Misogyny – A Human Rights Issue

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

Section 4: Living with misogyny; where it happens, who it happens to, and the harm it causes

4.1 Experiences of women and girls: findings from the Working Group's survey and the wider body of evidence[22]

"[I was called] a fucking whore when I politely told the man chatting me up in the pub that I was married."

"Since I have become disabled this [harassment] happens so much more. I had a man on a train telling me 'ooh love did someone fuck you too hard and now you're broken?' I was so scared."[23]

"It's like a constant cycle, we're [girls/women] always facing sexual harassment in some way whether it is just in the street or in town or wherever. I think there is still a long way to go [for women's rights in the UK]."[24]

"Since the age of 13, I had been experiencing boys looking up my skirt and lifting my kilt up… On quite a few occasions I knew that they were taking photos up my kilt too but I was too embarrassed to say anything. We never had the option to wear trousers to prevent it."[25]

"There were so many instances of sexual harassment and assault at school, it's hard to even know where to begin."

"I was waiting for a bus outside my house and two guys (late teens-early 20s) yelled 'Oi ugly, want a shag?' I was 11."[26]

"Thirteen year old school boys followed a thirteen year old school girl asking what sexual positions she liked, how many times she had had sex etc. When she refused to answer they called her a slut and told her she didn't deserve to breathe the same air as men. This was on the school playground… I reported it only to be told 'boys will be boys… it's just banter… they will grow out of it.'"

"I have been whistled at and catcalled numerous times in the street, once a group of men passed me and one of them grabbed their crotch and asked if I wanted a taste of their sausage."

"I've never experienced harassment like I did then [at school]. Men would ask if they could take picture with me in my uniform. It was awful, before that I used to be walking home, and I was so scared walking home."[27]

"When I was at college, two men called me names and made fun of me, they said sexual things to me too… I was bullied a lot and the lecturers would not do anything about it so I dropped out of college."[28]

"Being threatened by a man in a pub for not laughing at what he thought was a funny remark."

"You whore; I will pour acid onto your face but the kids will also pay." [Days later] "Be aware that you are not going to look in the mirror ever again."[29]

"Myself and a female partner were out running and a group of young people were walking towards us.. one of the young men started shouting… specifically lesbophobic misogyny – so shouting 'fucking lezzies.'"

"I had a man undo my halter neck top from behind in a club, had never seen him before."

"I have experienced death/violence/rape threats on-line for speaking up.. about street harassment. One man tweeted that they would love to watch me getting my teeth kicked in, many others said I was too unattractive for my experiences to be true, they didn't believe it had happened."

"We are going backwards… all the time.. routinely I see young women humiliated…"[30]

"I have been called a slut in a car park because I accidentally moved my trolley too close to a man's car."

These quotations represent a tiny fraction of the stories of women and girls that surfaced through this Review, through the Lived Experience Survey Analysis (published separately) and the collation of existing evidence. It is tempting to think of them as extremes or exceptions – the rare occasions when the fabric of society has become stretched and torn. But the evidence presented to the Working Group suggests differently. Even before specific research was undertaken for this Review, the following was known:

A Girlguiding research brief, tellingly named 'It Happens All the Time,'[31] found that 67% of girls and young women have experienced sexual harassment from other students at school. The brief also reports that the chance of girls experiencing harassment significantly increases as they progress through secondary school, with 59% of girls aged 13 to 16 having experienced harassment and 83% of 17- and 18-year-olds having suffered some form of harassment.

Further, in its Girls' Attitudes 2021 survey[32], Girlguiding found that 71% of girls and young women surveyed between the ages of 7 and 21 had experienced some form of harmful content while online in the last year. In an older category (of 11-21 year olds), 82% of experienced some form of on-line harm in the same period. 50% was sexist comments, 28% was harassment and 21% was bullying.

UN Women UK's research published in March 2021[33] found that only 3% of 18-24 year-olds reported having not experienced any of the types of sexual harassment listed in the survey. The most common forms of harassment experienced were catcalling/wolf whistling, being stared at in a way that made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, unwelcome touching, body rubbing or groping and in-person comments or jokes that made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. More than 95% of women did not report these incidents. The two main reasons women of all ages cited for not reporting incidents are: "I didn't think the incident was serious enough to report" (55%) and "I didn't think reporting it would help" (45%). 44% of women agreed that having more confidence that reporting the incident would prevent it from happening again would encourage them to report.

@OurStreetsNow[34], a grassroots campaign that aims to end street harassment, reported in September 2020 that only 14% of school students had been taught about street harassment; that 47% of students said they would not report an incident of public sexual harassment to their school either because they did not know if it would lead to further abuse or feared not being taken seriously by staff; and that 72% of pupils who did report public sexual harassment described receiving a negative response from their school, with the majority of participants stating that no real action was taken.

The website Everyone's Invited has collected over 50,000 individual testimonies of rape culture in UK schools (including in Scotland), defining rape culture as "when attitudes, behaviours and beliefs in society have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence. This culture includes misogyny, rape jokes, sexual harassment, online sexual abuse (upskirting, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos, cyberflashing), and sexual coercion. When behaviours such as these are normalised this can act as a gateway to more extreme acts such as sexual assault and rape."[35]

In March 2020, in a blog post reflecting on the World Wide Web's 31st birthday, Tim Berners-Lee referenced research by the World Wide Web Foundation (of which he is a Co‑Founder) and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts which found over half of the young women surveyed have experienced violence on-line – including being sexually harassed, sent threatening messages or having their private images shared without consent. 84% thought that the problem was getting worse.

In its 2017 study Toxic Twitter, Amnesty commented:

"The particular danger of online abuse is how fast it can proliferate – one abusive tweet can become a barrage of targeted hate in a matter of minutes," and

"The internet can be a frightening and toxic place for women…"[36]

This Amnesty study, conducted across eight countries (including the UK), reported on the psychological impact of online abuse:

  • Across the eight countries, 61% who had experienced online abuse said they'd experienced lower self-esteem or loss of self-confidence as a result.
  • More than half (55%) said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after online abuse or harassment.
  • 63% said they had not been able to sleep well as a result of online abuse or harassment.
  • 56% said online abuse and harassment had means that they had been unable to concentrate for long periods of time.

Laura Bates, the Founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, stated

"The psychological impact of reading through someone's really graphic thoughts about raping and murdering you is not necessarily acknowledged."[37]

The campaigning and training organisation Glitch reports in 'The Ripple Effect' that almost one in two women (46%) and non-binary people experienced online abuse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and 29% of those who had experienced online abuse before reported its being worse during the pandemic[38]. Glitch's report also highlights that gender is the most frequently cited reason for online abuse.

Further, a study from Amnesty International in 2018 found that in the UK and the US, Black women are 84%[39] more likely to experience online abuse than white women.

Research by the TUC has shown the harassment suffered by LGBTI+ women:

"For some women, the harassment tipped into sexual assault and threats of rape: 'Colleagues would regularly slap me on the rear, make derogatory comments, and at one point I walked into a room in the middle of them discussing gang raping me'."[40]

Plan International UK's Street Harassment: It's Not UK report from 2018 stressed the impact of harassment of women and girls from minority ethnic as well as LGBTI+ communities, reporting that minority ethnic and LGBTI+ young women reported higher rates across all experiences of harassment. An example of the severity of this difference – while just over one third of 14 to 21 year olds reported having been followed, the figure rose to 43% of minority ethnic and 50% of LGBTI+ young women.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) reported in September 2021 on the police response to violent offences against women and girls. (Although the report is limited to England and Wales, its findings may be informative for policy development for Scotland). The Home Secretary Priti Patel commissioned the report in March 2021 as part of the response to the murder of Sarah Everard, although, as the report notes, the names of other women who have been murdered have reached public consciousness since then, including Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Gracie Spinks and Julia James. The report highlights that:

"over the past decade, an average of 80 women a year were killed by a partner or ex-partner, and many of these women's names do not appear on the front pages of the newspapers. Statistics on the prevalence and scope of other VAWG offences are also shocking. For instance, in the year ending March 2020, it is estimated that 1.6 million women (and 757,000 men) in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse. In one recent survey, two out of three 16 to 34-year-old women and girls reported that they had been sexually harassed in the past year. These figures are alarming. We consider they represent an epidemic of violent and abusive offending against women and girls in England and Wales.

In fact, we struggled to keep our section in this report on the scale of the problem updated as a result of the pace of new data and findings on the size and shape of this epidemic. Every week brought new data or surveys on the crimes committed against women and girls; on the harassment they experience in public spaces, online, in their homes or schools, or where they work; on how unsafe they feel and the extra precautions they take as a result. The problem is known, consistent and deep-rooted in its presence, and growing in the forms it takes."[41]

The point made by HMICFRS regarding the rapidly evolving data on the experiences of women and girls is well made. Even as this report is being prepared, young women in universities are protesting about their feelings of unsafety when participating in nightlife in their towns and cities.[42]

The research undertaken for this Review (see 'Lived Experience Survey Analysis', published separately) has not in any way suggested that the UK-wide data reported in the body of evidence cited above is different from the experience of women and girls in Scotland. Specifically, the Working Group's research found, from 930 responses, that only 4.6% of respondents reported never having experienced misogynistic behaviours. Whilst the survey findings do not derive from a representative sample (with older women in particular over-represented) and cannot therefore be generalised to the Scottish population, the survey identified many relevant findings which echo those of the above cited evidence:

  • The majority of misogynistic behaviours experienced took place on the streets (63.5%), followed by online (59.9%). The majority of misogynistic behaviours witnessed took place online (72.8%), followed by on the streets (71.4%).
  • The most common misogynistic behaviours experienced or witnessed were: whistling; name calling; comments on physical appearance; dismissive or derogatory comments and behaviour; and shouting and cat-calling.
  • Many experiences reported included more than one misogynistic behaviour in the same incident, and suggested an escalating pattern of abusive behaviour, where if participants did not respond positively or as expected to the first behaviour, escalated behaviours followed.
  • Considerably fewer of the responses focused on misogyny in the home or within intimate relationships.
  • Women with intersecting characteristics (young women, minority ethnic women, LGBTI+ women, disabled women) were more likely to experience misogyny and to experience it more frequently.

On-line misogynistic behaviours were also investigated in the Lived Experiences Survey. Particularly marked are the threats to rape and / or kill and / or disfigure:

"On Twitter, I've been called an old witch, old hag and an old boomer. I've been told I'll soon be dead recently by a young male. I've been told that I'm ugly and will be alone."

"Online. Men threatening rape. Threatening physical violence against women who wouldn't date them. Men threatening corrective rape to lesbians."

"I have also experienced death/violence/rape threats online for speaking up publicly about this type of street harassment. One man tweeted that they would love to watch me getting my teeth kicked in, many others said I was too unattractive for my experiences to be true, they didn't believe it had happened."

4.2 The rise of incel

The phenomenon of 'incel' ('involuntary celibate') has come to public attention over recent years. Believed to derive from the Men's Rights activism of the 1960s, generated in response to increased numbers of women in universities, and a relationship support forum started by a woman in Canada in the 1990s,[43] incel became widely known in 2014 when Elliot Rodger shot dead six students at the University of California Santa Barbara before taking his own life. In a suicide note, Rodger stated:

"I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away."[44]

Since that time, Rodger has been 'deified'[45] by sections of what has become known as the incel community, at times being referred to as 'Saint Elliot,' and referenced by Alek Minassian who, in a self professedly incel act, killed 10 people in Toronto.[46] In the UK, in August 2021, Jake Davison killed five people in Plymouth before taking his own life. He is reported to have shared hate-filled views on Reddit forums used by incels.[47]

Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, who studies alt-right and incel communities at the University of Kent has described incel logic as:

  • "Calling upon 'lookism' [the idea that discriminatory treatment is received by those considered physically unattractive].
  • Uses evolutionary biology and traditional reproductive roles.
  • Employs 'geek masculinity'.[48]
  • Claims that society lies: "men actually have it harder than women".[49]

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate has identified one YouTube channel promoting violently misogynistic incel ideology that has had over 4 million views and counted the Plymouth murdered Jake Davison amongst its subscribers.[50] In January 2021, the Independent reported:

"There has been a six-fold rise in UK web traffic to websites promoting 'incel' culture, new analysis has found.

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that UK web traffic data to three of the largest 'incel' sites has grown from 114,420 monthly visits to 638,505, over the period of March to November 2021.

The Times reported that users on the sites referred to Plymouth mass shooter Jake Davison as a hero and called for 'all women to be raped at least once'."[51]

Incel represents an extreme – and apparently rapidly growing – example of the entitlement that the Working Group's definition of misogyny captures. The term 'femoid' (or 'foid') is frequently used in incel exchanges, referring to a 'female humanoid' or 'female android'.[52] The femoid is described as 'it' rather than 'she;' a woman in this language is dehumanised, an object, other.

4.3 What other behaviour may be motivated by, or may demonstrate misogyny?

Thus far this report has discussed behaviour that falls firmly within a violence against women and girls framework. It has discussed extremities – what may appear to be trivial behaviour such as the shouting of gendered and sexualised insults – through to what would generally be recognised as serious crime such as domestic abuse and rape.

There are other examples of misogynistic behaviour that the Working Group considered:

  • A brick thrown through the window of a well-known feminist.
  • Objects thrown at a group entering a women's meeting.
  • Vandalising the car of a woman who has started to campaign on a woman's issue.

Whilst there are recognisable crimes (criminal damage, assault) in these examples, it is also clear that there is a misogynistic element. In line with the Working Group's definition, the behaviour involved in the crime demonstrates a sense of entitlement, a subordination of women and, as a consequence, a limiting of their power and freedom.

4.4 Impact on women and girls

The experiences and incidents described above make it clear that misogyny is a fact of women's and girl's lives. This section describes the impact it has on their feelings, attitudes and decisions.

4.4a Insights from the Working Group's Lived Experiences Survey Analysis:

  • Only 0.7% of survey respondents reported that the experience [of misogynistic behaviour] did not impact them; 75% said that they felt angry, 69.2% felt annoyed or irritated, 67.1% felt uncomfortable.
  • Impacts appear to vary with age: The most common impact on respondents' feelings reported amongst 18 - 34 year olds was to feel uncomfortable. Over three quarters (77.6%) of 18 - 34 year olds reported feeling this way, compared to just under two thirds (68.0%) of 35 - 59 year olds, and just over half (53.1%) of respondents age 60+. The next most common response reported by 18 - 34 year olds was to feel annoyed / irritated (76.9%) compared to 69% of 35 - 59 year olds and 63.6% of those age 60+. Younger respondents were also more likely to feel undermined (65.0% compared to 57.3% of 35 - 59 year olds and 44.8% of 60+), to feel violated or that their privacy had been invaded (62.2% compared to 51.3% of 35 - 59 year olds and 37% of respondents age 60+), and to feel embarrassed (53.1% compared to 44.2% of 35 - 59 year olds and 35.7% of those age 60 +). By comparison, the most common response reported by respondents aged 35 - 59 was to feel angry (75.2%) which were similar for 18 - 34 year olds (74.8%) and those age 60+ (74.8%).[53]

4.4b Safety work

"'Safety work' is the term Liz Kelly uses to describe the strategising and planning that women and girls undertake in responding to, avoiding and/or coping with men's violence. The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive: we often can't even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive without external confirmation. That confirmation generally comes in the form of escalation: he moves from staring to touching, he walks quicker behind you, he blocks your path. This escalation is what safety work is designed to disrupt. Women learn to quietly make changes, continually evaluating the situation to decide what constitutes 'the right amount of panic'. Such work, repeated over time, becomes habitual: it is absorbed into the body as a kind of hidden labour."[54]

The prevalence of women undertaking 'safety work' is clear from the Lived Experience Survey. Many respondents reported changing their behaviour as a result of a misogynistic incident(s). 42.7% of respondents became more vigilant, 33.4% became more suspicious of strangers and 30% rethought decisions (e.g. clothing choices or posting on-line). Safety work has also gained greater public attention in the wake of Sarah Everard's murder when the Women's Equality Party invited women to tweet the precautions they take going about their lives. The Evening Standard reported that:

"within 45 minutes more than 18,000 examples had been shared. In one tweet a woman described how she removed strands of hair from her head during taxi rides in case she never made it home."[55]

4.4c Participation

It is clear from the body of evidence that misogyny operates at epidemic levels, not just in Scotland but across the UK. From the evidence – and from natural inference – the impact of this epidemic on women and girls' participation in society is clear.

  • Why put your hand up in school if it draws attention to you and puts you at greater risk of misogynistic bullying, harassment or derision?
  • Why put yourself forward for a promotion or a pay-rise if it increases your visibility and therefore your risk of misogynistic treatment?
  • Why speak up, or out, offline or on, if the result may be anything from degrading remarks about your physical appearance or desirability to a rape threat, or death threat?
  • How to firmly reject unwanted advances, of any kind, if there is a risk of nastiness, escalation of threat, or the occurrence of actual violence?

Misogynistic online abuse has, chillingly, been cited as the reason for women withdrawing from public life.[56] [57]

Of course, there are women who live full lives regardless of this epidemic, but it is nevertheless clear that a misogynistic act, whether 'trivial' or serious, undermines not only the victim of that act, but the progress, confidence and feeling of belonging to society of the vast majority of women.

4.4d. Reporting of, and perception of handling of, misogynistic incidents

The evidence presented in Section 4.1 makes it clear that reporting of misogynistic behaviour is unusual. Specifically, the Lived Experience Survey Analysis showed:

Reporting an incident

  • Most (93.4%) survey respondents did not report the incident(s) to the police, and 71.9% did not report to another person or agency in a position of authority. The main reason (52.2%) for not reporting was believing the police or authority would not be bothered/ interested, followed by believing the experience was not criminal, too trivial or not worth reporting (38.2%).
  • Of those who did report, 61.2% reported that the police, person or agency did not take action, a quarter (25.3%) reported they did take action, and 12.6% reported not knowing if any action was taken. Most (61.1%) respondents reported being dissatisfied with the response of the police and/or authority, and the minority (4.7%) reported that they were satisfied.
  • Minority ethnic respondents who had experienced misogyny were twice as likely than white respondents to say that they reported the incident to the police (12% versus 6%) or to another person or agency in a position of authority (34.4% versus 27.4%).

Satisfaction with how incidents were dealt with

  • Minority ethnic respondents who said they did report were less likely than white respondents who reported to state that the police/authority took action (15% versus 25.7%).
  • Heterosexual/straight respondents (26%) were more likely to report that the police and/or authority took action in relation to their misogynistic experience than gay/lesbian respondents (22.2%) and bisexual respondents (18.8%).[58]
  • Disabled respondents were less likely than non-disabled respondents to report that the police and/or authority took action. 17.6% of disabled respondents who reported the incident stated that action was taken, compared to just over a quarter (28.9%) of non-disabled respondents who reported the incident to the police and/or another authority.
  • Younger respondents aged 18 - 34 were more likely than 35 – 59 year old's and those aged 60+ to report being satisfied or very satisfied with the response of the police and/or authority. Just over a quarter (25.9%) of those 18 – 34 who reported the incident of misogyny were satisfied or very satisfied with the response, compared to 1 in 10 (10.4%) of 35 - 59 year olds, and 17.6% of respondents aged 60+.[59]
  • Those minority ethnic respondents who reported the incident of misogyny to the police or another authority were more likely than white respondents to report that they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the action taken (100% of minority ethnic respondents who reported compared to 77% of white respondents who reported).[60]

Reasons for not reporting

  • Younger respondents aged 18 – 34 were more likely than older respondents to report that their reason for not reporting the incident was because they thought it was not criminal/too trivial/not worth reporting (50%), compared to 36.9% of 35 – 59 year olds and 31.2% of those aged 60+. Younger respondents aged 18 – 34 were also more likely than respondents aged 35 – 59 year olds and 60+ to say they didn't report because the police or authority could have done nothing (46.8% of 18 – 34 year olds, 31.1% of 35 – 59 year olds and 35% of respondents aged 60+), and to say that they didn't report due to a fear of being or not being believed (37.3% of 18 – 34 year olds, 30% of 35 – 59 year olds and 25.6% of respondents aged 60+).
  • The most common reason for not reporting among minority ethnic respondents was that the police or authority would not have been bothered/not been interested (68.8% of minority ethnic respondents compared to 50.9% of white respondents). This was also the most common reason for not reporting amongst gay/lesbian (68.3%) and bisexual respondents (56.1%), compared to just under half (49.4%) of heterosexual/straight respondents.

4.5 What about men and 'misandry'?

By necessity, within the remit of this Review, the evidence in this report refers to the experiences of women. 'Misandry' has not featured. A parallel between misogyny and 'misandry' ('feelings of hating men'[61]) is immediately problematic when considered within the Working Group's definition of misogyny. Of course, there are instances of men being abused or harassed, but it is difficult to reverse the logic of the misogyny definition and to interpret abuse or harassment of men as upholding the primary status of women, a sense of female entitlement and the subordination of men. It is equally difficult to see the harms of misogyny – the increased feelings of fear and threat, the need to undertake safety work within women as a group – as being similar to the harms deriving from instances of abuse or harassment of men.

Further insights on the prevalence of misogyny, on technology platforms, in education, public life and at work can be found in Annex 2.


Email: bill.brash@gov.scot

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