Misogyny – A Human Rights Issue

The Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice's independent report on their findings and recommendations.

Section 3: Defining misogyny; going beyond the Classics

3.1 The challenge

Whilst the genesis of this Review was a question of whether a sex characteristic should be added to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act, the Working Group determined that it needed to go further than providing a simple yes/no response. From the outset of this Review, the Working Group agreed with Lord Bracadale:

"[Offences] which adhere to the principle that crimes motivated by hatred or prejudice towards particular features of the victim's identity should be treated differently from 'ordinary' crimes"[7]

And the Working Group agreed that the 'particular features of the victim's identity…' should include women, or those who perpetrators perceive to be women. The Working Group's question was howbest to provide protections to women in Scotland - without minoritizing them, without creating potentially unrealistic evidential burdens (recognising the centuries old power disparities between men and women) and ensuring that what is captured is the kind of behaviour that increasingly society is terming 'misogynistic'.

Misogyny is hard to define. And like many abstract concepts, whilst it may be difficult to define, many people feel they 'know it when they see it' (or hear it, or feel it). The classical definition of misogyny (from Greek misos 'hatred' + gunē 'woman') was inadequate for the task of the Working Group. Of course there are incidents of criminal behaviour that are clearly motivated by hatred of women; a point brought home tragically in Plymouth in 2021 when five people were killed by an individual who police found to have engaged with "the incel movement."[8] However, it would be a challenging idea to many that 'hatred' is the motivation for, what the evidence reveals to be, the routine grind of harassment, humiliation and degradation that women experience in Scotland (and around the world). A cat-call or an invasion of a woman's personal space may not seem like a manifestation of hatred. In fact, the cat-caller, or the individual who comes too close, may consider their behaviour to be 'a compliment.' But the evidence collected by the Working Group, and presented later in this report, shows that the perniciousness of these 'compliments' impacts the confidence, wellbeing and economic progress of women everywhere.

So whilst this Review does consider how criminal behaviour motivated by a hatred of women, that harms not just that woman, but women – and society – in general – should be treated, it has gone wider. It is clear from the public discourse that the term 'misogyny' has come to mean more than 'hatred of women' and that it is being used to describe an elusive (in definitional terms) but pervasive (in experiential terms, as the evidence presented later in this report shows) experience of women.

Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex has invoked misogyny to say:

"Maybe people know this and maybe they don't, but the term Megxit was or is a misogynistic term, and it was created by a troll, amplified by royal correspondents, and it grew and grew and grew into mainstream media…"[9]

Justice Minister Keith Brown has highlighted steps to end a culture of:

"canteen misogyny"[10]

"within Police Scotland"

In the context of Dame Elish Angiolini's independent review of complaints about the police and the successful victimisation claim by Rhona Malone, Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said the force's hiring and promotion protocols were based on values which:

"stand against any discriminatory or misogynistic mindsets or behaviour."[11]

In all of these cases, it is doubtful that the term misogyny is being used to describe an active hatred of women. Those royal correspondents who use the term 'Megxit,' men who make derogatory jokes about women in a staff canteen, or recruiters who make decisions that disadvantage women are unlikely to recognise the idea that they hate women. They may well love many women – their partners, wives, sisters, daughters. But this does not mean that the 'canteen misogyny' or the undermining of a woman in the public eye is harmless.

In fact, one dimension of misogyny that the Working Group sought to include in its definition is captured in Police Scotland's film 'That Guy'[12], launched with Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, Police Scotland's explanation that:

"We want all women to be free to live their lives without worrying about their safety…"

The film references wolf whistling, staring, giving of persistent and invasive 'compliments,' and wondering why the response to the 'compliment' isn't 'thank you.' These are all behaviours that the Working Group sought to bring within its definition. The film appears to acknowledge and challenge sexual entitlement and to work from an understanding that, unchecked, attitudes of sexual entitlement can escalate quickly into violence, in alignment with the thinking and objectives of Equally Safe.

Regardless of the challenge, creating a definition of misogyny was an important part of the Review process. As outlined above, misogyny is being talked about across traditional and social media. Furthermore, providing definition can, of itself, be empowering. As Rebecca Solnit, the author and activist whose work is associated with the widespread adoption of the term 'mansplaining,'[13]has commented:

"I used to be ambivalent, worrying primarily about typecasting men with the term [mansplaining]. (I have spent most of my life tiptoeing around the delicate sensibilities of men, though of course the book Men Explain Things to Me is what happens when I set that exhausting, doomed project aside.) Then in March a PhD candidate said to me, no, you need to look at how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every women has but we didn't have language for.

And that is something I'm really interested in: naming experience and how what has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared. Words are power. So if this word allowed us to talk about something that goes on all the time, then I'm really glad it exists…"[14]

3.2 Definition considerations

3.2a Academic definitions of misogyny

In looking for a relevant definition, one that starts to address the inadequacies of the idea that misogynistic behaviour is enacted by 'men who hate women,' the Working Group considered the view of academics, including the philosopher Kate Manne, who argues that misogynistic behaviour is not just a result of a particular individual's thoughts at a point in time, but is an enduring social phenomenon. Manne defines misogyny as:

"primarily a property of social environments"

i.e. an 'ownership' of or 'entitlement to' the spaces in which women lead their lives. Manne challenges the

"naive conception that misogyny is a psychological condition of individual men"[15]

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) only in part recognises the idea that misogyny is a property of social environments, defining misogyny as:

"dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women"

Prejudice is perhaps a more helpful idea than hatred when thinking about misogyny, suggesting as it does unreasonable thought or opinion formed without enough thought or knowledge.[16]

Cynthia A Stark's definition was also of interest to the Working Group:

"Misogynist hostility is delivered by people when they do such things as adhere to culturally condoned scripts, conform their actions to the reigning ideology, participate in rituals, traditions, and long-standing practices, etc. Hence, people may enact it unwittingly—they may not harbor overtly misogynist attitudes and may not be aiming to enforce patriarchal norms….
Misogyny is a collective phenomenon then, insofar as, first, it is delivered through a collection of ordinary actions. Second, its collective aim, as it were, may be distinct from the aims of the individuals engaging in those actions, but is nonetheless achieved through those individual actions. Third, it affects women as a collectivity—as a group." [17]

Prompted by Stark's definition, the Working Group was inclined to contrast an individual's deliberate, considered misogynistic behaviour with behaviour 'enacted unwittingly' but which nevertheless expresses an underlying shared set of assumptions that sit far beneath conscious, individual thought. In addition, the Working Group agreed that the impact of misogynistic behaviour stretches far beyond the specific victim of the specific action; it impacts women as a group by reinforcing 'patriarchal norms'. In other words, there is a corrosive impact of misogynistic behaviour on women as a group and therefore, it can be argued, on society as a whole.

Allan G Johnson described misogyny as something that:

"…fuels men's sense of superiority, justifies male aggression against women, and works to keep women on the defensive and in their place"[18]

And Meghan Hoyt, building on Liz Kelly's work on the spectrum of sexual violence,[19] reminded the Working Group that:

"not all manifestations of patriarchal control look or feel violent. Some may seem relatively trivial, however, when connected to the broader spectrum of violence the reality is that many women may experience even 'minor' events as threatening"[20]

3.2b Definitions of misogyny from practice

Consideration was also given to definitions of misogyny that had been used in practice. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police Force, a ground-breaking initiative by the Chief Constable Sue Fish began recording misogynistic hate incidents (see 'Nottinghamshire Police Pilot' Annex 1). In order to do so, a shared understanding of these 'hate incidents' was needed.

The definition used was:

"incidents against women that are motivated by the attitude of men towards women and includes behaviour targeted at women by men simply because they are women."

Incidents recorded have included acts of violence and damage to property, as well as street harassment, including cat calling and wolf whistling.[21]

Scottish Women's Aid's definition of domestic abuse provides a useful framework for the definition of a complex concept. The definition begins:

"Domestic abuse is a pattern of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and / or violent behaviour, including sexual violence, by a partner or ex-partner. Domestic abuse is overwhelmingly experienced by women and perpetrated by men. It doesn't matter how old someone is, what race or ethnicity they are, what class they are, whether or not they are disabled, or whether they have children – anyone can be a victim of abuse…"

The definition usefully:

  • - Describes the behaviour ('a pattern of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and / or violent behaviour, including sexual violence').
  • - Describes the perpetrator of the behaviour ('…by a partner or ex-partner…').
  • - Describes the usual characteristic of the victim and perpetrator ('Domestic abuse is overwhelmingly experienced by women and perpetrated by men. It doesn't matter how old someone is….').

Equally Safe bases its definition of gender-based violence on the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and as:

'… a function of gender inequality, and an abuse of male power and privilege. It takes the form of actions that result in physical, sexual and psychological harm or suffering to women and children, or affront to their human dignity, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. It is men who predominantly carry out such violence, and women who are predominantly the victims of such violence. By referring to violence as 'gender based' this definition highlights the need to understand violence within the context of women's and girl's subordinate status in society. Such violence cannot be understood, therefore, in isolation from the norms, social structure and gender roles within the community, which greatly influence women's vulnerability to violence.'

In addition to describing the behaviour, victims and perpetrators associated with gender‑based violence, this definition considers the relative power and status of men, women in society and the gendered nature of the norms and structures that govern day to day lives.

3.3 A workable, working definition of misogyny

Considering all of the above, the Working Group sought a definition which:

  • Situates misogyny in the relative powers of men and women and reflects the impact on women of this power imbalance.
  • Considers the underlying belief system, or norms, in addition to deliberate, conscious thought at the time of any action or behaviour.
  • Makes it clear that misogynistic behaviour stems from, and props up, this underlying belief system and can include a wide range of behaviours - not restricted to apparent acts of hate - from spiking drinks in a bar 'for a laugh,' to stealthing (secretly removing a condom during sex without the other person's consent - 'for more pleasure'), catcalling (or 'complimenting'), as well as making unwelcome or unwarranted advances to women as they go about their daily lives.
  • Recognises that this shared belief system is not the unique preserve of men – both women and men are subject to the social and economic forces that influence the relative powers of men and women, the according status that they are afforded and the ensuing assumptions about their entitlements to go about their lives freely and uninterrupted.

As a result, the Working Group came to the following definition:

Misogyny is a way of thinking that upholds the primary status of men and a sense of male entitlement, while subordinating women and limiting their power and freedom. Conduct based on this thinking can include a range of abusive and controlling behaviours including rape, sexual offences, harassment and bullying, and domestic abuse.

This definition is deliberately non-legal and provided the Working Group with a starting point from which to consider the degree to which current law protects women from the behaviours it encompasses.

The definition makes it clear that misogyny is not about seeking to exclude women from society; it is not about wanting to banish them from communities. Misogyny, as defined, allows for women's inclusion, but on patriarchal terms.

The Working Group's definition of misogyny therefore covers behaviour that could be seen to stem from a hatred of women, such as the throwing of a brick through the window of woman feminist activist whilst screaming "I hate all you fucking women…" or a man driving his car into a women's rights protest having just declaimed 'incel' ideology on-line. But just as importantly, it covers behaviour that stems from a feeling of entitlement to, amongst other things, attention, goods, money, opportunity, care, love and sex – from women. It covers behaviour that acts to limit the power and freedom of women – including their freedom to move through spaces – both physical spaces (parks, streets, educational and political institutions, work places) and digital spaces - with the same feelings of security and safety as men.


Email: bill.brash@gov.scot

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