Natalie smiles "a lot less" at people now than she used to. The 22-year-old Liverpudlian used to be gregarious – "one of those people that smiled at everyone" – but she's become much more reticent since moving to Nottingham for university three years ago and experiencing a huge amount of street harassment in the city. "I'm very aware of who I smile at now," she explains. "I worry that people can see it as an invitation and think I'm interested."
Wolf whistles, being catcalled on her way to the shop and being told she's got a "nice bum" are things Natalie has come to expect. There were occasions, too, when the encounters felt more sinister. The time, for instance, when two men followed her while she shopped in the city centre, and asked for her phone number. The time a man in his late fifties approached her, looked her up and down and hissed through gritted teeth that he wished he were 20 years younger. "It even makes me feel sick thinking about it now," she says.
Had any of these intimidating events happened after April of 2016 – and had Natalie chosen to report them – they could have led to arrests and potentially criminal charges, since this was when Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the UK to recognise misogyny as a hate crime. Under the policy, police investigate "incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a woman, [including] behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman".
Leering, groping, stalking, taking unwanted photos, sexually explicit language, unwanted sexual advances and online abuse are among the incidents that can be flagged. Some media reports of a ban on wolf whistling and complimenting women initially attracted criticism of the initiative, says Lizzie Jackson, engagement officer at Nottinghamshire Police. "But we just corrected that and made it clear that it's about the behaviour that causes women fear."
Chloe, 32, is among the women to have reported an incident. "It was spring, and I was walking to work through a secluded wooded area in the middle of the day," she recalls. "I encountered three youngish lads. They didn’t say anything until I'd passed them, then one of them yelled at me quite aggressively: 'You look like you need a big fat cock in your mouth.'"
Because she was alone and there were three of them, Chloe felt threatened, scared they were going to do something else. She was left shaken, but her fear turned to anger once she'd established that they hadn't followed her and she was safe. When she called the police, the incident was recorded and officers tried to find the perpetrators. The force, she says, took her seriously and listened, and is making Nottinghamshire safer for women.
"People might see what happened to me as trivial – they just shouted words at me, but words can carry a lot of power and meaning, and they can be used to frighten people," says Chloe. "Also, the attitudes – the sexually aggressive, misogynistic attitudes – that those words represent are what are really worrying and dangerous, because those attitudes underpin other forms of gender-based violence, like domestic violence and rape. So even though what happened to me can't be put alongside the experience of serious sexual assault, it's still really important that those things are recognised for what they are, and the link between those actions and other crimes against women [is made]."
After its first six months, there was a 100 percent satisfaction rate among victims who had come forward to police, says Martha Jephcott, who campaigned for the introduction of the policy in Nottinghamshire and is the lead organiser on misogyny hate crime for social justice non-profit Citizens UK. By comparison, hate crime victim satisfaction across the board is typically low – only about half are happy with police responses, alongside nearly three-quarters of general crime victims.
Women "walk taller" now, and feel better coming from a city where there is a clear message that misogynistic behaviour is unacceptable, says Helen Voce, chief executive of Nottingham Women's Centre. "Women feel safer just knowing if anything did happen they've got a bit of redress," she explains.
The women's centre, alongside researchers at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, began a major piece of research at the beginning of 2018 to assess the impact of the policy and identify necessary improvements. The full results of the evaluation are due to be released in May, but early findings show that women are now more likely to report misogynistic incidents.
"Most people have heard about it and say it's a good idea," Voce adds. "The overwhelming response is that people want it to continue." Jackson says Nottinghamshire Police has no plans to scrap the policy.
Since the enforcement began, there have been 167 reports of misogyny. Of these, 68 were treated as hate crimes, including public order offences, harassment and assault, and 99 were treated as hate incidents, such as intimidating behaviour, inappropriate sexual comments and verbal abuse. The reports have led to four arrests and one charge.
These figures suggest, however, that dozens more incidents are likely to be going unreported – a theme already seen across existing strands of hate crime nationally – because the true scale of the problem doesn't appear to be reflected in them. About 90 percent of women in the UK experience street harassment before their 17th birthday; nearly three quarters of 16 to 18-year-olds say they hear sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily; and 85 percent of women aged between 18 and 24 report receiving unwanted attention in public places. In Nottingham specifically, a 2014 Nottingham Citizens study found that 38 percent of women reporting a hate crime explicitly linked it to their gender. Men, meanwhile, made no similar links.
Harriet, who's 22 and also lives in Nottingham, would face catcalling at least twice a day, but has so far been hesitant to report any incidents to the police. "You second-guess yourself," she explains. "I'd think what happened to me is not bad enough to report. I always just thought there's no way I'd be taken seriously."
Instead, she – like Natalie – has taken steps to avoid negative attention. "If I'm walking to a friend's house in the evening to meet before we go out for drinks, I won't put red lipstick on until I get there," Harriet says. "[The catcalling] has made me feel like I want to blend into the background." The pair aren't alone in this – almost three-quarters of women have done something to guard themselves against the threat of harassment, such as changing their route to work or avoiding certain places.
Natalie and Harriet are unequivocal in their support for the move made in Nottinghamshire to treat misogyny as a hate crime, but both have yet to see it prove to be transformative. They expect, though, that this would change if the policy were rolled out nationwide – a notion that already has cross-party support.
Labour MP Melanie Onn led a parliamentary debate at the beginning of March aimed at adding misogyny to the existing five strands of centrally monitored hate crime – race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity. Formally monitoring this type of incident across the country will, she said, "better prevent violence against women, support early intervention against lower-level incidents and give women greater confidence in reporting the actions that, too often, have become the wallpaper of their lives".
Voce believes a national policy would act as a greater deterrent against people committing misogynistic hate crimes in the first place, and says that raising the profile of the issue would help support preventative work in schools through healthy relationships education.
Jephcott agrees, and expects a commitment at government level would help tackle underreporting. "If we were to have a national standard, women everywhere could have the same experience and the same access to justice," she says. "That’s really empowering, and we would see an increase in reporting that would then have a knock-on effect on the number of crimes being committed."
However, Onn faced challenges in Parliament, notably from Tory MP Philip Davies – who has previously been referred to as a "troglodyte" by his own colleagues for his views on equality – about the decision to put forward a policy that concerns prejudice against women only, and not men too. Victoria Atkins, the Conservative minister for women, warned against "creating laws that inadvertently conflict with principles of equality", and questioned whether hate crime legislation is the best way to treat the problem, because "women are not a minority". Interestingly, both Natalie and Harriet believe a national policy should also take misandry into account.
Onn countered by arguing that the power imbalance in society frequently puts women in a minority position, despite the numbers telling a different story. And Jephcott believes treating misogyny as a hate crime specifically is "absolutely the right decision" because it's about survivor perspective.
Nottinghamshire Police says it's too early to say if its work has led to a decrease in misogyny, because it's "just one part in a longer-term shift in attitudes", but it has submitted a report to the National Police Chiefs' Council and is awaiting feedback on whether it will be implemented nationwide. The Home Office says it is also interested to see the results of the work, but that it already has "robust legislation in place that can be used to protect women from a range of crimes".
Hardyal Dhindsa, lead on hate crime at the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, and Police and Crime Commissioner for Derbyshire, says it's crucial to look at the forces where misogyny is recorded as a hate crime to see if it is improving outcomes for victims. Steps could then be taken "to ensure that anybody who reports harassment and other crimes based on their gender is taken seriously, and that perpetrators are brought to justice".
For many women, though, it's not about punishing people, says Jephcott. Most just want an end to misogynistic incidents. Natalie hopes they stop being the norm – something women are conditioned to expect "as part of being a woman".
Chloe says top-level action to reduce the problem would show that those who have the power to keep people safe are taking women's safety seriously. "It's brilliant that incidents motivated by racism and homophobia, for example, are recognised as hate crimes," she says. "Taking hatred of women as seriously as those kinds of issues sends out a really strong message about the kind of society we want to live in."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.