Britain Is Making Sexual Harassment a Hate Crime
A shift in how police departments handle complaints about men could save the lives of countless women.
Five different times, Shana Grice reported her ex-boyfriend to the police in Sussex, England. The 19-year-old asked for help when he followed her home and when he used a stolen key to break into her house while she was sleeping. He put a tracker in her car and repeatedly called her breathing heavily.
But the police didn’t help—just as they ignored the 13 other women who had previously tried to report him for stalking. In Grice’s case, they fined her 90 pounds ($115) for “wasting police time.” So when her ex-boyfriend, Michael Lane, 27, drove a knife through Grice’s neck and set her bedroom on fire in August 2016, there was no one around to help.
Crimes against women are notoriously underreported in the United Kingdom and around the world—particularly when they’re of a sexual nature. Now, one police unit in England is trying to address this problem, and it’s a surprisingly bureaucratic response to a very violent problem: The unit is changing how the complaints are classified as they come in, and early research indicates it may be having effective results.
Underreporting by women happens around the world. In the United States, a staggering 77 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where the Office for National Statistics reports that more than 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. Even when they are reported, it hardly matters: Of the 57,600 rapes that were reported in 2018 in the U.K., only 2,822 of those resulted in a criminal charge, according to Nick Martin in the Crown Prosecution Service press office.
Conventional thinking has long been that women don’t report out of shame or stigma. But Grice’s murder highlights another reason: Nothing happens. Too often, when a woman does approach police to report threats or crimes, she gets ignored, belittled, fined, or worse—she aggravates her stalker. “It boils down to the fact that many women do not trust in the police and courts to provide justice after sexual violence,” said Rebecca Hitchen, the campaign manager for the U.K.-based End Violence Against Women Coalition.
That lack of trust was already being recognized as the main problem by police officers in Nottinghamshire, a former coal mining county of about 1 million people in the East Midlands region of England. In 2016, they launched a novel experiment: The police officers decided to record incidents of misogynistic behavior not just as crimes but as hate crimes.
The U.K. already had hate crime legislation, but it doesn’t include women as a protected category—despite the fact that attacks targeting women on the basis of their sex are at least as common as other forms of targeted attacks, according to the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales. Women who are black, Muslim, or Jewish are particularly targeted. Yet Britain’s hate crime legislation only defends people attacked due to race, sexual orientation, transgender identity, disability status, or religion.
The Nottinghamshire Police didn’t have the authority to change national hate crime law or to criminalize anything that wasn’t already a crime, such as catcalling. But they did have the power to classify those routine acts of misogyny—which affect a reported 93.7 percent of Nottinghamshire women—as “hate crimes” for internal recording purposes. And that reclassification has allowed them to keep data.
It turns out data can be pretty powerful. As word of the new policy spread, more women began to report acts of low-level misogyny—the day-to-day sexual harassment, catcalling, unwanted attention, and stalking that had terrorized Grice but barely register as crimes for most people, let alone for most police departments. “It’s those hostile actions and behaviors that, for whatever reason, have not risen to the level of being considered worth punishing that set the tone for society,” said Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the U.S.-based National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “[They’re] like scaffolding for the more egregious crimes.”
Since then, three other English counties have followed Nottinghamshire’s lead and classified misogyny as a hate crime (defined as “incidents against women that are motivated by the attitude of men towards women and includes behaviour targeted at women by men simply because they are women”) in their records, too.
Early research indicates that the experiment is working: A study for the Nottingham Women’s Centre found that 174 Nottinghamshire women had reported a misogyny hate crime between 2016 and 2018, up from zero before the policy was introduced. An online survey of Nottinghamshire residents found that 87 percent said the experiment was “a good idea.”
“It has increased women’s confidence in the police generally,” said Helen Voce, the CEO of the Nottingham Women’s Centre. “And even when they didn’t feel the need to actually go to the police to make a report, women have felt empowered to challenge instances of sexual harassment and verbal abuse themselves. The police saying, ‘This is not acceptable behavior,’ has empowered women to fight back.”
Now activists in the U.K. are calling for the misogyny hate crime policy to be rolled out nationally—not just for internal police records but for prosecution and sentencing purposes, too. (According to the U.K. Criminal Justice Act of 2003, a judge can impose a harsher sentence when an offense is classified as a hate crime.) Mark Khan, the lead on hate crime for the North Yorkshire Police, which started recording acts of misogyny as hate crimes in 2017, would like to see the policy adopted nationally. “There’s a lot to be done to build the confidence of women, and minority groups, in the police,” he said. “That was one of [the policy’s] purposes: to show that we take crimes against women seriously, as we do all hate crimes.”
The campaign has provoked the predictable list of free speech-related fears. “[L]ads could be dragged before courts and face serious sentences if they whistle at a woman,” worried one article in the Daily Star. But advocates say those fears are misplaced: A national misogyny hate crime policy would not criminalize anything that isn’t already illegal, such as catcalling. Noncriminal acts of misogyny would be recorded as “hate incidents,” while acts of criminal misogyny would be recorded and prosecuted as “hate crimes.” Khan said recording these low-level incidents of misogyny provides valuable data to the police, since verbal abuse often escalates to physical attacks.
The British campaign is part of a global trend. Worldwide, law enforcement is cracking down on misogynist harassment in an effort to address underreporting. In the nine months since France passed its new anti-catcalling law, almost 450 on-the-spot fines have already been handed out for degrading comments and offensive “sexual or sexist” behavior. Peru’s law, which was introduced in 2015, is even more strict: Men who harass women can face up to 12 years behind bars. Argentina and Nicaragua have also adopted their own versions of anti-misogyny laws, and Tanzania has introduced more than 400 police stations across the country with officers who are specifically trained to respond to women’s complaints.
But for some, the campaign to change the way police handle women’s reports is still too slow. Only last year, Michelle Savage, 32, contacted the Sussex Police—the same department that Grice had begged for help two years earlier—three times in 10 days to report fears that her ex-husband was “becoming more and more aggressive.” But history repeated itself, and six days later, Michelle was dead—shot, execution-style, along with her mother and dog.
Collecting accurate data may not immediately protect women, but it could be the weapon needed to convince people indisputably that stronger action must be taken. “Our daughter took her concerns to the police and instead of being protected was treated like a criminal,” Grice’s parents, Sharon Grice and Richard Green, told the Guardian. “It’s only right that the police make changes.”