In May 2016, Nottinghamshire police began recording public harassment of women as a hate crime—meaning that instances of sexual assault, catcalling and capturing or releasing unwanted photos would be punished more severely. The purpose of the reclassification is to eradicate the root causes of gender based violence, rather than taking a reactive approach after an incident has occurred. Deputy Green Party Leader Amelia Womack has been leading the charge by campaigning to expand the rule to the entire UK.
Public support for the new policy is robust, but police have been hesitant or completely opposed to reporting misogyny as a hate crime. Research by Professor Louise Mullany in Nottingham found that police officers considered the reclassification to be a waste of resources and an overreaction; others even said that street harassment should be seen as a compliment rather than a degrading comment.“I can see where they are going with it,” one male police officer reportedly said, “but I feel sorry for blokes because they must be confused by what they can and can’t say.”
The opinions of police officers stand in sharp contrast to the sentiments—and experiences—of the public. While it’s important to punish the perpetrators of violent crimes, supporters argued that most of the change of policy was meant to bring awareness to how pervasive misogyny is. Data collected in Nottingham entirely supported Womack’s assertion that public harassment was only the tip of the iceberg—and the most obvious manifestation of widespread misogyny.
When surveyed, a poll by Nottingham Trent University found that 93.7 percent of respondents had experienced or street harassment. When the Nottingham police began accepting reports of misogynistic actions as hate crimes, the number of reports skyrocketed.
“There’s a lot of focus on the number of prosecutions, but that was not what this was about,” Helen Voce, the chief executive of Nottingham Women’s center said in The Guardian. “The primary objective of the policy change was not to see hundreds of prosecutions, it was to let people know that this behavior isn’t acceptable and will not be tolerated in Nottinghamshire.”
“Indeed, it is such trivialisation of these activities as not really ‘criminal’ which has led to under-reporting and prosecution necessitating the need for both the policy and accompanying societal change,” said Professor Loretta Trickett, a law professor at Nottingham Trent University. “The policy is therefore concerned with encouraging women and girls to report both criminal behaviors occurring in public to the police.”
Last year, amidst the global flurry of the #MeToo movement, Womack shared her own experiences with domestic violence and argued that misogyny and violence in private spaces are inextricably linked. The work of feminist organizers and politicians to legally classify misogyny and public harassment as a hate crime takes a giant step towards labeling sexism as a truly damaging force in society—and for advocates like Womack, the fight is just beginning.
“My experience of politics and my motivation for becoming a politician has been informed by my experience of being a woman. I have witnessed and felt the casual and the often violent misogyny women experience and that still goes unchallenged in many walks of life,” she said in a speech. “To tackle a problem, you first have to acknowledge that it exists.”