Women in the United States face an extraordinary level of violence. Each year, an estimated 10 million American women are physically abused by an intimate partner. An average of 3 women are killed by an intimate partner in the U.S. each day. More than 463,634 Americans are raped annually — and approximately 417,270 of these victims are women and girls. Yet despite these shocking numbers, violence against women is rarely charged as a hate crime.
A hate crime is any criminal act where the perpetrator targets a victim because of their membership in a certain social group or demographic (or perceived membership). In its simplest terms, a hate crime is a crime that is fueled by bias. With some exceptions, hate crimes are typically not prosecuted as a separate criminal offense. Instead, an individual’s sentence may be enhanced (adding more time) if they are convicted of a crime that was motivated by bias.
Hate crime laws exist in all but 4 states in the U.S.: Wyoming, Indiana, Arkansas, and South Carolina. The federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act also requires enhanced sentencing for crimes motivated by bias. On the federal level, a hate crime prosecution may occur if the crime was based on the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. State hate crime laws vary significantly as to what types of bias are covered. In Pennsylvania, hate crime charges can only be brought if a crime was alleged to be motivated by the victim’s race, religion or ethnicity.
In the United States, a crime motivated by gender bias may be charged as a hate crime under federal law and in 35 states. Even with these laws on the books, however, investigation and prosecution of hate crimes related to gender bias is exceptionally rare. According to data from the FBI, of 7,103 hate crime incidents documented in 2019, just 0.9% were categorized as a form of gender bias. This number stands in stark contrast to other data that we have on violence against women. For example, more than 55% of all female homicide victims were killed by a current or former intimate partner — and most of the time, that partner was male. From 2013 to 2017, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported that 27.2% of all crimes were motivated by gender.
This raises an important question: why aren’t these crimes being charged as hate crimes? We know that gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, stalking, and sexual harassment, stems from discriminatory beliefs and attitudes about women and girls. The root causes of gender-based violence include:
The objectification and degradation of women in the media and in pop culture
Harmful gender norms
If violence against women is typically motivated by bias against women, then why is it rarely — if ever — charged as a hate crime?
Of course, hate crimes are notoriously difficult to prove. Hate crime prosecutions based on any type of bias — whether it be religious, race, sexual orientation, gender or another category — are rarely successful.
Even if more acts of violence against women were charged as hate crimes, it may be difficult for prosecutors to persuade a jury to convict. Even so, there is value in calling these crimes what they are: violence motivated by bias against women. Doing so would recognize the underlying cause of gender-based violence — and would demonstrate a commitment to addressing it.
Beyond prosecution, violence against women is rarely described as a hate crime in the media — even when the underlying act was clearly motivated by bias against women. For example, a man shot and killed 5 girls and injured another 5 girls at the West Nickel Mines school in Lancaster County in 2006. When he entered the school, he ordered the male students to leave and allowed a pregnant woman and three women with babies to leave — before shooting the remaining 10 girls in the school and then killing himself. Despite the shooter targeting girls, the media did not describe this as a hate crime.
Similarly, in 2015, a young man went on a rampage in Isla Vista, California — killing 6 people before killing himself. While 3 of his victims were men, he left behind videos and writings that specifically stated that his goal was to take revenge on women because he had not had a romantic relationship. While some media accounts described him as a misogynist, his act of mass murder was not described as a hate crime.
If the media were to describe violence against women as a hate crime, it would go a long way towards reframing the narrative about this type of violence. By acknowledging that gender-based violence is motivated by bias, it may change the way that we think about these types of crimes - and
result in a cultural change.
At Blackburn Center, we are committed to helping victims and survivors of all types of violence and crime — and to prevent it from happening in the first place. If you need help, we are here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-832-2272. Calls to our hotline are always free of charge, and can be anonymous.