By Rachel Elgy: email@example.com
“I wish I lived in a society where I could walk free without being labelled as a sexual tool.”*
“When being cat-called in the street, I ignore & keep walking. But often this elicits more anger & abuse.” *
“The whole time I was really scared, although he was calm he was completely ignoring my requests to leave me alone and it made me feel helpless and desperate… I never want to be in that situation again.” *
In the UK today, women experiencing sexual harassment in their everyday lives is commonplace. You don’t have to look far to find stories such as these, in fact, most women will have an anecdote of being cat-called, intimidated or harassed in some way, and it is likely to be particularly common for women who are Black or part of the LGBT+ community. It can be blatant, unwanted physical contact, it can be more subtle intimidation and verbal contact, or it can be an act so commonplace it’s treated as a joke, or met with a roll of the eyes; like a honk of a horn or a wolf-whistle. Misogyny in all its forms is woven into the fabric of society.
The definition of misogyny is: “Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women,” and its prevalence in modern society influences and perpetuates gender stereotypes and encourages the over-sexualisation and objectification of women; women are there to be looked at, appreciated by and to pleasure men. We see it in films, TV and music videos (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is just one pertinent example); in media advertisements (such as the Budweiser advert); and in the endless stories of catcalling and derogatory comments that women and even teenage girls experience on a regular basis. This has clear consequences both for women on a personal level, and for society as a whole. Due to the pervasive nature of these images and attitudes, women are likely to internalise misogyny, leading them to be critical of themselves, and the women around them, holding them up to society’s expectations of how a woman should look, dress and behave.
Women regularly consider factors like what clothes they wear, what area they will live in, or what seat to take on a train to avoid potential harassment or vulnerability:
“I didn’t feel safe anywhere.” *
“I will not get into a taxi on my own since…I know there are good people doing good jobs but I can’t get over how vulnerable I had felt.” *
I have often been faced with the following dilemma:
Walking or sitting alone, a man opens a conversation with me and I have two options: to try to ignore him and walk away, and risk the possibility that he will become aggressive and perhaps even violent; or to engage in conversation, and risk the possibility that this will be seen as an invitation to make unwanted sexual comments or advances. It can leave me feeling vulnerable, intimidated, and unsafe in the most mundane and pedestrian of situations.
Recently, we’ve seen the online backlash to the blatantly misogynistic, and frankly somewhat disturbing article “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones.” While the creation of satirical responses and memes has been amusing, with the general consensus being that the correct answer to that dilemma is simply just ‘don’t’, this article has highlighted a genuinely concerning attitude that some men may hold, that they are somehow entitled to a woman’s attention, that women may just be waiting, longing for a man to invade their personal space, interrupt their day, and save them from a life of loneliness. It also directly encourages behaviour that is dictionary-definition-harassment, stating one of the common mistakes men make in this situation is ‘giving up too easily.’
There has been relatively little research into the amount of misogynistic incidents occurring. A 2014 international study did show alarming figures, but there seems to be a distinct lack of solutions for what is a worldwide and significant issue. The study showed that 90% of British women surveyed encountered street harassment for the first time before the age of 17, 74% reported being followed by a man or group of men in a way that made them feel unsafe in the last year, and over half of respondents changed their clothing, took a different route or transportation, completely avoided an area, changed the time they left an event, or avoided socialising because of street harassment.
Women’s experiences are often trivialised, met with comments like ‘well it’s a compliment really,’ or ‘perhaps you should have been wearing something else/walking somewhere else/not travelling alone at that time…’ and the perpetrators are rarely being held accountable for what are clearly prejudice-related incidents. There have been several rebukes of the idea of catcalling as a compliment, perhaps most notably the twitter campaign #DudesGreetingDudes, which suggests that if catcalling is really non-sexual, unthreatening, and complimentary, then why aren’t they doing it to men too?
“I felt on top of the world as I left the house and now I feel ridiculed, self-conscious, vulnerable, fed-up, tired, small, insignificant, unimportant, sad, upset, angry, unable to look at anyone on the tube and paranoid that everyone was looking at me…”*
When derogatory attitudes towards women are left unchallenged they have the potential to have increasingly dangerous and damaging effects. It may feel like a significant jump to go from talking about wolf-whistling to talking about rape and sexual assault, but it is necessary to consider that all these incidents are fuelled by misogynistic views.
Care, Norway released a video, showing how misogynistic attitudes, derogatory language and making insulting jokes can lead to perpetuating rape culture. It calls on a girl’s father, to ‘stop it before it gets a chance to begin,’ ‘don’t let my brothers call girls whores, because they’re not,’ to think twice: ‘Had you known that his son would end up raping me you would have told him to get a grip,’ and reinforces an important message that behind every joke is some element of truth.
Up to 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other violence each year, almost 1 in 3 girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and 23% of women in a survey of 327 had experienced sexual harassment in the last 5 years (UKFeminista).
Research has shown that the over-sexualisation of women leads to them being perceived as ‘less human.’ Other studies have shown that exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment. Referring back to the headphone debacle above, it is clear that some men maintain a sense of entitlement over women, which leads to harassment or assault when they choose to act upon it.
The pervasive culture of victim-blaming also leaves women vulnerable, unable to report incidents without fear of judgement, scrutiny and misplaced blame. This has been a topic of real contention as incidents of sexual assault are often judged on what the victim was wearing, whether they had been drinking, or whether they had been perceived to be ‘flirtatious’, rather than focussing the blame and investigation on the actions of the perpetrator.
In my own experience of being harassed on a train, when telling people about it there were questions of ‘What were you wearing?’ and comments making excuses for his behaviour: ‘He was probably just drunk.’ In these situations if the perpetrator was drunk, it’s an excuse for their behaviour, but if the victim was drunk it suggests they were ‘asking for trouble.’
It is clear that until now there has been a real gap in recording and therefore also the reporting of misogynistic incidents, as women feel that they won’t be taken seriously when sharing their experiences, due to a combination of the factors already mentioned.
“I have been told not to make a complaint as it sounds hysterical.” *
But that could be changing. Nottinghamshire police are the first force in the UK to include misogyny as a category of hate crime. This doesn’t mean that the law itself has changed, so no new crimes are being created; it simply means that these incidents will be recognised and recorded under this category. This will enable the police to keep better track of incidents, noting any particular problem areas, and starting to tackle the wider issue. It will mean that women can access more support, can feel more secure on a day-to-day basis, and it has the potential with increased reporting and monitoring to stop what might start as something unpleasant from developing into something much more sinister.
Nottinghamshire police defines misogynistic hate crime as ‘incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a woman, and includes behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman’. This goes hand in hand with the pre-existing definition of hate crime as any incident, which may or may not be deemed as a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hatred.
The force has been working in partnership with Nottingham women’s centre to develop strategies for addressing sexual harassment, and the Nottingham Citizens ‘No Place for Hate’ report “recommended that further work should be undertaken to ensure that crimes motivated by misogyny could be picked up in police crime recording systems.”
This change has been widely misreported, with headlines such as “Wolf whistling to become a hate crime…” amongst others. As mentioned previously, recording incidents as prejudice-related and motivated by misogyny does not create any new crimes.
Once again, the media’s misrepresentation of a story has distracted from the core issues at hand. Alongside this, a general lack of understanding of the terminology around hate crimes and misogyny has prompted scornful responses. One comment on the guardian’s story said:
‘Sexual harassment isn’t a “hate crime” – it’s motivated by lust, not hatred.’
This comment misses the mark in a number of ways: firstly, it puts emphasis on the motivation of the offender. In all prejudice-related incidents it is the nature, outcome and effect of the action that defines it. Secondly, it looks to excuse sexual harassment, assuming that if it is motivated by lust then it is ok. Finally, it misunderstands the definition of misogyny: it is not just about negative feelings towards a woman, but also ingrained prejudice against women- men don’t have to hate women to act hatefully towards them.
There have also been men kicking back with the ‘unfairness’ of it all, as is often the case when steps are made to improve situations for women:
‘I seriously doubt wolf-whistling of women is any more common nowadays (sometimes you just have to excuse ludite builders and teenage boys) than men being harassed by drunk hen parties.’
Whilst of course I don’t condone the harassment of men by women, and it should be acknowledged that men do also suffer from sexual harassment and violence, the issue being addressed here is the pervasive nature of misogyny in today’s society.
This first step taken by Nottinghamshire police will hopefully be a stepping stone towards greater reporting, recording and responding to misogynistic incidents, meaning heightened awareness, increased support for vulnerable women, and effective measures put in place to protect women from further harassment or violence. It is just a first step, but it is certainly a step in the right direction for women to gain more respect and to feel safer in their everyday lives.
Useful Links and References:
– Stop Telling Women to Smile A public art campaign tackling street harassment
– For any men who’d like to understand more about how they can step in and help tackle harassment of women, check out this cartoon.
– *Examples taken from the #everydaysexism or www.everydaysexism.com