More on male violence against women

// 28 February 2008

Joan Smith has written an opinion piece for The Independent about the recent spate of high-profile sexually-motivated murder cases perpetrated by men against women.

For the benefit of anyone who’s been on another planet recently, Levi Bellfield was convicted on Monday of bludgeoning to death two female students, and he is also being questioned in relation to the high-profile case of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old who went missing 6 years ago. He attacked women who rejected his sexual advances.

Next up we have Mark Dixie, who was recently convicted of the murder of Sally-Anne Bowman, in a bizarrely grisly trial in which he denied her murder but confessed to necrophilia.

And finally we have the lovely, the charming Steve Wright, who murdered not one, not two, but FIVE women over the course of ten days in Ipswich in December 2006, the most intensive murder spree in British criminal history. That’s quite some accolade.

Joan Smith thinks that if violence against women wasn’t so readily tolerated, perhaps these men would never have got as far as committing such heinous crimes:

So many people were aware that they abused women but nobody felt able to do anything about it. In a society where domestic violence is commonplace and rape goes unpunished, what is someone to do when they suspect that a man is abusing girls and women?

I am not arguing that all men treat women badly. But a substantial minority do, and we refuse to read the signals or condemn their behaviour unequivocally. Bellfield had a reputation for picking up under-age girls and having sex with them in the back of his van, even offering to prostitute his 16-year-old “girlfriend” and her 14-year-old sister to an employee; a former partner recalled finding magazines in which he slashed photographs of blonde women, with whom he had a lethal obsession.

Wright had a series of violent relationships, attacking partners and abusing them as “slags” and “whores”. The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, told a drinking friend he had attacked a woman with a stone hidden in a sock, but it took five years for the man to inform the police; while he was thinking about it, 13 women were murdered and half a dozen others attacked.

Several people have been murdered. And it makes me angry that it sounds so much more serious when you use the word “people” instead of “women”.

I don’t think anybody thinks that these crimes would be any less horrific if the men had targeted other men, or had killed indiscriminately regardless of gender. But if these men had shown early signs of being violent individuals, having committed violent crimes, or just generally being absolute raving maniacs without specific victimisation of women, I suspect that it would have been brought to the attention of the authorities sooner. And it’s not just about protecting future victims – let’s not forget that however disgusted you might feel by their recent actions, these men needed and deserved psychiatric help which they might have got had they been brought to the attention of the authorities. Feeling the urge to hurt and kill other people is regarded, quite rightly, as the sign of a dangerous lunatic. Feeling the urge to hurt and kill women specifically, particularly sex workers, might be frowned upon, but it is more readily accepted.

Smith also has much to say about the culture of blaming mothers when children grow up into violent misogynistic psychopaths:

Men do not commit such crimes out of the blue; most of them don’t even bother to hide their hatred of women. There is usually a childhood history of domestic violence, which means that they grow up in an atmosphere of physical fear and contempt for women, whom they regard both as victims and the cause of their fathers’ violence.

I’ve heard a great deal about the role of absent mothers in the psychopathology of men who kill women, but cause and effect are being confused here; a misogynist culture inevitably overlooks the father’s role and blames the mother, even when her reason for leaving the family is to escape violence.

It’s a pity that The Independent website doesn’t allow comments – it would be really interesting to see what people make of this.

Comments From You

Legible Susan // Posted 28 February 2008 at 3:13 pm

I don’t know that it is “a pity that The Independent website doesn’t allow comments”, considering the amount of abusive comments people (women, in particular) get on Comment is Free. It’d have to be heavily moderated to be tolerable in my opinion – or are you hoping the readers of the Indy are more civilised than that?

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 28 February 2008 at 3:26 pm

I don’t know, it’s a tough call… I’m always amazed at the sheer volume of misogyny on CIF – what are people with views like that doing on The Guardian website in such numbers? Don’t they have lives? But I think part of the reason that The Guardian attracts so many trolls is because of its reputation for being a “loony lefty liberal” sort of publication. The Independent doesn’t have quite the same reputation.

Besides, you could always argue that the presence of misogyny in response to writing things like “violence against women is bad” is demonstrative of just how widespread acceptance of it is.

Franci // Posted 28 February 2008 at 4:21 pm

Quote “these men needed and deserved psychiatric help which they might have got had they been brought to the attention of the authorities. Feeling the urge to hurt and kill other people is regarded, quite rightly, as the sign of a dangerous lunatic.” Unquote

‘Dangerous Lunatic’ is not a valid diagnosis in the DSM-IV. Besides no help could be gleaned from a psychiatry that is deeply misogynistic itself. It doesn’t see social context and widely pathologizes the victims of crimes just such as these ones.

I find it very problematic that their behaviour should be explained away by them being mad or crazy (or even evil) when their behaviour (as well as the reaction to their behaviour, as explored in the article) can also be seen as understandable in the context of our misogynistic society.

These men are normal men, as evidenced by other men finding them normal. Their actions are not very far removed from normal as evidenced from high rates of male violence, rape and abuse towards women and children. They really don’t need or deserve ‘help’, they need to take responsibility, as do other men.

Jo Legg // Posted 28 February 2008 at 5:17 pm

Joan Smith also had a really similar piece in the Guardian last week (22nd), but it’s longer and a little more exploratory – particularly in its discussion on sex work. Still no comments though, which given the above-mentioned horror that most of the CIF posts induce is probably good for everyone’s bile duct…

Laura // Posted 28 February 2008 at 8:05 pm

I second that, Franci.

Most people’s instant reaction to those men who commit this kind of extreme violence against women is to call them crazy, even if there is no evidence that they have any psychiatric problems. This reaction fails to recognise that violence against women is a product of patriarchy, of misogyny, and is – as the author quoted recognises – normal. While the recent cases are extreme, they are still undoubtably routed in misogyny, and misogyny in a patriarchy is not any kind of “crazy”.

Wright took his abuse and exploitation of women to its logical conclusion – murder. The root problem here is not psychiatric, but social: patriarchy.

Louise // Posted 28 February 2008 at 8:42 pm

Feminists have been calling for a reform of rape laws for a long time, only to be met by general indifference_ there is an urgent need for the public to petition the State and demand reforms of the Law. We need a close monitoring of males accused of multiple sexual abuse, at the moment the general consensus is that somehow most accusations of rape are false allegations motivated by greed (look at the rape accusations in Football for instance). There is no smoke without fire, a guy who’s been suspected of rape 5 times is unlikely to be the victim of a bunch a bullying harridans. Politicians and judges alike need to take their heads out of their own a*ses and face the facts _ tacking sexual violence demands lawful measures.

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