From this autumn, police forces in Wales and England are required by the UK government to record misogyny as a hate crime.

This new requirement, which was announced just days after an outpouring of grief at a vigil following the murder of Sarah Everard, was hailed as a victory by campaign groups and seemed to be a significant moment in the campaign to tackle violence against women – but was it?

In the same week, two significant and controversial Bills were making their way through parliament, each raising issues in respect of violence against women. A parliamentary reading of one of the Bills came a week after the discovery of the body of Sarah Everard and four days after the heavy-handed policing of the vigil at Clapham Common.

READ MORE: Former Police Commissioner slams denial of police misogyny

The outpouring of anger that accompanied stories of harassment and violence shared by women across the country; protests at the heart of parliament, and front-page headlines criticising police and government, all propelled the issue to the centre of political debate.

During Prime Minister’s Questions in March, Boris Johnson clashed with Keir Starmer over the UK government’s commitment to women’s rights, after he claimed we were witnessing an epidemic of violence against women and girls. There was an agreement that the death of Sarah Everard must mark a ‘turning point’ in tackling violence against women.

Admittedly, the scale of the problem is vast. There are calls for reform; the creation of a new offence of street harassment, the criminalisation of sexual harassment, improvements to the law relating to stalking, increases in sentences for sexual and violent offenders, more awareness of the issues of coercive control and sex trafficking, and improvements in rape and domestic abuse convictions.

Underpinning many of the issues women face is the problem of misogyny, and this is why the government agreement to record data – even as a temporary measure – is significant.

The term ‘hate crime’ is commonly misunderstood. Hate crime is not a separate category of crime that someone is charged with; it is simply a recognition of hostility related to a protected characteristic that allows for enhanced sentencing of existing crimes.

The concept of a ‘hate crime’ was introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and requires that an offender is motivated by hostility towards a group based on their membership of the group and that an offender, at the time of committing an offence, demonstrates hostility towards the victim based on their membership of a group.

The 1998 Act covered only racial groups but the extended rules, consolidated in the Sentencing Act 2020, now cover other protected characteristics, namely religion, sexual orientation, transgender status and disability.

READ MORE: Society must take an urgent stand against misogyny

Whilst identifying an existing crime such as criminal damage, assault or harassment as a hate crime can lead to increased sentences, in this instance, we will simply see a recording of information that will help to identify where crimes are motivated by hatred towards sex or gender.

The Fawcett Society has claimed sex or gender is the most common motivation for attacks on women and thus gathering data on this is important.

There is also the question of what is actually to be recorded as a hate crime. Headlines speak about misogyny, but is this just fake news? There is no legal definition of misogyny. The traditional understanding of misogyny is as ‘women hating,’ or a hostile, violent reaction to women.

The new requirement for police forces does not make reference to misogyny; simply the recording of data where crimes are alleged to have been motivated by hostility towards ‘sex or gender'.

READ MORE: All men bear responsibility for stamping out misogyny

For the government to use the term misogyny would be misleading as it is not an identity characteristic in the same way as sex or gender is. Misogyny is a specific prejudice, manifesting from hatred to an identity characteristic and its formal use in policy or law would change the approach of hate crime law that currently focuses on characteristics and not the prejudice.

The government’s gender-neutral approach reflects that of the Law Commission which, in September 2020, launched a review of hate crime law in Wales and England. Its report proposed that sex or gender should become a protected characteristic in hate crime laws, but also considered extending the protections of aggravated offences and stirring up hatred offences to include sex and gender.

There are arguments that misogyny hate crime has ‘declaratory importance,’ and would send a clear message that ‘culturally endemic negative attitudes’ towards women will not be tolerated.

The gender-neutral protection is opposed by some groups like Women’s Aid, which argues it could be more harmful than helpful because it fails to acknowledge that women are disproportionately the victims of abuse. Indeed, it is women as a group and not men who satisfy two of the formal criteria for hate crime recognition – demonstrable need and additional harm.

However, a gender-specific protection would be inconsistent with other more neutral hate crime characteristics [and protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010] such as race, religion and sexual orientation, none of which identifies more frequently targeted groups. There is also the concern that a gender specific hate crime law, by excluding men, would fail to conform to formal equality and the principle of equality before the law.

We will see a change to the recording of hate crime data in the weeks to come, but will misogyny actually become a hate crime? It seems not.

The trend in recent statutory reform such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is to use a more neutral term, such as sex or gender.

However, with arguments on both sides, we await with interest the Law Commission’s proposals later this year.

Clare Lewis is a senior lecturer in law at the University of South Wales.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.