Hate is hate is hate. No matter how you vent it – screaming at someone on the street, scrawling swastikas on their front door or abusing them on Twitter – it’s unacceptable and the law will punish those overstepping the line.
So said Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, outlining plans this week to treat online abuse motivated by the victim’s race, religion, disability, sexuality or transgender status not just as the criminal offence it already can be but as a hate crime, meaning it could attract stiffer sentences. She argues it’s not just about deterring trolls, but tackling potential root causes of real-life violence like that seen in Charlottesville, where a far-right rally against a statue being removed ended in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. Hate whipped up online doesn't always stay online. Words have power.
But, welcome as they are, these measures aren’t going to stop the tide of abuse against women in the public eye, or indeed in private life. None of this makes any difference to knuckle-draggers enraged by the very existence of the academic Mary Beard or the MP Jess Phillips, or men who can't stand sexual rejection and harass any woman who turns them down, because weirdly the one thing hate crime legislation doesn’t cover is offences motivated by misogyny. Hate is hate, except if you’re targeted specifically for being a woman, when it's – well, not worth a stiffer sentence, apparently. But now a group of determined women MPs on the all-party group against domestic violence, including Phillips and the former Tory minister Maria Miller, are trying to get that loophole closed.
It's surprising misogyny isn’t already covered, given how entwined we know crimes like domestic violence are with deep-seated attitudes to women
It's surprising misogyny isn’t already covered, given how entwined we know crimes like domestic violence are with deep-seated attitudes to women. Yet the idea of including it remains intensely controversial. When Nottinghamshire Police announced last year that they would record misogyny-driven offences as hate crimes, chief constable Sue Fish was accused of trying to outlaw wolf whistles and stop men chatting women up in bars. Critics said police would be swamped with silly, trivial complaints, while men lived in fear of accidentally causing offence.
Well, relax, everyone – nobody’s arguing that misogyny in itself should become illegal. For something to be classed as a hate crime under the current law, you have to do more than just hate; it's defined as the committing of a criminal offence – like assault or vandalism or harassment – which is specifically motivated by hatred of something about the victim's identity, like their skin colour or the fact they're gay. Hating or resenting women, if that's how you really want to spend your life, would still be allowed. You just wouldn’t get to grope someone, or punch her, or throw a brick through her window or make threats to her in a public space specifically because of that hatred without attracting a potentially tougher sentence.
All of which means that haters who manage not to also break the law should have no more to fear from this legislation than drunks who always get a taxi home from the pub fear from drink-driving crackdowns. Obviously, the safest option would be to cut down on the booze or the hating, since both cloud your judgement and can lead to publicly embarrassing situations. But men who treasure the right to resent women that much – who genuinely would choose that hill to die on – would still be free do so. They’d just have to avoid breaking the law as a result.
And, yes, the police might have to deal with some complaints about behaviour that's horrible but not criminal, just as they do within the existing law. But the evidence from Nottinghamshire is that it’s not only provided a way of officially responding to intimidating or distressing incidents that fall into a legal grey area – it's also led to serious offences, including sexual assault and kidnapping, being reported. The force's willingness to record sexual offences as hate crimes, too, where appropriate seems to convince women that they'll be taken seriously.
So women MPs, including Phillips, Miller, the Green MP Caroline Lucas and Labour's Melanie Onn, are writing this summer to their local police forces, asking them to follow Nottinghamshire’s example, to establish how widespread hate-fuelled crime against women is and how it's best tackled. This may not be the most pressing issue in Theresa May’s Brexit-laden in-tray. But in a week where she found time to comment on Big Ben not ringing, it would be nice to think she's listening.