Here Dr Ben Hine, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of West London and co-founder of the Men and Boys Coalition, explores some of the deeper issues behind recent moves by police forces to re-categorise crimes against women that are motivated by their sex as hate crimes.
Since the 4th April 2016, Nottinghamshire Police Force has classified incidents targeted at women, specifically because of their sex, as hate crimes. This was in response to the Misogynistic Hate Crime Review 2016 by the same force that found an alarming 38% of women who had experienced a hate crime explicitly linked it to being a woman, and that, even more shockingly, only 28% of women would report such crimes to the police[i]. Indeed the scale of the problem is evident, both through direct observation and discussions with family and friends (quite uncomfortable ones at that I can assure you), and through disturbingly ironic incidences such as the public harassment of BBC reporter Sarah Teale as she reported on the change[ii].
Clearly, misogynistic harassment of women is a serious and prevalent problem in our society, and the creation of this classification can be viewed as an important step in encouraging women to report their victimisation and to show how seriously police officers take crimes of this nature. Indeed, a number of additional police forces across England and Wales are now considering expanding their definition of hate crimes to include misogyny[iii]. However, before this becomes common practice, for me there are a number of issues which haven’t been fully considered in taking such a move.
The review itself describes misogynistic hate crimes 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’. The examples provided range from unwanted or uninvited physical or verbal contact or engagement, to the taking of photographs without permission. It is also important to note that this new categorisation is not a crime within itself, but rather elevates existing crimes that meet this definition to a higher priority on police systems once reported.
‘Inherently discriminatory and sexist’
So what’s the problem, right? I believe one comment from Nottinghamshire Police’s Facebook page sums up the main issue – ‘Will the harassment of men also be deemed as a hate crime? If not then this policy is inherently discriminatory and sexist’[iv]. To put it frankly, and in the hope you will read on, I have to agree.
Whilst I can list a huge number of incidences of harassment towards women by men that I have either directly witnessed or heard second-hand, there are also plenty of examples I can conjure of the reverse. Bar-men harassed whilst women order drinks, men’s bums pinched on the dance floor, and inappropriate, presumptive, and very forward advances towards men by women who find them attractive. As the title of this post suggests, I have also genuinely heard groups of women (think hen-dos) shout ‘show us your cock!’ to men they see on the street. We must therefore recognise that a number of men find themselves experiencing similar types of harassment to women, by women. And whilst some don’t feel aggrieved, many report feeling deeply uncomfortable, and sometimes even threatened by some of these advances. So, whilst these incidences of harassment are based on the fact that they are men, and whilst they could report the harassment itself as a crime, why does no opportunity exist for them to have that report specifically classified as a hate crime?
There are a number of reasons. 1) Maybe people believe harassment of men by women isn’t as serious because they think it doesn’t happen as often? Well, the frequency of such incidents is difficult to assess as at the very outset men and women may perceive, categorise, and report harassment of this nature differently. Whilst some men do think of a pinched bottom as harassment, many don’t, whereas women almost certainly would. That being said, whilst many statistics do suggest that prevalence is higher for women, a significant proportion of men are also affected[v]. Regardless, as with domestic and sexual violence, just because fewer men are victims of these crimes, this doesn’t mean that male victimisation is any less serious.
2) Maybe it is because people believe men don’t mind, or even like the attention, so therefore it’s not harassment? This is also a popular belief, and again one where it is hard to assess prevalence/impact. If it turns out men really don’t view harassment towards them as seriously as women do, is this because they have been told by society that that is how they should feel? Or because they genuinely don’t mind as much as women? Or both? Some would question whether the harassment of men is even a problem because men don’t mind sexual attention of any kind or in any form, as long as it’s attention! However, as mentioned above, many men report feeling uncomfortable by some of the comments and actions taken by women towards them.
Balance of power
3) Finally, maybe people believe that whilst both men and women may experience harassment, it’s more serious for women because it’s more threatening and/or dangerous. This, for me, is the most important, as whilst all of the reasons outlined above can be argued to have some validity, this particular idea ties into fundamental beliefs about the balance of power between the sexes that affect our perceptions of many interactions, including crime.
Many theories of gender socialisation would suggest that, from a young age, boys and girls are taught to believe that they inherently occupy different positions of power within society – boys are socialised to believe they are powerful, girls are socialised to believe they are powerless. This is part of a broad system of beliefs and processes that help to shape our understanding of gender, and the abstract associations that accompany masculinity, manliness and being male, and femininity, womanliness and being female. And whilst these processes are undergoing some change, socialisation of power between the sexes is still prevalent and highly influential in shaping children’s understanding of the world around them in terms of gender.
These socialised beliefs then manifest in our understanding of things like harassment and other ‘gendered’ crime. For example, whilst domestic violence is most certainly perpetrated towards both men and women, studies demonstrate that abuse scenarios are routinely perceived as more serious and severe when perpetrated by men towards women than the reverse[vi]. These effects are found despite the fact that the physical attributes of the men and women involved are controlled (i.e., they are described as having a similar physical stature).
What does domestic violence ‘look like’?
We can argue therefore that perceptions of men and women in these scenarios are fundamentally rooted in who we feel has more power (as well as more ability to threaten, intimidate and control in any given situation), as well as our traditional beliefs of what domestic violence ‘looks like’ (i.e., aggressive male being physically violent towards a scared, weak female)[vii]. When a man harasses a woman, this is seen as a powerful and threatening act towards someone in a position of less power. When a woman harasses a man, it is not seen as serious or threatening, because women aren’t inherently viewed as threatening. Take what happens when a woman and a man walk alone on the street. If a man begins to follow them, a woman is likely to cross the street as she feels under threat, whereas a man will not. Neither will cross if it is a woman following.
Regardless of the extent of one’s subscription to the narrative that crimes like domestic/sexual violence and harassment are direct results and representations of a patriarchal society, and men’s exertion of dominance over women, beliefs regarding imbalanced power between men and women exist in many of us, and clearly affect our interpretations of crimes when they occur. Combine this with other beliefs tied to gender, such as men’s supposed appreciation of any kind of sexual interaction regardless of how it comes, and you get a clear distinction between serious male-on-female harassment and funny female-on-male ‘attention’. A distinction which, I feel, is actually reinforced by the categorisation of harassment specifically by a male towards a female, as a hate crime.
Maybe some view the elevation of these crimes as just a natural way of addressing that imbalance of power, by placing the law on the side of women? However, whilst with one hand this delivers a message regarding the seriousness of such crimes (a message which I wholly support), with the other it reinforces the idea that men are powerful, predatory and dangerous as harassment perpetrated by them is deemed particularly serious. This as an idea which not only serves to undermine the idea that a man can be harassed by a woman (or indeed another man) because of the fundamentally ‘powerful’ position men occupy, but helps to reinforce the idea of women as weak and needing extra protection and provision within the law. I would draw similar criticisms of sexual violence legislation in this country – for example, why is rape a gender-specific crime (i.e., can only be classified as rape if the assault involved penetration by a penis)? Does this not create a clear distinction between the seriousness and trauma of ‘proper rape’ (of a man or woman by a man), as opposed to say sexual assault by penetration (performed maybe by a woman on a man)? Aren’t they both equally traumatic and violating?
More harm than good?
As I stated at the start of this post, the sexual harassment of women is a serious, dangerous, and abhorrent feature of our society. I have spoken to many female friends who feel threatened, and even physically endangered when approached, and sometimes persistently pursued by men. At one party recently, a female friend of mine felt the need to arrange a complex system of interactions with us in order to finally convince one guy to ‘fucking leave her alone’. However, whilst classifying misogynistic incidences as hate crimes is a bold and important statement, it is not without issue. How are we to ever to challenge conventional beliefs about power between the sexes, and the narrative of ‘men as problem, women as victim’, when we are almost enshrining that imbalance within the law itself.
I am not sure what the alternative is, but I can’t help ask whether we shouldn’t maybe instead focus on highlighting the negative effects of harassment and abuse regardless of gender? And in doing so, help to re-educate men on their perceptions of what is/isn’t harassment? This would not only help to encourage men to recognise and call-out any harassment they experience, but also help them to more fully understand how intimidating their behaviour towards women is. And should we not also focus on breaking down the model of socialisation experienced by both girls and boys’ experience that leads to the unequal perception of power, and that may lead boys and men to believe such behaviour is acceptable, and lead girls and women to believe such behaviour is inevitable?
Above all, I believe that equality before the law is essential. Whilst crimes such as harassment are not gender-specific, the new hate-crime classification essentially creates a two-tiered system, where crimes towards men and women are not viewed equally. It is not my place to say whether this is right or wrong, but I do question where it leads us. Will this spread to other ‘gendered’ crimes, such as domestic and sexual violence? And what does this do for the smaller proportion of male victims? What of their pain and suffering that arguably becomes further diminished and trivialised by emphasising the importance of female victims and the severity of their victimisation? And whilst changes to these laws may help in some ways (i.e., encouraging reporting), do they actually end up encouraging our perception of women as ‘victim’ or as weak? Or am I coming at this whole question from a position of male privilege? Unable to fully understand or assess the problem because I have no idea what it feels like to experience harassment from a female perspective? And have I just interpreted any harassment I receive differently because of my male upbringing and my belief that I am never under threat? Regardless, research tells us that there is a clear difference in the way that harassment and other crimes are evaluated based on which genders are involved – and enshrining such perceptions within the law could end up doing much more harm than good.
By Dr Ben Hine
Dr Hine is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of West London and a chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). He is a co-founder of the Men and Boys Coaltion.
[i] Misogynistic Hate Crime Review (2016). Nottinghamshire Police.
[iv] Misogynistic Hate Crime Review (2016). Nottinghamshire Police.
[vi] Seelau, S. M. & Seelau, E. P. (2005). Gender-role stereotypes and perceptions of heterosexual, gay and lesbian domestic violence. Journal of Family Violence, 20, 363-371
[vii] Dutton, D. G., & White, K. R. (2013). Male victims of domestic violence. New Male Studies: An International Journal, 2, 5-17