Australia has led much of the world when it comes to outlawing hate speech and crimes, especially when it comes to race, religion, and sexual orientation.
But what about crimes specifically targeted at women? Should our laws reflect the gendered motivations behind online abuse, rape and sexual harassment and hate speech, as is being tested in the UK? There is a strong argument it should.
The sign erected on August 6 at Western Port in Cowes, Victoria, after psychologist Samantha Fraser’s death.
The question of how to treat gendered crimes against women – crimes that can be committed by anyone but which overwhelmingly have women as victims – is complex, but is starting to be addressed as misogyny across the world.
The United Kingdom city of Nottinghamshire made a radical change to how its police recorded crimes against women two years ago; it created the Misogyny Hate Crime policy in 2016 and between April 2016 and March 2018, 174 cases of misogynist behaviour were reported.
While the law was not changed, how police reported crimes has been adjusted to note the gendered element, enabling trends to be observed. Location "hotspots" were identified and police attended these areas more often in a bid to stop the behaviour.
Though the volume of crimes was "shocking" to researchers, the program was hailed a success for starting to "shift attitudes".
The success of the program, which was analysed by the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, was such that the university has recommend it be rolled out across the UK.
In Australia, the notion of considering certain crimes against women to be "hate crimes" remains academic. Only three jurisdictions, Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, consider the role prejudice played in a crime during sentencing. And only three jurisdictions, NSW, Queensland and the ACT, have anti-hate speech laws that specifically mention “gender identity”, although experts are unclear if this refers to women, or only transgender or gender-queer individuals.
La Trobe University lecturer Laura Griffin and PhD candidate Nicole Shackleton noted that considering how many other identity traits are covered in these laws, the fact that women have been excluded is “significant”.
“It signals that as a society, we do not see gendered hate speech as worth prohibiting, they wrote.
“Shockingly, and despite the recent publicity surrounding sexist harassment and slurs, the issues of gender prejudice and misogyny were never mentioned in any of the debates surrounding the introduction of NSW’s new hate-speech laws.”
Gendered crimes against women are as various as they are harmful, both physically and mentally. They include sexual assault, online abuse, upskirting, stalking or being followed, groping, threatening, aggressive or intimidating behaviour, indecent exposure and unwanted sexual advances.
These happen at all sorts of places, as noted in the research: bars and nightclubs, public transport, the workplace, parks, universities, restaurants, gyms, petrol stations, cinemas, car parks and shops.
The sheer number of these crimes is so mammoth a culture of fear has evolved.
Yet is women, and not men, who are encouraged to avoid going out at night on their own; it is women who hold their keys between their fingers when they walk home; it is women who have to watch their drink lest someone try to spike it, and who are encouraged to be in groups to avoid harassment as opposed to applying the heaviest scrutiny to how to target perpetrators.
But will recording something as a hate crime make any difference to women’s real-world safety?
The results from the Nottinghamshire program are promising; it concluded that 75 per cent of people who reported a crime had a “positive experience of interacting with the police”, and that 100 per cent would feel comfortable reporting to the police again. More women clearly felt it was worth reporting gendered crime, such was the seriousness with which it was being treated.
Given the failure of successive programs to make a serious impact on rates of violence against women in Australia, highlighting the nature of gendered hate crimes is something that should be seriously considered.
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