ONCE, in my local pub in Edinburgh a few months after I had graduated, a man I didn’t know told me he hated women. He’d spent the best part of an hour sitting alone, staring intently at our group of mostly young women and muttering under his breath until my friend snapped and told him to stop. His response was a spitting tirade at us, an aggressive monologue about his ex-wife, and the assertion that “women are all the same and I hate them”.

Tomorrow, Westminster will debate whether misogyny should be considered as an aggravating factor in sentencing in England and Wales, a move towards classifying misogyny as a hate crime for the first time in the UK. This comes amid growing support from campaigners and high-profile feminist MPs such as Stella Creasy, who has tabled the relevant amendment. But while such a legislative change might map neatly on to unusual experiences such as mine in that Edinburgh pub, the reality of violence against women is far more complex and merits deeper analysis.

While hate crime legislation is a devolved matter, the principles remain similar across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Put simply, these are crimes motivated by hatred of a particular group, with the law in both jurisdictions covering gender identity, disability, race, religion or faith, or sexual orientation. Behaviour which is already illegal – assault or harassment, for example – can be sentenced more harshly owing to the presence of one or more of these aggravating factors.

So far so good, right? Who wouldn’t want violence against women to be taken equally seriously?

The problem, though, is that where misogyny has already been recognised as a hate crime, results have been mixed at best. In their submission to the Independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation in Scotland last year, feminist organisation Engender pointed out that New Jersey – which has recognised gender-based hate crime for more than a decade – recorded only four gender-bias incidents in the period 1999-2008, compared to 3521 race incidents and 2589 based on religion.

Is New Jersey a feminist utopia with a racism problem – or is it that misogyny doesn’t necessarily map neatly on to hate crime legislation and is already widely misunderstood both within criminal justice frameworks and outside of them?

There are already a wide range of criminal behaviours which might reasonably be understood, using common sense, as gender-based hate crime: rape, harassment and domestic abuse, for example, all operate to exert power over women and reinforce existing power structures. But these are already illegal – and if a man gropes you while using a sexist slur, is it really more serious than if he gropes you while saying nothing at all? If you’re assaulted by a partner who flies into a rage over your household finances, does it hurt less than if he insinuates that women can’t handle money?

The National:

Labour MP Stella Creasy is behind the debate

That societal myths and stereotypes about violence against women are regularly given airtime even in court cases already highlights how little we understand about its roots and impacts: the idea that women can “provoke” their own rapes, for example, or that assault doesn’t really count unless it happens outside of the home or at the hands of a stranger.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that violence against women exists as a series of one-off isolated incidents rather than as a structural problem which is built into our society at every level and in every sphere: and tacking an extra word onto a list risks reinforcing the former rather than the latter.

None of this is to say that hate crime is dealt with especially well as a whole, or that other groups don’t also face structural violence. Hate crime legislation in general has been criticised on the basis that it can be difficult to prosecute, and that it isn’t always fully understood or taken seriously. While the underpinning principles of hate crime legislation can’t be argued with, it’s still often the vulnerable and marginalised who lose out most when structural problems are met with carceral solutions.

As Westminster debates Stella Creasy’s amendment, Scotland is still considering how to respond to the issue of gendered hate crime. Feminist organisations such as Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid have called for a “standalone misogynistic hate crime” to be developed in order that the unique features of violence and harassment against women can be accounted for and addressed.

There is no doubt that legislation has to respond to the epidemic of violence against women in Scotland and internationally. But if it is to do so effectively it must be based on evidence and developed carefully and in collaboration with experts and affected communities. And if it is to mean anything at all, it has to be accompanied by efforts to shift social norms, which will take a lot more than simply weaving a new line into legislation.

Ultimately, though, there can be no silver bullet when it comes to violence against women, and legal frameworks are just one small corner of the picture. There are plenty of men already committing crime motivated by their hatred of women; any responses have to consider how we tackle this problem at its roots rather than focusing exclusively on how we categorise its symptoms.