Gender bias hate crimes are a subset of the larger category of hate crimes, that is, crimes committed due to an offender’s bias or prejudice toward a victim’s real or perceived group membership. Specifically in the case of gender-motivated bias crimes, the bias is a result of prejudice or hostility due to the victim’s gender. Although hate crime laws’ categorization of gender as a protected status can include anyone based on his or her gender, male or female, in practice “gender” is a proxy for girls and women. Protection for transgendered individuals, when it is offered under hate crime statutes, is usually provided by the categories of “gender expression” or “transgender.”
Violence against women fits the hate crime paradigm when women are selected as victims due to their gender (the discriminatory selection model) or due to the perpetrator’s hatred of women (the animus model). In either case, women are targeted because they are women, that is, not who they are, but what they are. Many crimes committed against women fit these models, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and other assaults in which men are the primary perpetrators and women the primary victims. Violence against women most likely to be designated a gender bias hate crime is sexual or physical assault by a serial male offender; certain cases of domestic violence in which a pattern of a man’s repeated violence against consecutive women can be established; or the murder of women because they are women, termed femicide.
One incident of violence against women that is frequently held up as the hallmark of a gender-biased hate crime is known as the Montreal Massacre. The crime occurred in Montreal, Canada, on December 6, 1989, at the University of Montreal. A 25-year-old man, Marc Lépine, entered the university’s school of engineering and separated the women from the men, ordering the men out of the classroom. While screaming of his hatred for feminists he opened fire, killing 14 young women and wounding another 9 women and 4 men, before killing himself. A suicide note blamed his educational and personal failures on women. Additionally, a hit list of prominent Canadian women holding nontraditional jobs was found on his body. This tragedy was almost unanimously held to be a gender-motivated hate crime, which opened the door for viewing other violence against women in the same way.
One benefit of viewing violence against women as gender-bias hate crimes is that prosecutors can seek additional punishment if a bias motivation can be proved in states with penalty enhancement measures. Another benefit is being able to connect the dots between individual incidents of violence against women, creating a picture of institutionalized sexism, prejudice, and misogyny directed toward women as a group that often erupts into violence. When violence against women is identified as political and institutional, rather than personal, then solutions will be addressed at that level.
In lobbying for the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act (HCSA) in 1988, which was adopted in 1990, a hate crime coalition of racial/ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation groups lobbied for the national collection of data on hate crimes directed toward their constituencies. Then-president of the National Organization for Women, Molly Yard, advocated for the inclusion of the category of gender. Yard argued that violence against women fit the hate crimes paradigm, that is, many times women are targeted for victimization because they are women.
The hate crime coalition refused to add gender as a status category under the HCSA for a number of reasons, including (a) fear that its inclusion would delay the passage of the bill; (b) concern about opening the gates for admission of additional categories, such as age and disability; (c) concern that the prevalence of violence against women would overwhelm data collection efforts; and (d) a belief that gender did not fit the hate crime paradigm since many women know their attackers. In contrast, the gender category was often added at the state level, mostly because the legitimacy of women as a historically oppressed group requiring special protections under the law had become an established part of the legal canon.
Gender as a Controversial Category
Therefore, gender has increasingly become a part of the hate crime policy template, although gender’s fit within the hate crime paradigm remains controversial. At least 20 states currently include gender as a status category in their hate crime statutes, although that inclusion may be more symbolic than practical.
Opponents of inclusion of violence against women as a hate crime note that many women know their attackers and special laws already exist that address violence against women, such as sexual assault and domestic violence statutes. Also acting against the inclusion of gender into hate crime categories is its prevalence and the fact that women constitute half the population. These two factors combine to make violence against women look essentially random and unrelated, rather than targeted. Anecdotally, many people believe men hurt or kill women because they love them, not because they hate them. Additionally, crimes are less likely to be categorized as hate crimes if there are multiple or mixed motives, which tend to muddy the hate crime waters. A perpetrator often has multiple motives when committing a violent offense against a woman, making a hate crime charge less likely.
Supporters of the perspective that violence against women constitutes a hate crime note that similar to established patterns in hate crimes, women are often called names during the assault that specifically target their gender, and the larger community of women is often affected by the violence committed against one woman. For example, when a woman is sexually assaulted in a neighborhood, fear ripples through the community of women who fear they could be targeted next. Although women may change where they go, they cannot change what they are—women. When a rapist is looking for a victim, he often lies in wait, not for the next person to cross his path, but the next woman.
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