Two women behind the campaign for police to record misogyny as a hate crime have been subjected to “horrendous” abuse themselves, including a threat to stab one of them in the head with a dagger.
Melanie Jeffs and Lydia Rye led research into hate crime in Nottingham which resulted in the city’s police becoming the first in the country to recognise street harassment as a hate crime earlier this month.
Both have since been subjected to personal threats, claims they were “not attractive enough” to talk about street harassment and posts telling them to “get cancer” at the rate of up to 100 messages a day.
One commenter told the pair he wanted all women to feel like “the retarded gutter trash that they are”, after a BBC reporter had sexual obscenities hurled at her while reporting on sexism on Nottingham’s streets.
Jeffs, the manager of the Nottingham Women’s Centre, received comments saying she looked like a ‘bull dyke’ and a ‘12-year-old-boy’ after the police confirmed their decision on 13 July.
“I also had someone suggesting that they could find me, tie me up and then… with a GIF of a woman having a dagger plunged through the back of her head,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
“On Twitter it was mostly comments about my looks – because I don’t look feminine,” she revealed.
She claimed a picture of her was shared online next to a picture of an unnamed woman who “looked like a model”, with the comment “QUIZ: Guess which one of these is a ‘Women’s Centre Manager’ who believes wolf-whistling is a #HateCrime?”
This led to “a flurry of responses about how I looked like a man, a 12 year old boy, one of the Proclaimers, Michael Gove, a ‘bull dyke’ and pretty much anything other than a woman that they’d want to sleep with,” she told HuffPost UK.
Rye, the head of Nottingham Citizens which is the city’s branch of Citizens UK, shocked at the lengths people went to to attack her online.
“I was stunned people went to the effort of finding me on twitter and even going via the Citizens UK website comment box to point out that I really wasn’t attractive enough to speak on this issue so I should just shut up.”
One user, apparently from America, posted on the Citizens UK Facebook page that if he ever visited England he would “make sure every woman I see there is treated like shit”.
He allegedly wrote: “I will make them cry for even looking at me. I will make them run away with no regard to their feelings. I will purposely make them hate every day this law remains in effect… If this ever becomes law in America, I will make every woman, not just the ones who want this law feel like the retarded gutter trash that they are. There will be no peace.”
Jeffs and Rye were involved in the ‘No Place For Hate’ report, the largest piece of peer-led research into hate crime ever carried out in Britain. It was commissioned by Nottingham Citizens and backed by three MPs, and found that 38% of women reporting a hate crime explicitly linked this to their gender.
Police followed its recommendation and recorded misogyny as a new category of hate crime this year, alongside abuse directed at people because of their religion, disability or sexual orientation. Nottingham Citizens is calling on other forces around the UK to do the same.
Rye said the abuse she and Jeffs received “absolutely confirms the importance” of their work.
“It made me feel deeply vindicated that this work was done – those commenting were proving the very need for this categorisation,” Rye said.
“I think it brings it out into the light,” added Jeffs. “I have to say we also had some incredibly supportive messages, including from men – and that shows that perhaps things are changing and this is a step in the right direction at exactly the right time. One man actually said that this whole project made him feel proud to live in Nottinghamshire – that really was good to hear.”
A Citizens UK spokesperson called the abuse of its employee ‘horrendous”.
BBC journalist Sarah Teale was harassed in the street while she was reporting on street harassment last year. As she told viewers about a study showing 95% of women have been jeered at or shouted at in the street, when a man walked past and screamed at her.
After the incident Teale tweeted: “Irony – reporting how 95% of women are victims of sexual harassment – and a man shouts sexual obscenities at me.”
Both Jeffs and Rye tried to ignore the abuse directed at them. “I’m a woman in my 20s, this is the background noise to my life, I just carried on,” said Rye.
“The volume of tweets and messages that were coming in – more than 100 in one day – meant that I didn’t have time to look at them all anyway,” adds Jeffs.
“We had to block some people on our Facebook page because they were being extremely abusive, and I did block the person who threatened to put a dagger through the back of my head.”
But she was worried by it: “I was a bit concerned that this might spill over into the real world. I can remember crossing a road and thinking ‘don’t step out while that car is coming – they might run you over deliberately’.
“I know that sounds paranoid but I was starting to think that I might be recognised in the street by some of these people. ”
She hadn’t been abused to this extent before but was “very aware that this happens to any woman who speaks out or just generally takes up any public space.”
Neither Jeffs or Rye reported their abuse – which has now died down – to police. Jeffs blocked the person who sent her the GIF of a woman being stabbed, and they then deleted the tweet before she had taken a screenshot of it. “So I didn’t really have much to go on,” she said. “If it had escalated though, I definitely would have reported it.”
“I didn’t [report the abuse] on this occasion because I didn’t feel unsafe,” said Rye. “There have definitely been instances in my life though where I’d wished that reporting things said to me would be taken seriously by the police so I’m grateful that that is now true here in Nottingham at least and feel confident that I could report and be treated well if I did so.”
Both agree the abuse was a ‘power play’ reaction from men who do not like women who speak out or challenge them.
“Some men expect women to maintain their position in society as subordintate and public spaces, whether in real life or online, as men’s space,” said Jeffs. “When women speak up and try to threaten that, of course there is a comeback.
“No one in power willingly gives up that power – and we have to remember that men still have that sort of power in our society. And of course the fact that I don’t look ‘feminine’ or try to attract male attention is also threatening and disruptive to the status quo – hence why this is what they focused on.”
“I think trolling is seen as sport, and there’s a whole group of men in particular who see this as a game and a power play,” said Rye.
“It feels like there’s a belief that we’re not equal or perhaps even fully human to them so it’s legitimate for them to treat us this way. Plus its online so its easier to hide who you are which is why I think its often threatening sexual violence rather than the broader – but still unwelcome – sexual comments you might get whilst out and about.”
Jeffs said she was surprised to learn that many of her abusers also held far-right or Islamaphobic views. “I hadn’t realised the links between misogyny and the far right – so I was getting tweets and messages from people who were also tweeting Nazi propaganda and Islamaphobic stuff,” he said. “That did shock me a bit – maybe because I just can’t believe that there are people out there that think this stuff is ok, whereas I know only too well that misogyny is almost mainstream in some senses – and thus less shocking.”
Rye said she felt it was essential to support her colleagues in the wake of the abuse: “The feedback Mel received was particularly shocking and as so much of it was personally violent I think I wanted more than anything to have her back.”
She pointed out that the research into hate crime was based on responses from the community, which backed the categorisation of misogyny as a hate crime. “We did this together,” she said of Jeffs: “She wasn’t out there on her own to be targeted.”
Nottinghamshire Police described their new definition of misogyny hate crime as:
Examples of this may include unwanted or uninvited sexual advances; physical or verbal assault; unwanted or uninvited physical or verbal contact or engagement; use of mobile devices to send unwanted or uninvited messages or take photographs without consent or permission.
Both Jeffs and Rye told HuffPost UK that the harassment they experienced will not discourage them from continuing to work against sexism. “I guess because I know that’s exactly what they want” said Jeffs. “But it does of course concern me and I know it’s put other women off taking roles in public life.”
Rye claimed the abuse makes her “more motivated if anything.”
“This work has shown how important it is to make sure that we are continuing to support women to be heard who might otherwise just get shouted down or put off participating at all” she said. “I also think a little healthy anger is a great motivator for pursuing justice.”