I’ve endured 20 years of street harassment. Making misogyny a hate crime could help end it

Stella Creasy’s amendment could send a message that we don’t have to put up with it anymore.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The first time it happened, I was 14 years old. I stood at the bus stop in my school uniform, as men drove by and beeped their horns at me, and shouted out the window.

When I was 17, I was followed down the street as young men discussed how they were going to anally rape me (they used more colourful language).

Coming out of the job centre, a group of men demanded I drop my knickers. When I ignored them they chanted “bitch” at me until I cried.

The man who barked “smile”, in my face; the man who described what he wanted to do to me as I did my shopping; the man who chased me through Kings Cross; the boy who hit me as I walked home.

Those are some of the ones I remember. There are more. Every woman will have a litany of similar incidents. Stories of being followed, of being whistled at, of being shouted at, of being threatened, of being assaulted, on the street, on the train, on the bus, in the club, at the cafe.

And what do you do? You duck your chin. You force a smile. Sometimes, when you’re feeling particularly brave, you yell back. Shouting back comes with a risk though. In Paris, a woman tackling her harasser ended up being physically assaulted.

What you rarely do is report.

That could be about to change. Tomorrow, MPs will debate once again whether upskirting should be a crime, and Stella Creasy has proposed an amendment that would make misogyny an aggravating factor in criminal cases England and Wales, meaning it could be taken into account when sentencing offenders. The hope is that, should the amendment pass, it will lead to misogyny being considered a hate crime.

Currently, offences motivated by hostility based on race, religion, sexuality, gender identity and disability are considered a hate crime. However, offences based on hostility towards women are not treated in this way.

In 2016, Sheffield police force reclassified street harassment as a hate crime. The decision received a mixed reaction. While many welcomed the move, stating that harassment is a daily experience for women, some media outlets ran editorials about how wolf-whistling shouldn’t be considered hate.

Let’s face it, it’s unlikely a woman would report a man for wolf-whistling. But look at what lies behind these acts. Think about that 14-year-old girl in her school uniform, being heckled by men, and the message this behaviour sends to girls about their place in society.

These actions aren’t — despite popular misconceptions — motivated by sexual attraction. Men don’t whistle and howl and bark and make kissing noises because they are so moved by lust, they simply have to declare their intentions. Street harassment is about power. It’s about asserting men’s right to public space, and denying that same right to women.

Many men who harass women on the street will shrug off their actions as a bit of fun. As banter. This ignores the impact that harassment has on women’s lives. In a 2016 survey of European women, 42,000 respondents said they restricted their freedoms because of the fear of gender-based violence.

Calling street harassment what it is — a misogynistic act designed to intimidate and threaten women in public space — will help empower women to state they won’t put up with it. It will demonstrate to men who choose to behave in this way that their actions are unacceptable. It could bring us closer to ending the normalisation of harassment, and demand that we recognise it as equivalent to racist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist abuse.

This is hugely important. From the time they are children, girls put up with harassment. We start to accept it as an inevitable part of womanhood — as the “woman tax” we pay for taking up public space. This isn’t okay. No child should stand on the street like I did, and have to accept that this will be their new normal. Harassment, intimidation and abuse should never be considered part of life.

Secondly, categorising misogyny as a hate crime will mean recognising that some men commit violent crime against women because they are women. It sounds obvious but just think how incidents of domestic abuse are commonly framedthe “decent man” who snapped, the “nagging wife”, “the loving dad”, the “crime of passion”. Highlighting the influence of misogyny on violent crime against women will help challenge these excuses. Imagine if we saw headlines that named these acts as misogynistic hate crimes, as opposed to the “snapping” of a “decent man”. That would help change the way we think about what happens when men abuse, and even kill, women.

Of course, simply designating misogyny as a hate crime won’t end sexism, street harassment, and other crimes against women. After all, racism has been a hate crime for years and it remains endemic in British society.

The police and criminal justice system will have to work incredibly hard to give women the confidence that they will be believed and listened to. Trust in the police when it comes to reporting male violence against women and girls is fearfully low, with — for example — only 15 per cent of rapes ever reported.

But at least it gives us a language to talk about what happens to women on a daily basis, and why. Perhaps most importantly of all, this bill could send a message that misogyny has no place in a modern and equal society, and that we don’t have to put up with it anymore.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.