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Misogyny Fuels Violence Against Women. Should It Be a Hate Crime?

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Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”


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Sarah Everard in London. Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng in Atlanta.

Eight women, two continents apart, killed in the space of two weeks. The suspects in both cases are men.

In London, Ms. Everard disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house, and was found dead a week later. A police officer was charged with kidnapping and murdering her.

In Atlanta, a gunman stormed three massage parlors and shot and killed eight people — seven of them women, six of them Asian — raising speculation that the attack was racially motivated. A suspect was arrested that same evening.

While the details of the two cases differ significantly, experts suggest that the current available evidence points to a potential commonality: misogyny. And, in light of the two events, activists in Britain and in the United States have urged the authorities to treat misogyny as a greater threat to national security, even upgraded to the level of a hate crime.

In the days after Ms. Everard’s body was found and protests calling for deeper social change grew across the United Kingdom, the British government announced an experimental pilot program (though there is no fixed start date yet) that would categorize cases of gender-based violence and harassment motivated by misogyny as hate crimes.

“Across the country, women everywhere are looking to us not just to express sympathy with their concerns, but to act,” Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, said during a debate on the policy. “Stop telling them to stay at home and be careful, and start finding those responsible for the violence.”

In Atlanta, the arrested suspect told the police he had a “sexual addiction,” according to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, prompting some activists to call for him to be charged with a hate crime there, too.

“What can’t be forgotten is the hate crime statute says ‘because of gender’ as well,” Scott McCoy, interim deputy legal director for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and special litigation at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told CNN. “The angle of misogyny has to be looked at.”

As women around the world watched the two events unfold, they started sharing their own stories on social media of having been in similar situations that had the potential to escalate and turn similarly violent. Women spoke of all of the things that they — like Ms. Everard — did “right,” including walking on well-lit streets, and talking on the phone or clutching their keys in their pockets while doing so — and described how they still ended up in dangerous situations. Asian women spoke of all of the ways in which sexism and racism coalesce to expose them to a unique form of harassment that can lead to violence and abuse.

Their stories confirm that violence against women isn’t an aberration, but a “global public health” crisis of “epidemic proportions,” as the World Health Organization describes it.

It is such a widespread, daily occurrence that it is rare to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault. Roughly one in three women around the world has been subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, a family member, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger, according to a W.H.O. report published this month. The perpetrator is almost always a man, the report notes, and rates are higher in poorer communities. In the United States, one online survey in 2018 found that 81 percent of women had experienced some kind of sexual harassment during their lifetimes. In the United Kingdom, 97 percent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had been sexually harassed, according to UN Women UK. These numbers are all from before the coronavirus pandemic; with the onset of the health crisis, domestic abuse surged and public spaces became eerily empty, leaving women feeling increasingly worried about their safety.

The data is also conservative. Violence against women is consistently underreported because women are scared of retaliation for speaking out or they fear the stigma associated with sexual violence, said Kalliopi Mingeirou, chief of the UN Women’s initiative to end gender-based violence.

It also goes unreported because so much harassment — the uncomfortable staring, the catcalling, the lewd gestures, the public masturbation — is seen as simply normal nuisances that women have learned to put up with.

“We’re not joining the dots, nobody is making connections,” said Laura Bates, author of “Why Men Hate Women.” “There is a big picture here that we are just repeatedly missing. There are connections between the normalized daily behaviors that we brush off and the more serious abuses.”

Ms. Bates, in 2012, created the Everyday Sexism Project so that women could share things that had happened to them that they felt were too insignificant to report or make a fuss over as a way to highlight how pervasive the problem is, and to pick up on patterns of aggression.

It is now one of the world’s largest databases of its kind with thousands of entries from women around the world who felt uncomfortable, vulnerable, threatened by men. In one example, a woman recalls that when she was in school, at age 13 or 14, a few girls complained to a teacher that the boys in their class had been groping them and the teacher said that they were “being oversensitive.” In another example, a woman recalls waiting at a bus stop when a man walked up to her and grabbed her bottom but everyone around her who had witnessed the incident remained silent. In yet another example, a woman recalls how a man sat directly opposite her on the train and touched himself and then got off the train on the next stop, as if nothing had happened.

The police officer arrested in London was held on suspicion of indecent exposure at a fast-food restaurant in a separate episode just days before Ms. Everard disappeared. The Metropolitan Police is now under investigation for how it handled that allegation.

“That’s what we need to be doing better. We need to get better at sweating the small stuff,” said Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.”

An example of “sweating the small stuff” would be training public transport staff to better handle harassment complaints since so much of the harassment that women face happens on public transport, Ms. Criado Perez said. Educating children on appropriate and healthy relationships would also help, she said.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that misogyny and gender-based violence are also correlated with broader threats. They are among the most reliable indicators of terrorism and conflict, according to a 2015 United Nations report, because a spike in gender-based violence — particularly domestic violence — correlates with “rising levels of insecurity in society more broadly.” A sudden disappearance of girls from schools, for example, could point to a rise of fundamentalist views. There is also a “robust symbiosis between misogyny and white supremacy,” according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism, and now fights a variety of threats of hate and extremism.

“There is enough data to know that men who kill women do not suddenly kill women, they work up to killing women,” Ms. Criado Perez added. “If only we were to listen to women and pay attention to the misogyny and aggression and violence that they deal with on a daily basis.”

As pervasive as sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence are, none are inevitable and they can be countered, said Jackson Katz, educator and author of “The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help.”

The first step, he noted, is changing the language used to describe violence against women and characterizing it instead as male violence. (The vast majority of abuse is almost always at the hands of men, as the W.H.O. noted.) “The term ‘violence against women’ is a passive construction — there’s no active agent, it’s a bad thing that happens to women,” he explained, but it’s as if “nobody’s doing it to them.”

That kind of language, he said, “shifts the accountability off of men and the culture that produces them and puts it onto women.”

The second step is recognizing that male aggression against women is a manifestation of a broader systemic problem. “There’s this impulse to pathologize the individual perpetrators — that somehow the individual perpetrator is some monster who just kind of crawled out of the swamp,” Mr. Katz said. “But if you accept the concept that it’s systemic, then there are policy implications and political implications and introspection that can be uncomfortable.”

Categorizing misogyny as a hate crime could possibly do both those things: refocus accountability and publicly stigmatize that behavior to encourage a broader cultural shift. “It is important for the message that it sends,” said Steve Freeman, vice president of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League. “And how that message plays in the community, how you talk about it, how you have police understand it.”

But it would be so incredibly difficult to pin down what behavior is driven by misogyny, Mr. Freeman added. “Making misogyny a crime is like making racism a crime — it’s unfortunate, it’s ugly and we wish people wouldn’t do it, but you can’t punish somebody for saying something,” he said.

When a crime is committed — if a man assaulted a woman, for example — then prosecutors would have to prove that the perpetrator was motivated by bias for it to be a hate crime, Mr. Freeman added. In other words, they’d have to show that the man assaulted her because she’s a woman, which is a tough standard to meet.

In the United States, a crime motivated by gender bias is considered a hate crime at the federal level and in 35 states. But, out of the 7,314 hate crime incidents recorded in 2019 across the country, only 0.9 percent were categorized as being motivated by gender bias. And hate crimes, over all, rarely lead to successful convictions.

Reporting hate crimes also requires a police force that is trained to appropriately respond to those complaints. But that would only broaden the powers of law enforcement, which several women’s rights groups argue wouldn’t do much to prompt deeper cultural change.

Categorizing misogyny as a hate crime shouldn’t be seen “as a silver bullet,” said Ms. Bates, because “we’re still asking women to trust the police with their stories.”

In 2016, Nottinghamshire, a county in the United Kingdom, became the first to categorize misogyny as a hate crime. The program, established by Sue Fish, then police chief of Nottinghamshire, served as a model for the British government’s recent national plan. In a survey evaluating the program two years later, women noted that they felt safer. “Some of the feedback we had was that women, for the first time, described themselves as walking taller and with their ‘heads held high,’” Ms. Fish said in a recent interview with local news media.

But that didn’t necessarily mean women reported instances of harassment more often. Many still felt, according to the survey, that incidents like name calling or groping seemed too normal for the police to take seriously.

“Countless times I’ve had this done to me before,” one respondent noted. “So what’s the point of me going to the police station and sitting there for two hours with a policeman who probably just thinks, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’”

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