No, it's not ridiculous to call misogyny a hate crime

The question isn’t whether this is a necessary or an effective approach - it is why it’s taken so long to get to this point?

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Women have very little idea of how much men hate us, wrote Germaine Greer, and the criminal justice system has hardly gone out of its way to disabuse us. Hate crime monitoring by the police covers disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, but astonishingly, not sex. While the police have all-too-slowly come to recognise the systemic underpinnings of violence when it affects male victims, the targeting of women because they are women has been left behind. If you want to find out how much men hate women, you won’t find the answer in the official statistics. Until now, because a successful pilot by Nottingham Police to record misogyny as a hate crime is now being considered for adoption by forces across England and Wales.

The Nottingham experiment inevitably attracted derision on its launch in July, with multiple snickering headlines about the prospect of wolf-whistling becoming a crime – the implication being, of course, that this would be inherently absurd. What actually happened was different: under the Nottingham scheme, police have dealt with more than 20 incidents, “all of which required some form of police action”, according to Dave Alton, hate crime manager for Nottingham Police. Two men have been arrested for public order offences and actual bodily harm.

The question isn’t whether this is a necessary or an effective approach. The question is why it’s taken so long to get to this point. We know that when violence is committed against women and girls, 19 times out of 20 it’s committed by a man. We know that this happens within a society where men hold most positions of power, and where men’s work is valued more than women’s simply for being done by men; where women are made invisible in public life (as Caroline Criado Perez discovered, there are more public statues in the UK of men called John than there are of non-royal, non-fictional women); and where, when women are seen, we are presented overwhelmingly as things that should give pleasure to men as the price of imposing on their vision.

There is even a multi-billion-dollar pornography industry to relentlessly propagandise for the vision of women as sexually available playthings who should tolerate any amount of violence for the sake of a man’s orgasm. And we know definitively that men take inspiration from porn for their abuse of women, because there is now an entire genre of crime called “revenge porn” in which explicit pictures of women are either stolen or shared without consent in order to attack the subject. The kicker with revenge porn is that it’s a crime that relies on a conspiracy of woman-hating: it’s contemptible enough that a man would want to personally humiliate his ex, but it’s only possible for him to do it with the help of other men who are more than happy to look and to hate, not because they feel individually slighted by her, but simply because she’s a woman.

The evidence that male violence against women takes place in an environment of male hatred of women is everywhere. We even have a direct proof that treating it as a hate crime works, thanks to the Merseyside Model of policing prostitution: launched in 2007, this stipulated (among other things) that violence against women in prostitution should be treated as a hate crime. In the five years before, there was only one conviction for a series of assaults; under the Merseyside model, the conviction rate reached 84%.

Yet almost ten years on, the recognition of male violence against women as a hate crime remains tentative. It is still normal for police statements to describe the murder of a woman by her husband, boyfriend or ex as an “isolated incident”, as though all these incidents did not add up to a vast and hideous pattern in which men’s belief in their right to possess women turns murderous. Treating misogyny as a hate crime allows us to track those patterns. It lets us see the growth and spread of this hate, the fungal tendrils that sprout here as street harassment or there as nightclub groping are all outcrops of the same organism: a vast substructure of misogyny thriving in the mulch of our culture.

Not very long ago, a man who attacked a woman could have relied on the state to share his misogyny. Rapists could depend on a legal system with easy contempt for sexually active women; a husband who killed his wife could call on the “nagging and shagging” defence and hope that judge and jury would sympathise not only with his expectation of supremacy and ownership, but also with his fatal enforcement of it. Recognising misogyny as a hate crime is the overdue remedy for this grim injustice to women: if there are still those who find it ridiculous, perhaps that’s because they understand better than most how different our world would look without woman-hating.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.