There has been a lot of discussion recently about what role police forces should play in tackling street harassment and whether misogyny should be made a hate crime. As Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, I think it’s important we explore our options.
Often street harassment such as catcalling, wolf-whistling and groping is dismissed as ‘lower level’ but this demonstrates a huge misunderstanding of the scale and impact of this kind of behaviour on an individual, as well as the wider society.
Global children’s charity Plan International UK found in a recent survey that 66 per cent of girls and young women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public. They described feeling embarrassed and ashamed, as if they themselves had caused that unwanted, unwarranted attention. They felt helpless and yet also responsible for removing themselves from the situation.
Having been a victim of sexual assault, I was unprepared for the humiliation and shame I felt. In one moment, the power and control I had was taken away and I continue to look over my shoulder and feel vulnerable when I walk alone at night.
There is an emotional impact of this crime. Feeling like you are not in control, or that vulnerability when you know someone is objectifying you and making you feel like a piece of meat, there for someone else’s pleasure.
I am not sure if including misogyny as a hate crime, as Nottinghamshire Police have done, is ultimately the answer. But what it has done is give this kind of behaviour a name. It has sent a clear message that street harassment is not okay. Indeed, a large proportion of what the girls reported is already illegal, such as sexual assault, and should have been reported to the police anyway.
But because we place such a low value on addressing this behaviour, it takes a police force to make a clear statement about its commitment to tackle it to empower women and girls with the confidence to report.
It is widely acknowledged that a culture that normalises the objectification of women as sexual objects to be wolf whistled, cat-called or grabbed, can make it easier for sexual violence to occur.
Victims of hate crime will often say that the actual crime is not what was most damaging, it’s the belief that they were targeted simply because of who they are. The idea that someone could hold so much resentment against you because of your skin colour, or background or who you have sex with, is hard to comprehend.
It has a huge impact on community cohesion. If we allow individuals to target others for abuse, intimidation and hatred because they don’t like the way that person looks, then we say that more serious violence against them is in some way acceptable. We absolutely have to call it out and challenge this behaviour so it doesn’t escalate.
This means putting proper support in place to do that. Which means properly funding our police services. Of course, we can’t expect police forces to suddenly be able to grapple with a huge increase in reporting of crime. Police budgets are at breaking point and I will continue to call for an increase in police funding so they can provide the right service to the public.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge the harm that this behaviour causes and take a serious stand against it. Arguing about whether it does or doesn’t constitute a crime just takes the focus away from dealing with the issues at hand and reducing the harm they cause.
That’s why I support Plan International UK’s campaign to say It’s Not Okay. We need a clear reporting system, so women and girls can tell someone when this behaviour occurs. We need all organisations, including police to play a role. We need to acknowledge the links to wider gender-based violence, and I would ask the government to make reference to this in their forthcoming strategy to end violence against women and girls.
Most importantly, we need to listen to women, understand their concerns and take it seriously.