Cat-calling, unwanted sexual comments and other misogynistic acts are now considered hate crimes in Nottinghamshire, England — a first for the U.K. The change was spearheaded by the local police force and a women’s centre after research showed that 85 percent of women in the U.K. between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public. (More than 80 percent of Canadian women have been harassed by a male stranger, according to a similar study from 2000.) Treating misogyny as a hate crime means women who are targeted because of their gender can seek intervention from the police. Unsolicited crotch shots and texts, photographing someone without their consent and uninvited advances all fall under the new hate crime classification.
“This is an everyday experience for thousands of women here in our city and we want to do something different, so we’ve risen to that challenge,” says Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Sue Fish.
Like most women, Fish has experienced the kind of harassment she’s working to dissuade. The new classification isn’t a law, but is intended to set boundaries Fish says didn’t previously exist and to encourage women to report misogynistic incidents so police can record them and offer victims support.
We called Fish to find out whether labelling misogyny a hate crime has made a difference and how she handles critics.
How’s the response been so far?
We’ve had 15 reports between April 1 and July, but we’re starting to see quite a take up in reporting — and we’ve had some fantastic feedback from victims. In the research, it came up that women didn’t report these incidents because they thought the police would laugh at them. I’m proud that hasn’t been the case and how well my staff has understood what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
And what happens to the perpetrators?
It depends on the nature of the offence. We had a guy who yelled out of the window of his van at a woman cycling, saying what he would like to do to bits of her anatomy. She reported this to us and said, “I just want him to know the effect it had on me and that it’s unacceptable.” We went to see the man and he did this sort of thing all the time. He’d never been challenged, except by his mate who was the driver, and he had no idea of the impact. We talked it through with the man and he apologized unreservedly. This was relatively low level in terms of the seriousness in law, but for other situations, if there is escalation of offending, the perpetrator could go to court.
What about men who view these acts as a form of flirting?
Chatting up women is not unlawful. It’s not about what people can and can’t do; it’s how they do it. Forgive me for being graphic, but it’s the difference between a man says, “Can I buy you a drink?” as opposed to, “Do you want some cock?” And that’s at the polite end.
Some people must think this isn’t serious police business.
[People have] tried to trivialize it to undermine the validity of what we’re doing. We’ve had women’s experiences where it’s gone from something very low level but then escalated. This is preventative work that means we don’t have to have women that are either physically attacked or sexually assaulted or have to compromise their life to avoid this sort of experience.
What’s your response to someone who says labelling cat-calling as a hate crime is extreme political correctness?
[That view] reinforces why there is a need to understand this type of hate crime and challenge some of society’s institutional sexism. It makes me more determined to do the right thing.