Home can be a dangerous place. Every week, two women are killed by current or former partners, and the number of domestic homicides in London tripled last year to 29.
But there’s another connection between domestic violence and murder that doesn’t appear in official figures. Most terrorists – and indeed most of the men responsible for mass shootings in the US – have a history of abusing women and children.
I’ve spent a year researching the backgrounds of the perpetrators of fatal attacks on strangers in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. Some claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamist organisations such as Isil or al-Qaeda, while others were followers of right-wing ideologies.
How much they actually know about these organisations is another matter; two British men who were preparing to travel to Syria to join Isil knew so little about the ‘caliphate’ that they ordered books on Islam, including Islam for Dummies, from Amazon. The Nice truck attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had shown little interest in Islam until a few weeks before he murdered 86 peopleand injured more than 450.
What these men are interested in is violence. Robert Dear Jr, an evangelical Christian who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, had previously been investigated in relation to a rape, accused of domestic abuse by two of his former wives, and was reported to the police by a neighbour who spotted him peering into her bedroom. The rape charge was dropped and the only convictions Dear had were for driving offences, allowing him to buy four semi-automatic weapons.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Terrorism is a form of male violence, just like rape and domestic abuse, and we know that it doesn’t stay in neat categories.
Men with repeat convictions for beating up family members often have convictions for other forms of assault, including attacks on police and prison officers. They don’t ‘keep it in the family’ – and a small but significant number burst onto a public stage with catastrophic consequences, as we saw two years ago this week in Manchester, and shortly thereafter in London Bridge.
What is surprising is the fact that this connection has been overlooked by police and counter-terrorism agencies.
At the end of 2017, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson QC, published an interim report on three of that year’s fatal attacks in the UK. It offered revealing insights into MI5’s thinking, drawing on a mass of previously unpublished research into the backgrounds of known terrorists. Domestic violence wasn’t mentioned, yet I’ve found dozens of cases in which wives, girlfriends, children, mothers and evenmothers-in-law suffered years of abuse before the perpetrators went on to kill total strangers.
The Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks were all carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. No doubt Darren Osborne, a right-wing extremist who ranted in a pub about killing Muslims before he drove a hired van into worshippers in north London, would have regarded the Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood as his sworn enemy.
Yet they had strikingly similar backgrounds: Osborne was a career criminal who was known to neighbours in Cardiff as a ‘shouty’ man who verbally abused his family in the street. He had dozens of convictions, including one in 2003 for actual bodily harm against his female partner, with whom he had four children. He had shown no interest at all in right-wing ideology until she threw him out of the family home in Cardiff shortly before the attack.
Masood, likewise, had a long criminal record. The mother of his two eldest children left him following ‘ongoing domestic abuse’ around the time he was sent to prison for slashing a man’s face with a knife. He then converted to Islam and married a young Muslim woman, who endured such abuse at his hands that she ran away from the marriage after only three months. At the time of the Westminster Bridge attack, Masood is believed to have been separated from his second wife, who described him as ‘controlling and angry’ at the inquest into his victims. She also said he was a habitual user of steroids, another common factor among the perpetrators of recent terrorist outrages.
‘The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home,’ confirmed Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west of England, when I interviewed him. Afzal is the lawyer who prosecuted members of the Rochdale gang who ‘groomed’ and raped under-age girls, sending the ringleader to prison for 19 years.
‘They would rather believe it was driven by politics than what it was really driven by,’ Afzal said when we discussed the Manchester Arena bombing.
Five years before the bomber set out to murder teenage girls at an Ariane Grande concert, he punched a teenage girl in the head for wearing a short skirt – an assault for which he was never charged. Salman Abedi wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme that exists to deal with individuals showing signs of radicalisation. MI5 didn’t know about Abedi’s history of misogyny and violence against women when they began to investigate him as a potential terrorist two years later.
The web of male violence extends much further than we realise. And when it comes to terrorism, we’ve been blind to the obvious – that the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved men who pose a risk to their own families long before they pick up a knife or strap on a suicide belt.
Living in an atmosphere where angry scenes and blows are a daily occurrence desensitises them to the effects of abuse; they’re practising at home, lowering the threshold that deters most people from committing acts of violence. Some of them start off as victims, growing up with violent fathers or step-fathers before they begin abusing women themselves. But domestic abuse is creating a pool of volatile, hyper-vigilant men who are far more susceptible than the rest of us to propaganda that appears to ‘legitimise’ violence.
And there are thousands of them: at the end of 2017, MI5 revealed that well over 500 counter-terrorism investigations were under way, involving more than 3,000 individuals who might be planning an attack, plus another 20,000 who had been investigated but were no longer believed to pose an active threat. There’s every reason to think the figure is higher now, as more right-wing plots are uncovered and ‘foreign fighters’ attempt to return home following the collapse of Isil.
It’s impossible to monitor every single one of these individuals day and night. ‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ Afzal told me. ‘You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.’
Terrorism isn’t an enigma. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it has the same origins as other forms of male violence; misogyny and histories of abuse almost always lurk beneath the rationalisations of religion or politics. If only we recognised this fact, and started looking closely at suspects with a history of abusing their families, we might be able to stop the next terrorist attack before it happens – and save lives.
I wanna preface this by saying that this isn’t a “callout”, a guilt trip, an accusation or a declaration of my own virtue – i’m simply looking to draw attention to something i’ve noticed and offer my own thoughts. I’m open to discussion as long as it’s civilised.
I’ve noticed a lot of gay men acknowledging how the porn industry harms women, with particular relation to its association with sex trafficking, child porn and sexual violence (you can read about this here), however these same gay men will then make references to watching gay porn themselves.
Obviously there are no women in gay porn, so why is this a problem? I promise i’m not just trying to burst a bubble here, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Almost all online porn platforms are owned by the same company, called Mindgeek. Pornhub, Youporn, Redtube, Mydirtyhobby, Xtube and more all make up part of a gigantic conglomeration founded by a man called Fabian Thylmann. This corporation also owns several porn movie production companies including Brazzers, Digital Playground, Men.com, Reality Kings, Sean Cody, and WhyNotBi.com.
When a gay man consumes gay porn on these platforms, he directly funds the exact same company that profits from the abuse, trafficking and rape of women and children. That 10 second ad before the video starts, the one that gay men joke about shielding their eyes from because it’s full of naked women, literally puts money in their pocket. It goes without saying that the women in the ad could be victims too. Opposing the porn industry’s brutal treatment of women is meaningless if you’re also paying their ad revenue.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there – even when avoiding the platforms above. Evidence shows that the porn industry really doesn’t treat gay men that much better than women. Gay porn actors are dropping dead at an alarming rate and their average age is just 25. Suicide and drug use are major factors in this statistic, as is premature heart failure from steroid use. Gay porn also pays an average yearly salary of $24000, with the expectation that actors supplement their income with prostitution. Men in central europe are being trafficked and raped on camera, and this makes up a significant part of the Czech Republic’s renowned gay porn industry. At least half of gay porn actors are heterosexual but shoot gay scenes because they make more money than in straight porn – this, as much as the actors make light of it, is rape. Former gay porn stars have commented on the prevalence of the PTSD “thousand yard stare” among their coworkers. I once personally met a former gay porn actor who had the thousand yard stare – he was also addicted to meth and told me he quit porn after his guts literally started falling out of his ass. Talking of which, bottoms are subjected to slaps, punches and homophobic/misogynistic slurs on camera. If you’ve watched literally any gay porn you’ll have seen this. Why is this violence ok?
Gay teens also use porn as a form of sex education because their sex ed classes don’t cover what they need to know, so this violent subjugation of bottoms forms the basis of their education about gay sexuality. Double penetration, fisting and even just rough sex are dangerous for bottoms in the long term, but this is what young boys are learning to call normal. It’s important for gay men to know the nature of the industry they support when they consume porn.
It’s also important to remember that porn consumption is just as harmful to gay men as it is to straight male consumers (another link to the masterpost if you don’t feel like scrolling up) with respect to brain damage, mental health issues, violent thoughts/behaviour and addiction. And personally, as someone who used sex to validate myself in my early 20s and ended up sleeping with over 100 men in my lifetime as a result, i can testify to this: the more porn you watch, the worse at sex you are. I could always tell when a guy watched too much porn because he would be totally unwilling to collaborate with me during sex – either we did exactly what he wanted (which was usually a re-enactment of a porn video) or he wasn’t interested. A lot of these guys wanted to fuck in positions which would look great on camera, but are actually just kinda awkward in real life. Sometimes they’d boss me about like a movie director, dictating my every move. Generally speaking, they were a lot more critical and less satisfied with both my body and their own. One just straight up spat in my mouth without even asking me if i was into it first. Porn can and will make you terrible in bed. I could send these guys into orbit with a mediocre blowjob because they’d never even been with somebody that prioritised tangible pleasure and sensation over porn re-enactment before.
If you’re a gay man who opposes the porn industry but still consumes gay porn, or you’ve read this post and would like to quit, then there’s plenty of other options. Find real people. Connect with other gay men in your local community. Go on a date and fuck if there’s chemistry. Read gay erotica. Buy some toys if you get bored of “just” jerking off, although there’s a lot to be said for having a long, self-indulgent reconnection with your own body after spending so much time on porn sites looking at someone else’s. Whatever you do, please don’t continue supporting this industry – especially if you already hate what it does to women (and the men in your own community.)
QotD: “We would never have an issue working through the violence because there are so many protocols and procedures and techniques that you have to create the violence safely and it’s almost methodical to a point”
Shondaland, the production company founded by Shonda Rhimes (of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy fame) isn’t the first to hire an intimacy co-ordinator. They were employed on all of the most talked-about shows of the past year: I May Destroy You, Normal People, It’s a Sin. The premise dates from the early 2000s when the American Tonia Sina coined the phrase in her master’s thesis; she went on to create the first protocols for choreographing intimate scenes on stage and screen. Back then, there was little demand for the service — the Me Too movement changed that.
“We would never have an issue working through the violence because there are so many protocols and procedures and techniques that you have to create the violence safely and it’s almost methodical to a point,” says Talbot, who worked first in movement and fight direction after doing a drama degree at the University of East Anglia.
“But then when we got to the intimacy part of it, that’s when everything started to . . . fracture. There weren’t any rules. There were no protocols for this. Everyone was relying on the good graces of their scene partner and the good intentions of their director, but that’s the safety net, and you can see for so many people that just wasn’t enough.”
However, it’s not just a matter of safeguarding. “Obviously, we need health and safety, but this role is so much more than that, in terms of the choreography especially.”
For Bridgerton’s extensive sex scenes Talbot asked for — and was given — the same amount of rehearsal and filming time that a stunt scene would have. “Normally you have to rehearse the same day that we shoot and that didn’t happen for Bridgerton. Because we had the time, we turned up prepared and all the choreography was laid out.”
Talbot meets actors individually to establish what they’re comfortable with and sets it down in writing for complete clarity. Those boundaries inform her physical choreography, which is also a collaboration with actors and director, but means she’s prepared to intervene on an actor’s behalf if a need arises.
“I don’t want to steamroll an actor’s process. It can be quite oppressive to come with an approach and say, ‘This is what we’re doing whether you like it or not.’ That throws consent out the window. It’s really important that we have an overarching vision of where we’re going: what the beginning, the middle and the end is. We need to work out consent boundaries. It might be that we are working with containers, like, ‘You can put your hand from the top of my neck to the top of my lower back or anywhere in between. You’ve got freedom to do what you want in that area, but it doesn’t go anywhere else.’
“So then you can have a little bit of freedom from the paint-by-number approach, but still knowing that everyone is consistent and safe. That’s one approach, and then you can have another one where it’s, like, ‘We know exactly what we’re doing. Your hand will go here and it will travel up the arm on to the shoulder and to the neck.’”
This is interesting, because I have frequently made the comparison between the sex acts in porn, which are real, and a choreographed fight scene in an action film.
Imagine if there was this level of scruteny and accountability on a porn set? It would make most porn production impossible (unless of course, the normal standards of health and safety were thrown out of the window, and instead we had carefully choreographed scenes of real sexual and physical violence, which the porn performers had been obliged to agree to beforehand).
It was a specific moment in which she thought she might die that drove Stella to the brink. “He had strangled me at the bottom of the stairs and that frightened me because you can get punched in the face or your hand broken, but I had never lost my breath before,” she recalled.
For Nicole, she was “pushed over the edge” when violence by her partner triggered a post-traumatic response to historic abuse by other men. “I was getting flashbacks of abuse … everything came to a head and I just lost it.”
For others, like Cathy, it was the stark belief they were beyond the protection of the law and could see no other way out. Put bluntly, it was a matter of survival.
The cases of these female prisoners are among those examined in a report that analyses how the justice system treated women who killed their male abusers. It concludes that both the law and the way it is applied in England and Wales means women are being unfairly convicted.
Failures to explore properly the abuse suffered by women who kill mean they could be convicted of murder instead of manslaughter, or the appropriate defences may not be put forward, the study found.
Now, lawyers who believe dozens of women could be serving time in prison for unsafe murder convictions are assessing at least 20 cases where there may be grounds for appeal.
This comes after Farieissia Martin, convicted of killing Kyle Farrell in 2015, had her murder conviction quashed in December following support from Justice for Women, co-authors of the report. She is now facing a re-trial.
Harriet Wistrich, the founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “Our research investigates why, despite an apparent increase in the understanding of domestic abuse, we still see so many miscarriages of justice with women who are themselves victims, serving life imprisonment for choosing to survive.”
New data shows that between April 2008 and March 2018, 108 men were killed by women they had been in a relationship with – either at the time of the killing or some time previously. In comparison, nearly eight times as many women (840) were killed by partners or ex-partners during the same period.
Researchers looked at 92 cases where women had killed men over the same decade and found that in 77% of them the woman had experienced violence or abuse from the deceased. “This is likely to be an underestimate as some women will never disclose abuse,” explained Wistrich, who has represented more than 10 women in their appeals against murder convictions.
She said: “While hundreds of women subjected to violence and coercive control were killed by their partners, most of the small number of women who killed men were driven to do so after suffering abuse. Many were imprisoned for long periods at great cost to them and their families.”
Of the 92 cases, 43% of the women were convicted of murder and 46% of manslaughter – just six were acquitted. Of those convicted of murder, 33% were sentenced to 20 years or more in prison and 35% to 15 years or more.
In 71% of cases the defendants had stabbed the deceased. Women are more likely to use a weapon than men who kill their female partners – because they tend to be physically smaller – but use of a weapon results in longer prison sentences.
Researchers interviewed 20 women between the ages of 23 and 65 from a variety of backgrounds who were convicted for killing abusive men.
They also spoke to 14 lawyers who had represented or prosecuted women in these cases and examined 23 domestic homicide reviews and 17 case files involving women defendants who had applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Women who kill their partner or ex-partner often do so as a last resort, researchers found. They noted a failure to address men’s violence throughout the justice system, from policing and legal representation to the courts and prison service.
The women in 19 of the 23 domestic homicide review cases had experienced historic abuse from a man other than the one they killed.
Nicole said her ex-husband had abused her children and revealed she had also been abused as a child. “He admitted it and got a caution…It had a really big impact on me because I never wanted what happened to me as a child happening to my sonsand it did. Justice wasn’t done.”
In Cathy’s case, non-molestation orders had been issued against her ex-partner and she had moved house to evade him. Police had been called to 54 separate incidents involving the couple but on six occasions charges were dropped against her ex.
On the night she fatally stabbed him, he had broken into her home and told her to remove her clothes. She later disclosed she thought he was going to rape her. After initially being charged with murder, she was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility – one of the partial defences.
But legal experts say too often a lack of expertise or mistakes made early in a woman’s case mean the proper defences are not advanced.
After Stella was arrested for killing her partner, police recorded that she was “shell shocked”. She said: “They told me he was gone. I couldn’t take it in and said, ‘I have got to be with him.’ I couldn’t imagine living with that… I was very suicidal [but] they thought I was fit for interview straight away.”
Dr Catherine Durkin, a forensic psychiatrist for the NHS, says women who have suffered long-term abuse will often be in a state of severe shock when they enter the criminal justice system.
“The stress of retelling the circumstances of their arrest in prolonged interviews and at trial can be so triggering of their underlying trauma that they experience dissociative or amnesic states.
“This can impair their ability to recall information about the offence, but also to disclose the often highly distressing circumstances of past abuse,” explained Durkin, who carries out assessments on female prisoners.
Women may struggle to engage with police and solicitors in the immediate aftermath of the killing but the details they share at that point can have important consequences for their trial. Defence lawyers interviewed said even when abuse was disclosed early there were cases where they believed a murder prosecution had been pursued inappropriately.
One explained: “I have acted in several cases where there is significant evidence of history of abuse on the defendant which impacted her mental health and supported a partial defence to murder, where the CPS [Crown Prosecution Servce] could have charged with manslaughter and/or accepted a plea but have chosen to fight it.”
Pleading guilty to manslaughter can avoid a murder conviction but entering a plea in this way can deny a woman access to the full defence of self-defence and the chance of being acquitted.
Stacey Hyde, a troubled teenager who had suffered neglect and abuse as a child, was wrongly convicted of murdering Vincent Francis in 2010. She stabbed him after he attacked her friend, who the prosecution acknowledged had been subjected to violence by Francis on 27 previous occasions.
Hyde appealed on the basis of fresh psychiatric evidence and offered a plea of manslaughter, which the evidence supported, according to her lawyers. “However the CPS was determined to pursue murder at retrial and opposed bail,” explained Wistrich. The jury later acquitted Hyde on the grounds of self-defence and she walked free having served six years imprisonment from age 17.
Wistrich added: “In my experience the Crown will pursue murder convictions even following a successful appeal and regardless of compelling evidence of mitigation.”
Just six women out of 92 were acquitted on the basis of self-defence while 14 had tried to run self-defence as part of their trial for murder and were convicted. The defence is “risky” according to some lawyers, and campaigners are calling for an amendment to this law to be added to the Domestic Abuse bill currently going through the House of Lords.
But legislative reforms are limited without specialist understanding of domestic abuse across the justice system.The report, Women Who Kill: how the state criminalises women we might otherwise be burying, recommends mandatory training for police, lawyers and judges, especially around coercive control.
Sally Challen was the first woman to have her murder conviction quashed in the wake of new coercive control laws which came into force in England and Wales in 2015. She killed her husband Richard in 2010 after four decades of being controlled and bullied by him. She was jailed for life with a minimum term of 22 years, later reduced to 18.
But in a groundbreaking appeal judges heard new psychiatric evidence framing her case in the context of her husband’s controlling behaviour. Sally, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, walked free after nine years due to time already served. She said: “Many women who are in prison today serving life sentences for murder have not had the domestic abuse they experienced properly explored during trial.”
Louisa Rolfe, assistant commissioner of the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for domestic abuse, said officers receive training on coercive control, adding: “We have a responsibility to investigate every violent death, and consider all the evidence, including previous history, before we seek a decision from the CPS on whether a person should be charged and with what offence.
“Our understanding of the devastating impact of living within an abusive relationship is developing all the time and we always seek to learn from any previous incidents, and we always seek to learn from any previous incidents” she said.
A CPS spokesperson said: “We recognise the devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims, and prosecutors take all relevant factors into account when deciding the appropriate charge. Medical evidence, including on mental health, forms a key part of our considerations in these kinds of cases.
“Every prosecution is kept under continuous review and, where there is consensus that a partial defence is available, we are unlikely to proceed with murder charges. However, experts will often disagree on this point and these matters may then be set before a jury to decide.”
It’s not really fair to judge a book by its cover, but why does a book called Women on Top of the World: What Women Think About When They’re Having Sex have to come in various shades of Mattel pink, inside and out? Is this subliminally to suggest to any man picking it up that it really isn’t for him? If so, that would be a great shame because this is a book that really should be pressed into the hands of a generation of young men who have learnt everything they wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask from porn.
Women, I suspect, will find the testimonies of the 51 respondents from around the world, selected by Lucy-Anne Holmes (a writer who among other things was responsible for the campaign against Page 3 girls in The Sun and is now training to be a “sacred sexual priestess”), rather depressing. Indeed, if any woman out there is feeling that she has been missing out on a dalliance during lockdown, she would be well advised to avoid this book, because an alarmingly high proportion of the women interviewed are not having any fun in bed at all.
Take Melanie, 19, from the UK, who thought sex was going to be “spectacular . . . but I had no idea how awkward it would actually be”. Or Vi, 25, from India (“I used to think pain was a part of sex”), or Rose, 25, from the US (“I’ve never had an orgasm with a man in my entire life”), or Lisa, 29, from Austria, who echoes many of the interviewees when she says: “I have been with too many men who have watched too much porn, and I used to go ahead with what I thought they liked to do, rather than saying to them, ‘If you do that again, I might throw up.’”
The really tragic theme in this book is how many of the women in it have been scarred by sexual abuse. Usually it has happened in childhood at the hands of an uncle, a family friend, a brother — Zaye, 36, from Malaysia, starts her chapter saying that her guy friends call her a nympho, but then says that the reason she is so sexually active is that she was abused by her brother from the ages of 7 to 12. Generally the more sexually active the interviewee, the more likely it is that she will admit to some history of abuse. There is no introduction to this book, so we don’t know on what basis Holmes selected her subjects, or indeed how she went about questioning them, but even if this sample is possibly skewed towards women who have been abused, it is hard to read the book without feeling not arousal but anger.
Of course, during sex not all women are thinking about whether they have left the gas on; some, especially those who are not heterosexuals, seem to be enjoying themselves just fine. Maria-Libra, 26, from the Philippines, says: “When I was with a guy, I didn’t really experience the highest level of climax I am experiencing now. I feel like with guys it was average, but now (with a woman) it’s so much better.”
Jennifer, 39, US/UK and a trans woman, says that since her testosterone levels have been suppressed with hormones she has “much less sex, but when I do, it’s a really special experience; it takes longer and is sensitive and emotional. I don’t really miss the way I used to have sex.”
The women in this book come from all over the world, but it doesn’t matter whether you are from Iran, Lebanon or Tanzania, everyone wants more kissing and cuddling. Nobody complains about too much foreplay, except for Ling Ling, 38, from China, who “doesn’t like snogging. You see it in the movies, but I don’t understand why they do it . . . I’ve said this to my husband; he hates me saying it and I feel like a terrible person, but kissing is like a tumble dryer going around and around.”
Ling Ling, though, is really the exception — another reason why this would be an ideal Valentine’s present for a man. Even Grace, a 26-year-old sex worker from Australia who enjoys her work, really wants to find someone she can “connect with on a physical and emotional level”. But escort work is better than casual sex. “I didn’t make any money and I didn’t fall in love, what’s the point?”
The most touching story comes from Wambui, 32, from Kenya, who underwent FGM in 2000 and was told: “You no longer have a clitoris now you’re a woman.” She was abused as a teenager, attempted suicide and then married a man who died three months after their wedding, and her first thought was: “Phew, I don’t have to have sex any more.” But after restorative surgery and counselling she feels “like it was a rebirth, an instant shift; like my sexuality was handed back to me in an envelope.”
Holmes has done an admirable job of including women of every sexual preference; there are women who masturbate with 200 other people, women who cuckold over the internet, mothers who find it difficult to be a mother and a lover, tantric sex practitioners, and pensioners who use Tinder but worry about their knees on the kitchen floor. Generally, the older they are the more confident — Vivian, 70, from the US, says: “I thought the idea was to be in love, now I just want what I want when I want it.” Sadly, there are too many in this book just waiting for it to be over.
In France in the 1970s, in the name of sexual liberation, left-wing newspapers and intellectuals regularly defended paedophilia. An open letter supporting the decriminalisation of sex between minors and adults was published in Le Monde in 1977, signed by eminent psychoanalysts, philosophers and writers including Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Glucksmann, and Louis Aragon.
They argued against the detention of three men awaiting trial for sex with minors because the children were consenting, not “in any way” victims of violence. The organiser of the letter was Gabriel Matzneff, an author celebrated for his paedophilic novels.
One of his child victims was Vanessa Springora. They met in the 1980s when she was 13 and he was nearly 50; it is only now, more than 30 years later, that she has recovered sufficiently to expose the reality of abuse, stolen childhood and psychological destruction. Consent is a shocking memoir which, when it was published in France last year, caused a reckoning akin to the Me Too movement. Revealed in it was not just Matzneff’s ghastliness, but the complicity of the society that enabled him.
Springora, born in 1972, was the perfect victim, a bookish, solitary child belonging to the same quasi-aristocratic slice of intellectual Paris. She was abandoned by her father, who left home when she was five, leaving her yearning for love. The child’s sexual precocity was fuelled by her mother, a product of the 1968 student generation who believed it was forbidden to forbid. She drank too much and had sex in the same room her daughter was (pretending to be) asleep in. Springora grew up playing sex games with her cousins. Then came the fateful literary dinner where Matzneff — she refers to him by his initials only — was holding court. He caressed the sensual girl with his eyes and she was instantly infatuated.
He groomed her with love letters, sometimes twice a day. She had just turned 14 on their first secret meeting, when he took her to his apartment “for tea” and kissed her. “G behaved with exquisite delicacy . . . we were like two shy adolescents messing around in the back of a car,” she says. As in a fairy tale, Springora lets the narrative unfold with horrid inevitability. It is compellingly awful to read through modern eyes. How can the lamb be allowed to wander off with the ogre?
They began a full sexual relationship. She adored him. “How could I resist that wolfish smile, those laughing eyes, the long, slender, aristocratic fingers?” Matzneff, she later discovered, was also a predator of pre-pubescent Filipino boys. He portrayed himself in his novels as a benefactor, initiating young people into the joys of sex. His golden rule was that without pain or coercion, it was not rape.
Matzneff picked her up from school wearing sunglasses, they walked hand in hand. Later he rented a hotel room opposite the school where they spent afternoons in bed. He called her his “beautiful schoolgirl” and recounted the long history of illicit love affairs between young girls and middle-aged men in literature. Roman Polanski, he said, was persecuted by puritans.
Moral ambiguity laces the pages. When her mother discovered the secret relationship, she was “not thrilled”. She asked Springora if she knew he was a paedophile. (Her daughter didn’t even know what the word meant.) But flattered by Matzneff’s fame, the mother did nothing — merely the first in a long line of adults who failed the child. No one, apparently, was particularly bothered.
Worse than that, men from their milieu blamed the child. I confess to laughing aloud in places: Springora can be darkly hilarious. When she was hospitalised with rheumatic fever, a psychoanalyst comes. “Have you noticed something about the word ‘knee’? The way it rhymes with ‘me’ and ‘we’? So, would you agree if I said that you’re suffering pain in the joint between the ‘me’ and the ‘we’?”
Her father, learning of his daughter’s affair, calls her a little whore and says he’ll call the police but doesn’t. Plainly Matzneff felt untouchable. He carried a personal letter of praise from President Mitterrand in his pocket; as late as 1990 he was teased on intellectual TV chat shows about his predilections.
Such was his arrogance, she suggests he was responsible for writing anonymous letters to the police complaining of their underage affair, purely in order to heighten the drama for the plot of his next paedophilic novel. (The police failed to act.) This was because, as Vanessa came to realise, hers was a dual role — to provide sex and copy. She was a paedophile writer’s muse and meal ticket. The novels in which she was his fictionalised “heroine” were published when she was aged between 16 and 25, followed by volumes of his diaries, their letters, newspaper articles and television interviews in which he delighted in saying her first name. Later, outrageously, he sought to use her image in his biography and on his website.
As she approached her 15th birthday she was getting too old for him. He became controlling and unpleasant. She spotted him in the street with other girls — when confronted, he accused her of being a pedant and a feminist. When she left him, her mother said, sadly: “Poor thing, are you sure? He adores you!”
Vanessa meanwhile was heading for a breakdown. No one told her she could press charges or sue his publisher for identifying her in print. She spent many years in self-destructive darkness, unable to understand she was a victim. Therapy saved her life, and after numerous relationships ruined by her early experiences, her story has a happy ending with a nice partner and a child. She has also risen to become the head of the Juilliard publishing house.
In 2013, when Matzneff was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot, she finally felt able to act. She couldn’t afford to sue, and it was too late to bring criminal charges, so she did to him what he’d done to her — “to take the hunter to his own trap, to lock him in a book”.
Matzneff, lionised for decades by the French establishment, is at 84 said to be in hiding in Italy, his books withdrawn by his publisher. Patriarchal literary France is shamed. Consent, rapier-sharp, written with restraint, elegance and brevity — and beautifully translated — has done what it set out to do. I hope it helped her to write it.
Hundreds of students at the Sciences Po university and the network of ten affiliated schools have unleashed a torrent of rape and sexual abuse allegations against France’s top educational establishment.
The Institute of Political Studies, its official name, has for decades trained the cream of politicians, mandarins and the media elite. It was already caught up in a storm after abuse allegations against Olivier Duhamel, head of its governing board.
Under the #sciencesporcs — science pigs — hashtag started by Anna Toumazou, a feminist campaigner, the students allege that abuse is endemic and colleagues and staff are unwilling to take their complaints seriously.
The directors of several of the provincial establishments, including those in Strasbourg, Toulouse and Bordeaux, said this week that they had forwarded complaints to local prosecutors.
Juliette, a second-year student in Toulouse, said: “These words are hard to say, almost impossible to write . . . I was raped.” She said that no one had listened to her in 2018 but she reported the matter to police last week.
In Aix-en-Provence, Louise, a student, said that she reported being raped by a student in 2019 but a university inquiry rejected her claims and told her to attend classes on the nature of consent.
In Bordeaux, the Sciences-Po school has set up a unit to receive complaints from women students who say they were victims of sexual assault and rape.
Duhamel, 70, a powerful intellectual and informal adviser to President Macron, resigned all his posts last month after Camille Kouchner, his step-daughter, accused him in a book of sexually abusing her twin brother when he was a teenager.
Duhamel has made no denial and is under investigation by prosecutors.
Frédéric Mion, 51, the Sciences-Po director since 2013, resigned this week after admitting that he was aware of the allegations against Duhamel since 2018 but failed to act. A report by state investigators found senior figures at the institute knew of the claims as did the tightknit world of Paris intellectuals, artists and politicians whom Kouchner accused in her book of covering up her stepfather’s alleged crimes.
The inspectors’ report, leaked yesterday, has turned up the pressure on Marc Guillaume, the prefect, or state governor, of Paris and its region. Guillaume resigned as a member of the Sciences-Po board after acknowledging he had also been aware of the Duhamel affair.
The government called in the heads and demanded action after the latest disclosures. “It is time that this omerta is lifted,” Élisabeth Moreno, minister for equality, said after the meeting. Police have opened inquiries in Toulouse, Bordeaux and other campuses.
Prosecutors yesterday charged another Sciences-Po graduate, Dominique Boutonnat, 50, head of the National Centre for the Cinema, with the attempted rape of his godson, 22.
Macron and four of the six French presidents who preceded him have been graduates of Sciences-Po.
Younger people in France are having trouble understanding what was in the heads of their elders in the 1970s and 1980s. An outpouring of sad stories from women and men is giving the impression that in the heady free-for-all in the aftermath of the 1968 student revolt the Paris chattering classes, to put it mildly, turned a blind eye to sex with children and even incest.
Last week Richard Berry, 70, a long-admired film actor, became the latest star to fall after his daughter Coline Berry, an actress, reported him to prosecutors and went public with sordid allegations. He had made her play sexual games with him and his wife of the time, Jeane Manson, an American singer, when she was a little girl in the 1980s, she said.
Her claims, laid out in detail in Le Monde and other media along with his denials, hit the news while the older members of the Paris power establishment were still reeling from the bombshell that landed last month with La Familia Grande.
The book by Camille Kouchner, 46, a law professor and daughter of Dr Bernard Kouchner, a former cabinet minister, accused her stepfather Olivier Duhamel, 70, a top public intellectual and broadcaster, of sexually abusing her twin brother in the late 1980s when he was 13 and 14. Duhamel, an informal adviser to President Macron and head of the governors of Sciences Po, the university of the political and media elite, resigned all his posts, including his role as host of a popular radio programme, and is now an outcast. He has made no public comment and prosecutors have opened an inquiry.
Recent tell-all accounts, which in three cases have become bestselling books, have toppled celebrities of the intellectual and artsy left, prompted criminal inquiries and triggered a political resignation. Kouchner’s allegations, deemed to constitute incest as well as a paedophile crime in French law, have prompted an outpouring on social media by thousands of people under the #MeTooInceste hashtag. The torrent of trauma from victims of abuse by family members contrasts with the widespread distaste over “Anglo-Saxon” puritanism that greeted the American Me Too trend in France two years ago.
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron have stepped into the storm. The president, who was born in 1977, has promised to change the law on incest and sex with minors (at present, a child is only deemed to be the victim of rape if the act is the consequence of “violence, threat, constraint or surprise” and the burden is on the victim to show there was no consent). They have each praised the women and men who have unburdened themselves after decades of silence.
The public shaming of 1980s abusers began in 2016 when Flavie Flament, a television and radio presenter, published La Consolation, a book recounting her rape as a 13-year-old by David Hamilton, the British photographer. Hamilton, 83, who was famous for gauzy erotic portraits of teenage girls, denied the claims as well as those of three other women. Two weeks later, he took his life in his Paris flat.
The great “libération de la parole” among the Paris elite got under way a year ago when Vanessa Springora, 48, the head of the publishing house Éditions Julliard, recounted in searing detail how she was groomed as a young teenager in the 1980s by Gabriel Matzneff, a fashionable novelist who was in his early fifties at the time. Her bestseller, Le Consentement (Consent) served as a challenge to the tolerance that the high Paris thinking classes had long applied to criminal sexual behaviour in their midst.
What is striking is the complicity that parents could show towards their children’s predators. Kouchner, whose father was founder of the Médecins Sans Frontières charity and a heavyweight in the humanitarian world, describes the idyllic summers at her mother and stepfather’s villa at Sanary on the Mediterranean coast.
Sex was in constant talk and there were risqué games in those hedonistic times, Kouchner writes. Duhamel and her mother, Évelyne Pisier, a feminist law lecturer who had once had a long affair with Fidel Castro, hid little from the children, who saw the adults frolicking naked at the pool. “At Sanary, certain parents and children kissed on the lips. My stepfather hit on the wives of his chums’ mates,” she writes. “The chums went for the nannies. The young men were given to the older women.”
Her mother, who once told her teenage daughter that “f***ing is our freedom”, took Duhamel’s side when she told her of her brother’s alleged abuse at his stepfather’s hands in 2010. Pisier’s film star sister Marie-France Pisier, however, tried to expose him then by spreading word among the Left Bank power set. A year later Marie-France, a muse of François Truffaut, the 1960s nouvelle vague film director, drowned in her Mediterranean swimming pool in a presumed suicide.
Berry’s daughter describes a similar atmosphere of decadence at weekends in her father’s home in 1980s Paris. Springora writes of her mother’s acquiescence and hint of pride in her seduction by Matzneff, a writer who won prizes with his books in praise of sex with under-age girls and boys.
If you were not around Paris at the time these tales expose just how blasé France had become to sexual liberty of the worst kind. If you were there, as I was, it is hard to justify the attitudes of the era. In 1984, for example, Serge Gainsbourg, the louche songsmith beloved of the Left Bank, reached No 2 in the pop charts with Lemon Incest. The hit was a duet with Charlotte, his then 13-year-old daughter with Jane Birkin, sung to the tune of Chopin’s Tristesse Étude. “Naive like a painting by Henri Rousseau/ Your kisses are so sweet,” the father sang. We thought Gainsbourg was being his usual naughty self, but found the song charming.
It now seems almost unbelievable to recall the noisy campaign to legalise sex with children from 13 upwards that was supported by feminists and philosophers alike. Luminaries put their names to petitions and articles in Le Monde and Libération in favour of what they depicted as a noble cause. Signatories of a 1977 petition included Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida. There were also signatories who are still prominent, including Bernard Kouchner, now 81. Also there was Jack Lang, now 81, a former Socialist Party culture minister and present head of the Institut du Monde Arabe. Lang disowned his past views last week. “It was unacceptable,” he said. “It was after 1968 and we were carried along by a libertarian wave.”
Others have fallen foul of the stock-taking over the baby boomer excesses. Élisabeth Guigou, a friend of the Duhamels and a former Socialist Party justice minister, resigned from her new post as chairwoman of a state commission on incest. Although a friend of the Duhamels, she said she had known nothing about his alleged abuse of Camille Kouchner’s brother. Antoine Kouchner, who is now a Paris university astrophysics professor, approved of his sister’s book and last month pressed charges against their stepfather, although the statute of limitations renders his alleged acts exempt from prosecution.
While veterans of the era are on the defensive, not all have disowned the past. Alain Finkielkraut, 71, a celebrity philosopher and essayist, was sacked from his commentator’s slot at LCI news television for taking Duhamel’s side and suggesting that the teenage stepson may have been complicit. “Was there consent? How old was he when it started? Could there have been a form of reciprocity?” Finkielkraut wondered.
His words prompted outrage. Adrien Taquet, the minister for children and the family, tweeted: “In what world are you living? Are you really talking about consent between an adolescent and a member of his family?”
Some baby boomer thinkers are confronting their era’s dark side. Luc Ferry, 70, a conservative philosopher who served as President Chirac’s education minister two decades ago, is blaming his contemporaries. “People had forgotten that 1968 thinking promoted paedophilia,” he wrote in Le Figaro. “Every adult had the right, even the duty, they argued, to awaken the sexuality that the bourgeoisie was hiding.”
Unlike others who claim to have known nothing, Ferry said that had been aware for some time of the incest claim by Duhamel’s stepdaughter. Also in the know was Frédéric Mion, the director of Sciences Po, who has acknowledged failing to take action and has come under pressure to resign.
The flood of allegations and the attendant disgrace when they involve public figures are largely seen as healthy. One in ten people in France has been victim of incest, according to a survey.
Argument is raging over the promised reforms. Some MPs want an end to the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. This was extended in 2018 from 20 to 30 years from the plaintiff’s 18th birthday.
The focus is on purging an archaic notion of consent. A Paris region court recently reduced a charge against a 28-year-old man on the grounds that an 11-year-old girl had agreed to sex.
A bill soon to come before parliament will criminalise all sexual relations with a minor under 13 years. The governing party, La République en Marche, now aims to raise that to 15, which is the French age of sexual consent. Some experts are warning against excess, pointing out that many teenagers are sexually active from 13 or 14 and that a blanket law could land teenage boys in the dock for paedophile rape. A law defining an age difference between alleged victim and abuser would be better, they say. In Britain it is an offence for anyone to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16, but prosecutions are rare when there is little difference in age.
The French senate is also aiming to create a separate crime of incest, which at present is only an aggravating factor in the offence of sex with a minor under 15.
Addressing the victims of incest and child sex abuse after the Duhamel scandal erupted, President Macron said that the national awakening meant that shame had changed sides. “The silence erected by criminals and cowardice has shattered . . . thanks to the courage of a sister who could no longer keep quiet,” he said. “These words, these cries, nobody can ignore them any longer. I just want to tell you: we are here. We are listening to you. We believe you. And you will never be alone again.”
QotD: “In fact, ‘vanilla’ readers may come away from reading these stories with a diminished regard for BDSM practice, given the levels of neuroticism, selfishness and vanity that the various characters display”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” thought one of the editors of this new anthology at the outset of her project, if a collection of highbrow stories on BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) “could live together in one book, in the kind of book that could sit on artists’ residencies’ library shelves?” Well, wonderful or not, that dream has now been realised, and the result is this volume, containing 15 stories by an assortment of eminent writers — all contributors to some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the world.
The stories are intended as an antidote to a popular culture that typically represents BDSM practice as either pathological or ridiculous, and kinky people as either “stock villains or exaggerated figures of fun”. In an act of rebellion against these stereotypes, the reader of this volume is encouraged to “take kink seriously”, recognising it as a “complex, psychologically rich act of communication . . . as one of the tools we use to make sense of our lives.”
It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find the content of the stories to be so very stereotypical. We have former Catholic schoolgirls with a torturously repressed desire to be whipped, dominatrixes with shiny leather boots and severe haircuts, and gay men drawn towards acting out traumatic childhood experiences of homophobia.
A wealthy man — a gallery curator, of course! — finds within himself an intense desire to dominate women, and when his poor wife won’t accept being handcuffed, he sets off to find himself a mistress who is willing to go around in public wearing a stainless-steel collar. We are, I think, supposed to see this man as a progressive maverick, given his taste for putting on “exhibits on poverty and homeless”, despite the objections of his gallery’s board. But, to me, he sounds very much like both a “stock villain” and an “exaggerated figure of fun”.
Despite the authors’ best efforts to represent kink as deliciously naughty, the experience of reading this anthology is rather monotonous. Although there are small variations in narrative detail, the erotic details are much the same in every story: spit licked off shoes, bruised buttocks, leather paraphernalia, and so on, and so on.
In the final story, the iconic writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus comments perceptively on the repetitive nature of BDSM: “There is no experimental theater in sadomasochism. That’s why I like it. Character is completely preordained and circumscribed. You’re only either top or bottom. There isn’t any room for innovation in these roles. It’s a bit like what Ezra Pound imagined the Noh drama of Japan to be: a paradox in which originality is attained only through compliance with tradition.”
To Kraus, then, a lack of “innovation” is the point. But, to more “vanilla” readers, the allure may well be hard to understand.
In fact, “vanilla” readers may come away from reading these stories with a diminished regard for BDSM practice, given the levels of neuroticism, selfishness and vanity that the various characters display. A common theme across many of these stories is not adventurousness or creativity, but rather affluent boredom, as characters attempt to plug a feeling of general dissatisfaction with a brief erotic thrill.
Knife play, choking and rough sex have found a home on FreakTok, but the line between sex positivity and sexual violence is becoming blurred.
“When he claims he’s freaky but won’t drag a knife across your skin… it’s funny how people have become pussies all of a sudden”.
Welcome to #freaktok, one of the darker corners in TikTok’s labyrinth maze of subcultures and alternative communities. Where #thriftflipping clothes or #astralprojecting into an alternative dimension doesn’t cut it, users instead like to brag about rejecting ‘normal’ sex.
And it doesn’t seem to be niche. At the time of writing, #Freak has over 1.2 billion views. #ChokeMe has 45.3 million. While a lot of this content is innocent, it is easy to find far more sinister videos. One, of a girl encouraging her reluctant boyfriend to choke her, has 1.1 million views. Another, of a user mocking viewers for being quote-unquote vanilla has 78,000 likes.
“Vanilla is the new frigid,” says 19-year-old Lily from Buckinghamshire. After leaving a comment on a video of a boy mocking his girlfriend for not being into choking, Lily came under fire. “I wrote something like ‘not wanting to be choked doesn’t mean you’re boring’ and I ended up being called out for it,” she says. “People kept saying that I didn’t know how to have a good time and that I obviously wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality.”
As a result, Lily began to question her own preferences. “I started wondering whether this was what sex-positive people did and that maybe I just didn’t understand what ‘good’ sex looked like,” she says. “I found myself defending my own preferences because people weren’t open to the idea that I actually liked ‘normal’ sex.” In the end, Lily deleted her comment because the replies were becoming increasingly personal.
17-year-old Mina from Arkansas had a similar experience. After sharing another user’s TikTok referring to the problem of glamorising rough sex, Mina was met with accusations of kink-shaming; calling her a prude and a snowflake. “There were a lot of negative responses,” she says, but none of them were a huge surprise, with her peers now deeming choking and strangulation as being more acceptable than vanilla sex. “I’ve seen people I know push themselves to seem like they enjoy really extreme things just to be part of the in-crowd. The type of sex you have has become this huge competition,” she says.
For Fiona MacKenzie, founder of campaign group We Can’t Consent To This — a group formed in response to the increasing violence exhibited against women during sex — the trend is worrying. “Young people are being told that everyone is doing this,” she says. The social pressure means that women in their teens and twenties now are being told that not enjoying being slapped or choked is abnormal. “It’s a default expectation now.”
In the process of shaming people, the boundaries between consensual sex and sexual violence risk being blurred. “People’s negative experiences are being diminished because people dismiss them as simply having vanilla preferences,” Fiona says. Lily agrees, arguing that the difference between being empowered to have the sex you want and being the victim of violence is ignored. “Somebody even messaged me saying that ‘women deserve to be hurt’.”
Alarmingly, videos that glorify sexual violence are also extremely popular on TikTok. There’s videos romanticising domestic abuse, the ‘psychotic boyfriend’ trope and even the ‘things girls want but won’t ask for’. Last summer TikTok was forced to remove some content under the #365days hashtag after users used it to display bruises obtained during sex or footage of grabbing their partners by the throat.
Given that a recent survey of UK women between 18-39 found that 38% have experienced unwanted spitting, choking or slapping during consensual sex, it is concerning that the normalisation of these behaviours is being confused with consent. With uses of the “rough sex defence” in homicide cases increasing 90% in a decade, it is clear that we need to address how sexual violence is increasingly being mistaken with sexual liberation.
Dr Gail Dines, President of Culture Reframed — an organisation that addresses the effects of hypersexualised media on young people — blames porn for the problem. “Pornography is the biggest form of sex education,” she says. And with 88% of the most-watched porn scenes containing acts of physical aggression against a woman, there’s nothing to tell young people that this is not the norm. Mina agrees. “People are watching porn and are becoming desensitised to anything ‘normal’ before they have experienced sex themselves,” she says.