Reece Thompson broke his girlfriend’s jaw with an iron bar, smashed a mirror over her head and, during a three-day ordeal, made her lick up paint. He was jailed for 40 months for GBH and given a ten-year restraining order. The first time he was released, he joked on Twitter about the attack on Danielle Thomas and was re-imprisoned. The second time, he was signed by Selby Town FC.
Would a club have blithely awarded a “second chance” to a 26-year-old former youth player if these offences were racially motivated or a homophobic attack? The odds, I’d wager, are slim. (And rightly so.) Thompson’s offences would bear the additional weight of being hate crimes. But doing them to a woman? Well, it’s pretty bog-standard stuff. Only after a monumental outcry did the club’s bosses change their minds.
The Law Commission, in a consultation launched this week, is proposing that misogyny also become a hate crime. It suggests that sex/gender (the two words being used interchangeably these days) be added to the protected characteristics of race, religion, trans identity, sexual orientation and disability. Before the harrumphing begins about builders being banged up for wolf-whistling — they won’t be — let’s step back and consider why misogyny has been omitted from this list for so long.
Every year in parliament Jess Phillips reads the names of women killed by an ex or current male partner. All these Jessicas, Yasmins and Enids strangled, stabbed or bludgeoned by men they once loved. One woman every two days: around 150 a year. The number never drops. This grim recitation should be a call to arms, but has become a roll call. Men kill their wives and girlfriends across the world. It’s sad but normal. What can you do?
That annual list only exists because ten years ago the domestic violence campaigner Karen Ingala Smith, angry that femicides disappeared into general statistics, started counting. So, what if such killings were officially classified as misogynist hate crimes, along with sexual assaults, rape and domestic violence? It might be instructive for society if this staggering tower of misogyny — 1.6 million women experiencing domestic abuse in 2019 alone — was starkly visible? And before anyone cries “what about Rose West?”, men commit 98 per cent of sexual offences and 90 per cent of all violent crime.
As JK Rowling remarked about her own experience of domestic abuse, “female trauma is white noise”. It ranks way below racism or transphobia as the least significant abuse. For her views, Rowling was subjected to the most sustained misogyny since social media began. The fact that rape threats weren’t removed by Twitter only amplified her point.
Misogyny is the sea women swim in: it is the groping hand on the Tube, the Jimmy Carr rape jokes, the disgusting abuse suffered by every woman MP from Diane Abbott to Theresa May. It comes from both straight and gay men, from all generations, from both left and right. It is so prevalent that women often ignore it with a shrug. Can something so “natural”, so universal, really be wrong?
So let’s come to wolf-whistling builders. They’ll be fine. Misogyny would only apply to existing crimes, which cat-calling is not, although contractors discourage it anyway in modern codes of conduct. Rather, Nottingham police, one of seven forces in a pilot scheme, classified misogynist hate crimes as those “targeted at women by men simply because they are women”. These included stalking, sexual harassment and upskirting.
Researchers analysing data found that officers took offences with a hate dimension more seriously and victims were more likely to press charges. It often enabled women to discuss other crimes they had not considered reporting before.
“Misogyny,” says Helen Voce, of Nottingham Women’s Centre, “is the soil in which violence against women grows.” Women are rarely killed in one-off “red mist” attacks, but after a slow escalation from degrading public remarks to stalking and coercive control. If early low-level abuse is classified as misogyny, police will be better equipped to see a pattern and keep women out of danger.
Misogyny is a reliable bellwether for other serious crimes. Terrorists from the Westminster Bridge attacker Khalid Masood, to Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck on to the crowded Promenade des Anglais in Nice, were first domestic abusers. As Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor, has noted: “The first victim of an extremist . . . is the woman in his own home.”
The key impediment to it becoming a hate crime is how it will be defined when there is no legal definition of “hostility” — with the CPS adopting dictionary definitions; for example, prejudice, unfriendliness, spite. If calling someone a racial epithet for cutting you up at the traffic lights is a “hate incident” what about screaming that a woman is a “filthy whore”?
The chief concern of lawyers in the field of violence against women is that pursuing low-level abuse will give police “easy wins” and come at the expense of tough investigations. Especially given how rape convictions and prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen to a record low.
Until recently, I’d have opposed misogyny becoming a hate crime on the grounds that there’s too much of it. Would police have time to do anything else? But look into the lives of any of those 150 dead women, read about the unreported incidents which foretold their deaths. Then tell me, if making your battered, bleeding girlfriend lick up paint isn’t a hate crime, what is?