Misogyny is more vicious than sexism and more violent than chauvinism. The word is widely used these days, particularly since the #MeToo movement went viral and added much-needed legitimacy to the (often violent or threatening) abuse and discrimination that women have been experiencing since time immemorial.
Despite its reasonably sudden rise to ubiquity, misogyny is more than a buzzword. It's not an invisible, nebulous concept. It's a hatred of women that informs and underpins abuse and violence from rape to domestic abuse, stalking to upskirting. And report after report confirms that it is as widespread as it is insidious. According to research conducted by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, more than two thirds of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in a public space. This statistic rises to 85% when recording the experience of women aged 18-24. And according to data from Plan UK, 66% of girls aged 14-21 have experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place.
And yet, misogyny is not technically a hate crime in this country, unless you live in a particular area. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police became the first police force in the country to enable women and girls to report cases of abuse and harassment specifically as misogyny under their Misogyny Hate Crime policy. Since then, what they have found is serious and concerning. They have recorded incidents of stalking, groping, indecent assault and kidnapping as misogynistic hate crimes. They did not initially include domestic abuse as it was already a distinct criminal offence. However, at a briefing in parliament which took place before the coronavirus lockdown, those involved in the scheme said: "Our experience of delivering training to the police tells us that, even though domestic abuse is not included within the hate crime policy, officers are often able to recognise that misogyny is likely to be at the root of this too. Similarly, we are aware that misogyny hate crime can act as a bridge to women talking about (and recognising) other forms of violence against women."
Following the example of Nottinghamshire Police, North Yorkshire, Avon and Somerset, and Northamptonshire also made misogyny a hate crime. This means that there are four forces in the country recording figures on misogynistic hate crimes. Now, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, and a number of influential women’s rights organisations (including Citizens UK, Plan UK, the Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid, Refuge, the Jo Cox Foundation and many others) are calling for a national, top-down piece of legislation that would require all police forces to do the same.
Sadly, during lockdown, while most aspects of our lives were on ice, violence against women rose. There were increased reports of street harassment and reports of domestic abuse went up. In London alone, researchers at the London School of Economics found that the Metropolitan Police received around 380 more calls a week reporting such incidents, compared to the same period last year.
Consequently, those behind the campaign to make misogyny a hate crime across the country say it’s more urgent than ever. Creasy, who tabled an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill earlier this year, tells Refinery29 that "a change in the law to ensure women are protected from harassment and abuse is long overdue". By making this change, she adds, it would be easier for "police and courts to act".
A hate crime is currently defined by the Crown Prosecution Service as "a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim's disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity." The experts involved in this campaign argue that this definition does not capture gender-based violence against women.
As you might expect, there has been much opposition towards and misinformation directed against the question of whether or not misogyny should become a hate crime. In 2018, Piers Morgan questioned whether wolf-whistling was "hatred" on Good Morning Britain. But as all of the research shows, this is bigger than that.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers and junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge explains: "As a barrister, I see ample examples of abusive behaviour that is misogyny but is not captured in our law. Citizens have a right to legal redress for misogyny. It’s time that our government recognised misogyny as an abusive practice and amend the law accordingly."
Similarly, Dr Loretta Trickett, a criminologist at Nottingham Trent University, and Professor Louise Mullany, a linguistics expert at the University of Nottingham, who conducted a report assessing the impact of Nottinghamshire Police’s decision to make misogyny a hate crime, emphasise the importance of making this change. It would, they said, "enable recognition of the deeply ingrained misogyny which lies behind many domestic abuse offences, and is an issue which has been overlooked for far too long."
Knowledge is power. Unless we are recording instances of misogynistic hatred we can’t know how many women are being affected by it across the country. Making misogyny a hate crime wouldn’t actually criminalise any behaviour that isn’t already a criminal offence. What it would do, however, is enable us to collect national data to build an accurate picture of the challenges and abuses women face day in, day out. In doing this, we would at once be able to better protect women by identifying particularly dangerous places and crack down on those hotspots.
The impact of misogyny really cannot be underestimated. As we’ve reported at Refinery29, outside busy abortion clinics all over the country women and pregnant people are being accosted by aggressive anti-abortion protestors who chant, hold signs bearing graphic images and go out of their way to intimidate anyone working in abortion services or accessing this vital medical procedure. Eve Veglio-White of the campaign group Sister Supporter, which has been working to get buffer zones implemented to protect clinic staff and users from this harassment, explains that "misogyny and abortion access are intrinsically linked. The persistent harassment and intimidation of clinic users in recent decades has been allowed to continue despite overwhelming evidence of harm caused to women and pregnant people."
"This is gendered harassment, and we truly believe it would not have continued this long if it was a cisgendered men's healthcare facility," she adds.
Living in a country where misogyny is a fact of life also affects women’s mental health. Last year the Young Women’s Trust partnered with University College London and the Economic and Social Research Council to produce a report on this. Their findings were staggering: young women aged 16-30 who experience sexism were over five times more likely to have clinical depression than young women who had not had this experience (a stronger likelihood compared to women aged 31-93, who were 2.4 times more likely to have depression). Sexism is more strongly associated with depression, poor mental functioning, poor life satisfaction, fair/poor self-rated health and reports of limiting longstanding illness in women aged 16-30 than in the overall sample (aged 16-93).
For as long as misogyny – the hatred of women – is not officially defined as a hate crime, the behaviours it perpetuates are implicitly being legitimised. By extension, women’s experiences of gender-based abuse, harassment and violence are delegitimised. A change in the law would tackle this once and for all and, crucially, finally make it clear to men and boys that it is unacceptable to abuse women.