Journalism

Britain Is Making Sexual Harassment a Hate Crime

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on May 19th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Jillian Keenan.

Foreign Policy illustration

A shift in how police departments handle complaints about men could save the lives of countless women.

Five different times, Shana Grice reported her ex-boyfriend to the police in Sussex, England. The 19-year-old asked for help when he followed her home and when he used a stolen key to break into her house while she was sleeping. He put a tracker in her car and repeatedly called her breathing heavily.

But the police didn’t help—just as they ignored the 13 other women who had previously tried to report him for stalking. In Grice’s case, they fined her 90 pounds ($115) for “wasting police time.” So when her ex-boyfriend, Michael Lane, 27, drove a knife through Grice’s neck and set her bedroom on fire in August 2016, there was no one around to help.

Crimes against women are notoriously underreported in the United Kingdom and around the world—particularly when they’re of a sexual nature. Now, one police unit in England is trying to address this problem, and it’s a surprisingly bureaucratic response to a very violent problem: The unit is changing how the complaints are classified as they come in, and early research indicates it may be having effective results.

Underreporting by women happens around the world. In the United States, a staggering 77 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where the Office for National Statistics reports that more than 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. Even when they are reported, it hardly matters: Of the 57,600 rapes that were reported in 2018 in the U.K., only 2,822 of those resulted in a criminal charge, according to Nick Martin in the Crown Prosecution Service press office.

Conventional thinking has long been that women don’t report out of shame or stigma. But Grice’s murder highlights another reason: Nothing happens. Too often, when a woman does approach police to report threats or crimes, she gets ignored, belittled, fined, or worse—she aggravates her stalker. “It boils down to the fact that many women do not trust in the police and courts to provide justice after sexual violence,” said Rebecca Hitchen, the campaign manager for the U.K.-based End Violence Against Women Coalition.

That lack of trust was already being recognized as the main problem by police officers in Nottinghamshire, a former coal mining county of about 1 million people in the East Midlands region of England. In 2016, they launched a novel experiment: The police officers decided to record incidents of misogynistic behavior not just as crimes but as hate crimes.

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