Hate Crime (noun): A crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that your particular Facebook algorithm has led you to (what started as) a small news story in the depths of central England. Sadly, no, I’m not talking about the seagull dyed orange by tikka masala, nor the man who believes he is a parrot—but, rather, the fact that misogynistic street harassment in the form of catcalling is now considered a hate crime (!!!) in the small-ish city of Nottingham. Sound the alarms! The Un-PC brigade are sending out troll teams in full force on this one, lads.
The cacophony of headlines run on a similar theme: “Wolf-whisting to become a HATE crime,” “WOLF WHISTLING NOW A HATE CRIME” … You get the picture. Wolf-whistling, by the way, is the British phrase for cat-calling (and yes, I did have to explain this to my amused husband, who rather appreciated that mental image). Of course, those headlines are suitably attention-grabbing for the PC-backlash bandwagon; enough for Belinda Brown to pen a 1200-word eye roll for the Daily Mail, explaining that being groped on the Tube is, obviously, “normal social intercourse.”
Let’s do a bit of time-traveling, for a second. I was twenty, working at a McDonald’s to help fund my way through university. I would walk through the center of the city, either at 4am to get there on time to work an opening shift, or back home some time after 12pm, dressed in a large jacket and work pants, hair scraped back, eyes down. Inevitably, these late shifts meant I’d often be walking at the same time as the drinking hoards walked from club to club, or stumbled home after closing time. I would be yelled at, whistled at, and sometimes followed as I went on my way. It was frightening. It was distressing. It was also completely normal.
So, when I found out that the police force in one UK city expanded its definition of “hate crime” to include harassment of women, I was immensely pleased; pleased for the women who, like me, have had to plan their routes based on the amounts of bars and construction sites they pass, or who have been yelled at and followed as they hurry home from the grocery store. I don’t know many women who’ve lived in urban areas who haven’t got a slew of their own similar stories, who can honestly say they’ve never been bothered by this behavior. But woe betide a city who aims to tackle this issue, right?
It’s interesting—and incredibly sad—that the issue of street harassment is a key topic that sheds an awful lot of light on (dare I say it) male privilege. I thought it might be worth debating this issue with my husband and, true to form, he immediately waxed lyrical about the UK being overzealous about security, reeling at the idea that it might be worth enforcing *yet another* law. I expected this. I understand it, in part. All the same, he was missing the point at hand, so I took a deep breath and brought out the trump card I usually dare not use: You don’t know what it’s like.
I don’t need to write a lengthy essay on the fact that male and female experiences of social norms are entirely different. What strikes me, though, is the sad fact that lies at the core of this debate: Men are, by and large, grossly unaware of a woman’s social experience. Until you know what it’s like to avert your gaze and hold your breath as you walk past a construction site, or a pub, or through a park on a warm summer’s day, your opinion doesn’t count for much. Until you know how unsettling and humiliating it is to be groped without warning, or followed, or find an anonymous penis in your inbox—with all due respect, you don’t know what it’s like. And, until this experience becomes embedded into your everyday life, your belief that law enforcement shouldn’t attempt to tackle the issue is, quite frankly, defunct.
The fevered headlines reflect a collective opinion that female hysteria is sending our country to the dogs (wolves?). The matter has been trivialized and mocked, notably by the same newspapers that double as a daily wank bank, or who dedicate column inches to Becca Tilley’s “pert derriere.”
What’s left out is the fact that misogynistic harassment falls under the very definition of “hate crime.” As a society, the consensus that verbal or physical abuse based on prejudice —against race, sexuality, religion, etc—is wrong, and there’s a term for it. Why, then, does that not include abuse based on gender? Why do we lambast a local police force for suggesting that misogynistic comments and actions fall into this category, simply because it’s been normalized? Public lechery shouldn’t be normal. Making women feel objectified, hunted, and generally unsafe shouldn’t be normal.
So, the men of Nottingham will have to hold their tongues and pull their hands out of their pants in public—so what?
I for one stand by Nottingham’s decision to tackle public misogyny. I am pleased to the core about it. It’s not about over-scrutinizing the public, over-policing citizens, or permitting hysterical women to get petty revenge on men; it is a step towards a community where every citizen feels safe to walk the streets. If this means that men will have to sacrifice their wolf-whistles, too, then so be it.
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