who broke its clauses, which included making sexist comments and shouting or whistling at women in the street -- though Cameron’s official spokesperson sought to downplay the catcalling element, telling press at the time, “We have harassment laws in this country. We are not proposing to criminalise wolf-whistling.”
In America, after a hollaback video went viral, showing the deluge of sexualised comments and threatening behaviour faced by a woman walking silently through New York, activists called for a similar ban. However, the strong First Amendment right to freedom of speech would make such a ban difficult, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union told the NYT at the time. “Disorderly conduct and ‘obscene gesture’ laws… can be (and often are) misused against lawful protesters, people criticising the police and individuals filming officers in public. Extending disorderly conduct laws to unwanted verbal interactions would amplify the potential for misuse in these and other areas,” they said, also noting that, much like stop-and-frisk programs and anti-panhandling laws, anti-misogyny laws could be “used pretextually as part of ‘broken windows’ policing, which disproportionately impacts communities of colour”.
While racist policing is a very serious issue that must be dealt with, both in the US and here in the UK, using it as a reason not to protect women of all races seems an unhelpful misdirection. And fortunately we are not bound by the uneven inflexibility of the US constitution here in the UK. But there are other objections to criminalising misogynistic abuse. Currently, the government’s position is that existing legislation covers the most extreme offenses. The Conservative Minister for Women, Victoria Atkins MP, noted during the discussion in parliament this morning that the government has committed “to publish a landmark draft domestic abuse bill” -- though they have not yet done so -- and that they have introduced “new offences for coercive and controlling behaviour, stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation,” as well as banning revenge porn last month, and announcing increased sentences for domestic abuse.
But while existing UK laws around harassment and violence would, in theory, make much of the misogyny faced by women a matter for police investigation, women are so used to such abuse being -- as Melanie described it -- “the wallpaper of their lives,” they don’t actually report incidents to police. As Melanie Onn said to local paper the Grimsby Telegraph, “I've been told by police that women don't necessarily report these incidents, such as men standing far too close to them on public transport. In my experience, the first thing you do in that situation is doubt yourself that it is even happening. And even when you know it is, you don’t know if the perpetrator will react aggressively if you do confront them about it.” If, as in Nottingham, an effort was made to make women aware that they could report catcalls or being followed by men as misogynistic hate crimes, undoubtedly more would do so. A change in the law, Melanie says, “would give women the confidence to report these things”.
"71% of women in the UK report adapting their behaviour to protect themselves from the threat of harassment, such as changing their route to work or avoiding parks."
The fear that men could be jailed for wolf-whistling cropped up again when the Nottingham pilot was announced, but it has -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- proved to be unfounded. Speaking to the Guardian after the pilot launched in 2016, Nottingham Police hate crime manager Dave Alton said, “The number of reports we are receiving is comparable with other, more established, categories of hate crime. We have received numerous reports and have been able to provide a service to women in Nottinghamshire who perhaps wouldn’t have approached us six months ago. The reality is that all of the reports so far have required some form of police action.” In fact, more than 20 investigations were launched during the first two months, with reports ranging from verbal harassment to sexual assault; and the BBC report that in the first eight months of the pilot, “79 misogynistic acts were recorded, with 31 of them marked as hate crimes.”
It is clear to the women who experience sexist harassment and abuse -- and now to the Nottinghamshire Police force -- that there are crimes being committed against women, because they are women. Classifying such incidents as hate crimes motivated by misogyny is not only accurate, but it has, in Nottingham, shown that being specific in this way gives women confidence to report such incidents, thereby allowing police to investigate whether a crime has been committed -- and, importantly, to collect data on this issue. As Dame Lara Cox, chair of the Fawcett Society sex discrimination law review, has said: “Laws are instruments in changing attitudes, setting the bar for expectations of treatment and behaviour.”
71% of women in the UK report adapting their behaviour to protect themselves from the threat of harassment, such as changing their route to work or avoiding parks. As Lauri Apple wrote on Jezebel after the hollaback video in New York went viral, “Having a man or group of men talk about your body while you're just trying to go about your business is not just annoying -- it sends the message that you don't have the right to be left alone, which makes the streets feel less safe. You're a target, simply for being present.” Professor Laura Beth Nielsen, who wrote in the NYT after the video and corresponded with an Atlantic journalist who disagreed, goes further, explaining that, “Street harassment is a social problem, not just an annoyance. It is an exclusionary tactic. Invoking racist and sexist power in public places subordinates and excludes. It keeps women from going certain places, from taking certain routes, and from full engagement in society. The research is very clear on that. If we value full public, democratic and civic participation, we have to stop the kinds of pervasive harassment that systematically exclude members of traditionally disempowered groups.”
As Melanie Onn MP said in parliament, women will not achieve equality until both actual violence, and the constant threat of violence -- wherever we go, whatever we are doing, and however we are dressed -- are fully addressed as the uniquely gendered issues, and often crimes, that they truly are. As Walthamstow Labour MP Stella Creasy told parliament: “By categorising sexual harassment as a hate crime, we would change the conversation so that it was not about what women need to do to avoid it.” As with the most extreme gendered violence, so it is with the constant lower-level harassment, abuse and threats -- we must not expect women to live less full lives in an un-winnable battle to avoid male violence. Instead, we must teach men that their intimidating, inappropriate, threatening and violent actions are the problem, and if we are serious about the value of women, we must insure that there are consequences. A law giving police the power to investigate such behaviour as hate crimes motivated by misogyny would do exactly that. In Nottingham, it already has.