Last week’s news that Nottinghamshire Police in the U.K. now classify misogyny as a hate crime was praised by feminist bloggers in the U.S., eager to move to the utopian county where relentless cat-callers are thrown behind bars.
“Literally why isn’t this a thing everywhere?” asked one writer at Self magazine, thrilled that any Nottinghamshire “asshole who whistles at you every morning needs to think twice before doling out another cat-call. That’s criminal now, sucker.”
Well, not necessarily.
In a statement announcing the initiative, a collaboration with the Nottingham Women’s Centre, the police department has broadened its definition of a ‘hate crime’ to include misogyny and harassment of women.
Obliquely worded, a misogyny hate crime is “simply any incident, which may or may not be deemed as a criminal offense, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hatred,” the statement reads.
Offenses ranging from physical or verbal harassment to “uninvited engagement” and “unwanted or uninvited” text messages all classify as misogyny hate crimes, and reports of such incidents will be thoroughly investigated by Nottinghamshire Police.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, a police spokesperson noted that any unwanted contact “can cover wolf-whistling and other similar types of contact. If the victim feels they’ve been targeted because they are a woman then we will record it as a hate crime.”
The emphasis here is mine, as Nottinghamshire’s police force is setting new precedents in law enforcement by prioritizing feelings over evidence when reporting a misogyny hate crime.
The spokesperson went on: “This doesn’t necessarily mean that a criminal offense has been committed, but means we will carry out risk assessments and offer support as we would to any victim of a hate crime.”
In other words, the law hasn’t changed. (Nottinghamshire Police did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.)
The initiative is simply a response to incidents catalogued by the local women’s center—a way of legitimizing women’s experiences and providing them with the resources and support that they need—and sends a message that their complaints will be taken seriously and that they shouldn’t have to tolerate “unwanted” advances in any form.
The initiative was partially inspired by “Hollaback UK’s campaign work,” according to the initial statement. Hollaback! is an advocacy group that focuses on street harassment.
Last summer, Hollaback! released a viral PSA showing a woman being cat-called and approached by men while walking around New York City for ten hours, condensed to a few minutes in the video.
The group also worked with Cornell University to conduct an international survey about street harassment, which drew from a sample size of 803 women and found that younger women were particularly at risk (90 percent of survey participants said they had experienced street harassment before they were 17).
In a statement, Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Sue Fish said the breathless headlines about cat-calling being considered a hate crime “trivialize” their initiative.
“We do not think it is acceptable for men to grope women in nightclubs, or for men to shout sexually explicit comments about what they want to do to a woman,” she said. “As with any crime or incident which is reported to us, we will respond in a proportionate manner.”
This is all well and good, but the announcement of Nottinghamshire’s misogyny hate crime recognition raises more questions than it answers.
For instance, selected Nottinghamshire officers and staff have devoted the last three months to “misogyny hate crime training,” which they will complete at the end of the month, the initial statement reads. What exactly does this training entail?
Previously, Nottinghamshire officers and staff were trained to respond to harassment reports. Now that all manner of harassment of women will be recorded as a hate crime, “it will trigger slightly different conversations between officers and victims, as well as officers and perpetrators,” a Nottinghamshire police spokesman told The Daily Beast.
Officers have been trained to ask victims a series of specific questions, like whether or not they’ve been repeatedly targeted. “This will give us a better understanding about what’s happening in Nottinghamshire and allow us to be more sophisticated in the way we address it,” he said.
Officers have also been trained to speak with perpetrators about the impact of their harassment on victims “and hopefully guide them away from reoffending,” the spokesperson added.
If a misogyny hate crime “can cover wolf-whistling,” as a police spokesperson told the Telegraph, surely reports about cat-calling being considered a hate crime are valid?
These reports “sort of missed the point” of the initiative, he said, but went on to identify several potential situations wherein cat-calling could be a punishable offense in Nottinghamshire. For example: if a woman ignores a wolf-whistle or an “Oi, gorgeous” and her silence triggers a lewd or antagonistic follow-up such as “Oi, bitch!”, the wolf-whistling perpetrator could be arrested “under British law, which in that instance would probably be harassment,” the spokesman said.
Most problematic is the fact that Nottinghamshire Police has labeled behavior and activities that aren’t criminal themselves under the umbrella of "misogyny hate crime.”
“As a matter of law, the police have no power in respect to activities which are not criminal,” said Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer at Article19, an international free speech organization based in London. “To be clear, it is very much appropriate that the police take active steps to protect women from harassment, particularly sexual harassment," she added. "However, labels such as ‘hate crime’ can be unhelpful when trying to tackle behavior such as catcalling or wolf-whistling. This kind of behavior may misogynistic, but it should be tackled through education and societal debate, not the criminal law.”
In the U.S., the FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
However, the agency stresses that “hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”
In the UK, where freedom of speech is enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights, there remains examples of citizens being punished by law enforcement for speech considered to be inciting hatred.
As valuable as these laws are, there are examples of them being employed in slightly silly-seeming circumstances.
In 2006, a 21-year-old Oxford University student was arrested and taken to court for “homophobic comments” when he remarked to an officer, “Excuse me, do you realize your horse is gay?” (The case was ultimately dropped.)
In 2008, a 15-year-old was summonsed for holding up a sign outside the Church of Scientology in London that read, “Scientology is not a religion. It is a dangerous cult.” (The authorities deemed his placard in contravention of the Public Order Act.)
Given these precedents, the idea of a Nottinghamshire catcaller being handcuffed doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
This report was updated July 19, with quotes from a Nottinghamshire Police spokesman.