The decision to record misogynistic incidents as a form of hate crime has sparked criticism from both men and women
Last month, Nottinghamshire police broadened their definition of ‘hate crime’ to cover any uninvited sexual advance towards a woman, including taking photographs and wolf-whistling. This came after a local women’s group reported high rates of harassment and a general feeling of being unsafe on the streets.
While many people were heartened by the move, others threw up their arms in complaint. Janet Street-Porter wasted no time speaking up, saying: “I find it depressing that a new generation of women want to enlist the police to handle something they should be able to squash themselves.” Meanwhile, the two women that helped bring about this change have faced a barrage of criticism and even personal threats. Clearly there’s no justifying such threats, but, on a wider scale, we might ask whether there is any weight to the opponents’ arguments. Was the move by Nottinghamshire police at all misjudged?
Historically, the term ‘hate crime’ has been applied to threatening behaviour that attacks someone’s race or religion. In the last few years the definition has been expanded by groups such as the Lancashire police who, in 2013, decided to register attacks on goths and other sub-cultures in the same way. Now sexual identity is in the spotlight.
In the case of wolf-whistling, we might question whether this act is always hateful. It might be an intentionally light-hearted comment received by a woman who finds it harmless, or maybe even flattering. At the other extreme, however, wolf-whistling is meant to intimidate and leaves the woman in fear for her safety. Many have written about their own experiences, such as Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates who described being chased down the street and pinned against a wall, among other frightening incidents.
Of course there’s a gulf of scenarios in between. But I’d argue that whatever the circumstances, wolf-whistling is symptomatic of a culture that privileges the male voice and men’s supposed right to appraise how women look, even in a public setting.
I’m guessing most people (both women and men) would never feel the need to roll down their car window to shout at someone in the street about how physically attractive they are. Most of us wouldn’t wait on a street corner to follow someone down an alley. Or whistle at a passerby as if they were an animal. Yet this sort of behaviour is an everyday occurrence. It is seen as normal and, to Janet Street-Porter and others, an inevitable aspect of life.
But the statistics paint such a grim picture. In a recent poll, the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that “85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places and 45% have experienced unwanted sexual touching, which can amount to sexual assault.”
Part of Janet Street-Porter’s argument was that police resources are already thinly spread. Do we want to take up more of their time with these reports? It’s impossible to say now, but it seems likely that the reality is – whether right or wrong – most women won’t end up reporting wolf-whistling to the police. They might report it to a company if the man in question is an employee, but most will likely just confide in their friends. The few cases reported will be the ones that are more extreme. The point is, though, women will at least have that option.
This feels like a rare victory in a society that for so long has responded to its high level of sexual abuse against women (and that sees less than 6% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction) with warnings that it is women who must adapt their own behaviour. We are told to avoid walking the streets alone at night, to carry a rape alarm, to check how we dress, and so on.
When some universities dared to try and encourage male students to be aware of their own behaviour, there was an outcry that the sexual consent classes were offensive, despite the worrying views of many young people around sex (an American study found that one in three college men might rape a woman if they thought no one would find out).
So at last Nottinghamshire women have just a little more power. And I for one am happy about this. It’s not to say women don’t want to be approached in public or have someone start a conversation. But being shouted at from a passing car doesn’t feel like a respectful act. It’s one born of a wider culture that makes women feel self-conscious and unsafe walking the streets. Isn’t that pretty hateful?
Image from: http://dailym.ai/2be0mNv
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