In court custody battles over the past few years, a new term, “parental alienation”, has taken root. The phrase – based on a “syndrome” that has been internationally discredited and is banned from use in family courts in some countries – is based on the idea that one parent brainwashes a child to distance it from the other parent, who is blameless. Children’s wishes and feelings are often seen as manipulated and therefore are often discounted by the family courts and professionals.
I have watched, horrified, as parental alienation has become the go-to litigation tactic, often used by domestic abusers to discredit allegations made against them by their ex-partner. Although parental alienation can be raised by either parent, overwhelmingly I see it being deployed as a counter-allegation by fathers when mothers try to prove they or their children have been subjected to abuse.
Parental alienation can happen, but it is extremely rare, as a Cardiff University review concluded. Yet time and time again I have watched the allegation being used by abusers to silence, threaten and blame victims of domestic abuse who are simply trying to protect their children from unsafe contact.
Even worse, there are cases where the courts have found domestic abuse to have been proved – and yet the victim is still told by the judge that she must not “alienate” the children from the perpetrator, and if she does not promote contact then the children could be moved away. So, on some occasions, children have been moved from their home with their protective parent, the victim of abuse, to the abuser’s home. Children in this situation could not be more vulnerable.
When domestic abuse has been proved, there are entirely justifiable reasons for a victim to have negative views of their abuser, and the term “parental alienation” should never form any part of subsequent proceedings. But for men who are abusers there is another reason to use it too: one woman going through proceedings said, “Women are often legally advised that if they mention abuse then they’ll lose custody of their children to their abuser.” I have seen this happen.
In last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches, mothers described their gruelling legal battles as they try to protect their children. Jane’s ex-husband dragged her through the family court after their two children refused to go to “contact” with him. The father accused Jane of alienating the children against him. Ultimately, the judge ordered the police to forcibly remove the children from their home. The police body cam of the removal is extremely distressing.
As a family law barrister, I have advised and represented teenagers who have been through the trauma of forced separation and many years later are still desperate to return to their mother’s care. The teenagers in the documentary describe being traumatised, angry at professionals for not listening to them, and desperate to live with their mother. Repeatedly, they ran away from their father’s home, to go back to her – at which point the family court issued a power of arrest on Jane if they absconded back to her again.
When the domestic abuse bill was before parliament, some mens’ rights groups fought for parental alienation to be defined as domestic abuse. Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, experienced a backlash from this lobby after she opposed their plan, and said parental alienation campaigners were attempting to thwart her efforts to help victims of abuse. Unfortunately, parental alienation is still defined as controlling or coercive behaviour in the draft statutory guidance.
But where did it all start? Dr Richard Gardner, an American child psychiatrist, created the concept and produced a series of self-published books on parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s. He testified in more than 400 custody cases, discrediting allegations of domestic abuse or child sex abuse and recommending transfer of residence from one parent to another. He believed that 90% of mothers alleging child sexual abuse were liars who brainwashed their children, and that paedophilia “is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people”. Gardner and the “syndrome” were discredited by the late 1990s.
A US judicial guide states that the supreme court ruled the syndrome was based on “soft sciences” and is thus inadmissible. It is not recognised as a legitimate clinical term by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. A UK government report last year highlighted concerns about the unscrupulous credentials of so-called “experts” on parental alienation. And yet, over the past decade, the concept has gained traction here and is now a regular fixture in our family courts. And the weight applied to so-called parental alienation experts by the family courts is often significant. The family court support service, Cafcass, has adopted a practice guidance on parental alienation giving junk science further weight. There is no empirical evidence that a transfer of residence can make a child love the alienated parent, but there is evidence that it can result in further harm to children.
Two years ago, 77 leading professionals signed a letter calling on the president of the family division to tighten the law to prevent unregulated experts from writing reports in family cases. Unfortunately, he refused to take this issue forward, leaving victims – primarily mothers – and children at risk.
The dangerous label of parental alienation is now the single biggest threat to the credibility of victims of domestic abuse, and to the voices of children. It gives validation, power and control to perpetrators. Any court that countenances unevidenced allegations of parental alienation is potentially sanctioning abuse. Sadly, it may take a tragedy before anyone will actually listen.
Fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in a suspect being charged, analysis of Home Office figures seen by the Guardian reveals.
While there were 52,210 rapes recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020, only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons – a rate of 1.6%.
The figures will increase pressure on the government to deliver radical proposals to overhaul the treatment of rape by the criminal justice system in a long-awaited end-to-end review into how rape is investigated and prosecuted in England and Wales.
Commissioned two years ago, it was planned to be completed in spring 2020, but was pushed back as more research was carried out and a legal case against the Crown Prosecution Service was heard.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, told MPs last week it would be published “before the end of spring”. The Guardian understands it was due this week, but will now be published in June as wrangling continues over how far the proposed actions to tackle record low rape charges and convictions should go.
According to Guardian analysis, more than 100,000 rapes have been reported to police since the review was announced in March 2019, following concerns about a precipitous drop in the volume of rape cases being prosecuted. Separate independent judge-led reviews in Northern Ireland and Scotland have already published their findings and made hundreds of recommendations.
The England and Wales review, overseen by the Criminal Justice Board, includes input from, among others, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the attorney general’s and the Cabinet Office, Downing Street, the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary as well as police, charities and relevant inspectorates.
The victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, said: “Bearing in mind that independent reviews in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have called for radical measures, we now can’t have anything less in a review in large part produced by the very agencies whose performance is in question.”
The Home Office figures are the latest in a downward trend in the volume of rape prosecutions. For every 10 cases the CPS prosecuted in 2016-17, it now pursues only three. The volume of prosecutions declined 71% between 2016-17 and the calendar year to December 2020, from 5,190 to 1,490.
The drop in prosecutions has led to fewer convictions. There were 1,917 fewer rapists convicted in the year to December 2020 than in 2016-17, a decline of 64%, as the CPS secured 2,991 convictions four years ago compared with 1,074 last year.
The figures come as fears mount about the growing backlog of cases in the criminal courts, with experts warning that the already high drop-out rate for rape victims is likely to increase.The number of victims dropping out of increasingly lengthy investigations and trial processes have rocketed from 25% five years ago to 43% in 2020.
Last week, Labour said the government should be held to specific targets to measure progress on male violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and said they would introduce a seven-year minimum sentence for rape. It proposed a national rollout of the system operating in Wales, where the government is held to account by 10 progress indicators, with a report published each year.
The Gillen review, published in May 2019, examined the treatment of serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland and made about 250 recommendations, including legal representation for rape complainants, while the Dorrian review in Scotland recommended the introduction of specialist rape courts in March 2021.
The England and Wales review is expected to recommend allowing rape victims to provide pre-recorded evidence before trial, barring the public from the courtroom more often and ensuring police return mobile phones to victims within 24 hours.
In the end, Valérie Bacot could take it no longer. For almost four decades, her husband, Daniel Polette, had been a malign presence that dominated her life: he molested her when she was 12, made her pregnant at 17 and then trapped her in an abusive relationship, during which she bore him three more children.
Now in the ultimate humiliation, he was pimping her out for sex in the back of their battered Peugeot people-carrier in the woods near their home in Saône-et-Loire, in central France, getting his kicks from watching through a chink in the curtain in its rear window.
In March 2016, after an encounter with a particularly brutal client, Bacot claims to have grabbed the loaded pistol that Polette kept next to the driver’s seat and, closing her eyes, shot him.
Daniel Polette first began to show an unhealthy interest in Bacot when she was a young child
“There was a loud noise; the flash, the smell,” she said in an interview with Le Parisien last week. “I got out of the car, opened the door, he fell. I thought only of saving myself because I was sure he was going to kill me.”
But he was dead. When Bacot told her elder children she had killed their father, they hugged her. Two of her sons, together with her daughter’s boyfriend, then helped her bury his remains in the forest. “I packed the earth down like crazy with my hands. I was too afraid he would come out to kill us,” she recalled.
Next month Bacot, 40, goes on trial for murder in a case that has turned a spotlight on conjugal violence in France — and on the few victims who dare to fight back.
By this weekend more than 384,000 people had signed a petition demanding Bacot’s freedom. A television interview with her drew an audience of 4.5 million and a book in which she tells her life story went to the top of the bestseller list after its release last week.
“I was struck by Valérie’s strength, her courage and her intelligence. I really wanted to help her to tell this story,” said Clémence de Blasi, a journalist who ghostwrote the book, Tout le monde savait (Everyone Knew), having met Bacot after her release in October 2018 pending her trial.
In talking to Bacot’s children and others around her, de Blasi realised what a powerful hold Polette had over his wife. “He was watching her permanently, day and night,” she told me. “He was someone who was extremely dangerous and ready to do anything.”
It was Bacot’s mother who first brought Polette into her daughter’s life. After breaking up with her husband, she had a series of casual relationships before meeting the lorry driver in 1992 and inviting him to live in their home in the village of La Clayette, 60 miles north of Lyons.
Polette soon began to show an unhealthy interest in the young girl, who had just turned 12, going into the bathroom while she was washing and insisting on rubbing her with cream. Bacot’s mother tried to keep his activities quiet but word eventually reached the local authorities, and in 1995 Polette was arrested and convicted of sex offences against a minor.
Bizarrely, however, on his release after 33 months in jail, he was allowed to return to the home in La Clayette and was soon abusing Bacot again and raping her. After she became pregnant in 1998, she moved with him into a little house in Baudemont, a neighbouring village of a few hundred people, where, despite an age difference of 25 years, they lived as a couple for two decades, marrying in 2008.
According to Bacot’s account, it was anything but marital bliss: he frequently beat her, on one occasion breaking her nose and on another holding an unloaded pistol against her temple and pulling the trigger. “The next time there will be a bullet for you and for each of the children,” he told her.
Bacot thought of denouncing him to police but was fearful of how he would retaliate and did not dare to go herself. Instead she sent her children, but the police refused to listen to their claims and sent them away.
In the meantime, he had forced her into prostitution, initially only at weekends but then, after he gave up his job, almost full-time. To get clients, he made her distribute flyers in the local area. Once their daughter was 14, Bacot feared he would force the girl to sell her body too.
With no money and no friends or family to turn to, Bacot felt she had no alternative but to stay with her tormentor — until the day she shot him.
At first the family pretended he had gone away. But Bacot was eventually denounced to the police, apparently by the mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. At 6am one day in October 2017, the police came for her; she knew she was going to be arrested and for days had been sleeping in her clothes.
Bacot’s experiences show in an extreme form the plight of women who fall victim to conjugal violence and the failings of social services, according to her lawyers, Janine Bonaggiunta and Nathalie Tomasini. “Valérie was transformed by the extreme violence she suffered into a remote-controlled puppet who, against her will, became an object for her perverse husband,” they write in a preface to the book.
In too many cases, such violence ends with the woman being murdered. Earlier this month a 31-year-old mother-of-three in the Gironde died after her former partner shot her in both legs, poured petrol on her and set her on fire while still alive.
It was the 39th such killing this year, after 90 in 2020, according to Féminicides par compagnons ou ex (Women killed by partners or exes), a campaigning group that tracks such cases.
In a few instances such as Bacot’s, however, it is the victim who turns killer — as with Jacqueline Sauvage, whose case became a cause célèbre in France after she was sentenced to ten years in jail for shooting dead her husband in 2012 with a hunting rifle. He had abused her and driven their son to suicide. After an outcry over her treatment, François Hollande, then the president, gave Sauvage a full pardon.
Bacot’s growing band of supporters would like her to be pardoned too. “Even though she committed murder by killing her torturer,” their petition says, “given the 25 years of suffering she endured to general indifference, it is her freedom that we ask for.”
The campaign — together with Bacot’s highly unusual step of writing a book in effect justifying her actions — may not go down well with the court, however, and Bacot herself seems reconciled to her impending punishment.
“I am looking forward for this to end, to finally know what is in store for me,” she told Le Parisien. “I have done my job, fulfilled my role as a mother; now I can go to prison with peace of mind.
“I deserve to be jailed for a very long time. This trial is not only mine, it is also that of ‘the other’ ” — the term she uses for Polette, whose name she cannot bear to say out loud. “I hope that I can be stronger than him and for once in my life win against him.”
Very apropos my last post, there is a new biography of Caroline Norton out, The Case of the Married Woman Caroline Norton: A 19th-Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 she insisted on keeping the traditional form of the service where the wife promises to love, honour and obey her husband, even though the Archbishop of Canterbury wondered if such a pledge was really appropriate in her case. Victoria, however, insisted; it was her way of demonstrating that she was getting married not as a queen but as an ordinary woman.
Of course, there was no comparison between Victoria’s situation and that of “ordinary” wives of the period, who at the time of marrying lost all rights, becoming in law their husband’s property. Full divorce was available only through an act of parliament, and a wife who left her husband had no rights over their children, as they too were considered to be the husband’s property.
As the distinguished biographer Antonia Fraser makes clear in this, the third of her books on great reforms of the 19th century (she has already tackled the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act) the fact that the law was changed to give women a limited degree of independence 20 years later owes much to the life and work of her subject, the indefatigable Caroline Norton.
Norton was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and was one of three beautiful sisters, dubbed the “Three Graces”. The young Disraeli called her the “starry night”, and she was famous for her dark eyes and hair, her wit, her charm and her literary talent (she published her first poems at 17). She was also described as “mannish” — the ultimate put-down — and one aristocratic diarist, Harriet Granville, wrote: “Caroline Norton is so nice, it is a pity that she is not quite nice, for if she were quite nice, she would be so very nice.”
Caroline did not marry well. Her first love died young, and in 1827, aged just 19, she hastily wed an older admirer, a Tory MP called George Norton. They swiftly had three sons, and while Caroline soon became disenchanted with her husband’s petulance, and suffered physical abuse (he once kicked her so hard that he caused a miscarriage), she loved her children and enjoyed the power and influence she wielded running a political salon at her home in Storey’s Gate, within spitting distance of Downing Street.
Caroline’s sympathies were progressive — she went on a march supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs — but she liked power and became very close to the less than radical Whig home secretary Lord Melbourne, a frequent visitor to Storey’s Gate.
George Norton at first tried to profit from this connection, asking his wife to lobby Melbourne for a JP’s appointment (this was a paid position, unlike being an MP, and the Nortons were broke apart from Caroline’s income from her writing). However, a year later, in 1832, the marriage broke down irretrievably, and Norton took his sons away and refused to let Caroline see them — as was his legal right. In 1836, probably with the encouragement of senior Tory politicians, he then brought a case of criminal conversation (adultery, essentially: “conversation” was a euphemism for sex) against Lord Melbourne, who was then prime minister.
Norton aimed to use “crim con”, as it was known, as a way of extracting financial redress (£1 million in today’s money) for the damage Melbourne had done to Norton’s property — Caroline — by having an affair with her. Melbourne denied the charges and was acquitted. Caroline always maintained that Melbourne “was my friend though not my lover”, but while Melbourne remained as prime minister, she was left penniless and unable to see her sons. Worse was to follow when her youngest child, Willie, died aged nine in 1842 from a riding accident after being left unsupervised. His last word was reportedly: “Mother.”
Some women would have been broken by all this, but the “mannish” Caroline was extraordinarily determined. In 1839, using her extensive political contacts, she had already campaigned vigorously in support of the Infant Custody Bill, which gave “innocent” married women the same rights over their young children as unmarried mothers. It was only a small step, and there was much debate about whether the law would encourage women to commit adultery, so it was made clear that only “blameless” women would be allowed to have custody of their children. Yet as Fraser points out, it was the first time in British history that “a married woman had some rights over her own children”.
Twenty-odd years later Caroline was campaigning again, for another piece of legislation, this time giving married women some rights over their own property. After her separation she supported herself and her sons with her writing, noting that “I made more in a month by writing, than [Norton] did in a year as a barrister”. But her income was still legally her husband’s property — and in 1853 they met in court over an unpaid debt, with Norton once again losing. In her 1854 pamphlet English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Caroline wrote that “in no country in Europe, is there in fact so little protection of women as in England, despite the fact there is a female sovereign, unlike other countries where the Salic law forbids it”. Three years later an act giving married women some legal rights for the first time over their own property was passed.
Caroline’s ceaseless campaigning, her taste for publicity and her ambition (she once wrote to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel suggesting she be appointed the next poet laureate) did not generally endear her to people — even her sisters wished that she would stop making such a fuss. She was also not what we could call a feminist: she believed that women should be “protected” by men. Yet she made a difference, a big difference. There have been other books about Caroline Norton, but Fraser’s is the first to emphasise what a modern figure she is, portraying her not as a hapless victim but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to what can only be called the patriarchy — a “difficult” woman whose bloodymindedness improved the lot of other women. Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th-century heroine.
Rapists are not a talkative lot. They don’t discuss the deed much, after they have been caught. And you might think this is because they feel remorseful, but often they don’t seem to know that they have done something wrong. Or they know that they have done something illegal, but the act itself is fine by them. They admit to nonconsensual sex “but not rape”. They admit to rape but not to blame: “I felt I was repaying her for sexually arousing me,” a man in one of the few studies says.
On a Reddit forum where, at the onset of the #MeToo revolution, my soul went to die, men wrote “from the other side” of sexual assault. Their accounts implied covert participation – “She just had this unusually sexual way of carrying herself” – or active reciprocation: “In my mind, at the time, she wanted it.” This man looked at the woman’s face and realised he had been mistaken.
A few things are striking about the comments: one is that desire – and I think this is true for women also – turns the sexual object into a fragmented object. When people are having sex, they can get a bit lost in it. We do not always look into our lover’s eyes, not all the time, so yes it is a good idea to check back with the entire person to see if your needs are still aligned. The sense of entitlement is, with the vengeful or narcissistic types, always breathtaking. This is something society does not encourage or allow in women, for which you might almost be grateful. Who wants to be like that? There is also the mechanism of blame, that magical projection machine. These men speak as though arousal comes from somewhere outside the self, and that it, even more strangely, continues to happen outside the self. There is no reality check. She started this. She wants this. It comes from her.
The courts don’t laugh at these projections, they magnify them. We have all seen women destroyed by a justice system that puts them on trial for being attacked. The courtroom discussion becomes all about the victim, her clothes, her “mistakes”, while the perpetrator remains a blank.
This gap in the argument is an odd absence that requires a lot of energy to maintain. This is why strange things happen in court: why a woman’s thong is waved by the defence, as in a case in Cork last year; or a woman’s silence during a gang rape is taken as a sign of her enthusiasm, as happened in a 2019 trial in Pamplona, Spain. A good part of female outrage, the years of #MeToo, has been taken up by raw disbelief. These courtroom arguments are a bit mad. They are also a distraction from the man in the dock. There is a kind of trick happening here.
Men do not just disappear in court, they disappear from the discussion, they disappear from the language we use. Rape is described as “a women’s issue”. We speak of “women’s safety concerns”, not “concerns about men’s violence”. We call it “an abusive relationship” as though the relationship were doing the abusing, or an “abusive home” as though the walls were insulting the occupants for fun. The notorious line “she was asking for it” is not so different to “a woman was raped”; both take the rapist out of the sentence.
Male agency is routinely removed from descriptions of male violence, and this helps men get away with it. I still can’t figure out the contradiction, though, that the violent assertion of male potency also involves a kind of vanishing act. It seems very self defeating.
The American theorist and activist Jackson Katz is one of the few men who states the obvious fact that men’s sexual violence is first of all an issue for men. He also says male silence about this so-called “women’s issue” is a form of consent. His remarks about the use of the passive voice hit Twitter in a week of renewed social unrest about sexual crime. “When you look at that term, ‘violence against women’, nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it!”
In his popular TED talk Katz describes men’s ability to go unexamined as “one of the key characteristics of power and privilege”. We do not talk about men, because that is the way they like it. For Katz, a tendency to blame the victim is not about sex or even gender, it is just what humans do. “Our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims,” he says. Katz teaches a bystander programme, in which he urges men to interrupt other men who talk abusively about women. He wants us to know that this is not a call for greater sensitivity, however – he seems to realise how sensitive men can get when you ask them to be “sensitive” – no, this is a leadership thing, “because the typical perpetrator is not sick and twisted. He’s a normal guy in every other way, right?”
Well, how would I know? I can’t say if a perpetrator is a “normal guy” because I am not a guy, and the men who do know are saying nothing. I do think misogynists are “twisted” because of the way they twist the truth of their own psychology and I think some men are aware of this and some men are not.
Is that why society maintains a silence about rapists, because we secretly think that they are just “normal” guys, they are just “male”? It is possible that men worry this is the case and Katz wants to reassure them that their fantasies, their swagger do not automatically turn them into monsters. He is, very cannily, working with and not against male bonding, which has a big role in the formation of male sexuality. But he is also accurate to the fact that most rapists do not commit other crimes. In social terms, they can be anybody.
Most rapists do not end up in jail. The rapists who do end up in jail, according to one American study, are also more likely to have committed non-sexual crimes. Work within this cohort shows that convicted rapists tend to start young, have female-hostile peer groups, like rape-pornography (which is more than 80% of pornography), often report feeling rejected in some way and suffer from a lack of empathy.
The vengeful sentence “I felt I was repaying her for arousing me,” feels very familiar to women, who are long tired of the weirdness it contains. But the man who said it also seems to consider arousal to be a kind of punishment. It is not pleasant. It is unfair. The man who says, “This is her fault, she did this,” feels as though he has been acted upon. He is passive, perhaps unbearably so. This man is taking himself out of his own desiring; you might say he is obliterating himself.
If I were a man, I might want to put my self back into the discussion, I might want to do a reality check. But if I were a man, I wouldn’t be writing this because writing about rape, talking about rape, protesting against rape and being raped are all women’s work. This despite the fact that the weekend of protests in London was also a weekend during which footage was circulated online of an RAF recruit being sexually threatened by a group of his peers brandishing a piece of military hardware. In America the figures show that one in six men has been the victim of sexual violence of some kind, as opposed to one in three women, and that 99% of the perpetrators are male. The difference between the victims, sadly, is that society has long been happy to blame the women.
In the days since the death of Sarah Everard, the sadness many felt has turned to anger, with women railing against the general atmosphere of danger and threat they encounter in their day-to-day lives.
But others are also looking for solutions – asking what leads to attacks, as well as how to stop them.
These are big questions, taking in everything from the psychology of perpetrators to the patriarchal system we live in that allows violence against women to continue often unremarked on and unpunished.
To begin with, psychologists say there is no simple checklist to identify the man – because it is almost always men – who might abuse a woman. But there are some warning signs.
Dr Ruth Scully, a consultant forensic psychologist from Nottingham working with sex offenders, uses the term “hyper masculinity” to describe the attitudes of men she works with. They often have very strong views on how men should act and feel, she says.
“They also have these views about women. For example, men must have the dominant and powerful role in relationships, with women taking guidance on what to do and how to behave,” she says.
Sexual offenders often display feelings of entitlement – either sexual entitlement or entitlement in general, believing they can have what they want regardless of the consequences.
“An extreme example would be ‘I bought her a drink, she owes me’,” she says.
“They may also have an adversarial attitude towards women: women are the enemy, they are mistrustful of them and feel that women are trying to get one over on them,” Dr Scully adds.
And sexual attacks are often not about sex.
“It can be about anger, emotional expression or mistrust of women. Or again it could be about sexual entitlement,” says Dr Scully.
And these attitudes are also likely to exist in men who harass women on the street.
“People behave in ways that are in line with their attitudes so it’s likely that sexist attitudes and attitudes of entitlement will underpin those beliefs. That doesn’t mean that people who engage in the harassing behaviours will go on to commit a sexual offence, but we tend to behave in ways that are in alignment with our views,” she says.
One of the problems with unpicking the roots of male violence is that research – like Dr Scully’s – is usually centred on men who have been found guilty of an offence. But these offences rarely come out of the blue.
“Nobody starts their journey of perpetration, of abuse, with murder or kidnap. They have had a long history of getting there,” says Dr Purna Sen, a leading expert on violence against women. “How have they got through that journey without being stopped?”
Dr Sen, an academic at London Metropolitan University and former director of policy at UN Women, isn’t saying that every cat caller is a potential murderer. But the problem for women is: they could be.
“The thing is, we just don’t know. And so we have to assume, for our own safety and well-being, that he is going to be worse,” adds Dr Sen, who is organising a conference on violence against women this summer in Reyjkavik.
Professor Aisha K Gill, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton, describes the abuse of women as a “continuum of violence” arising from structural inequalities.
“At the heart of all of this is gender discrimination and unequal power relations between men and women,” she says, stressing that these are compounded by other issues like race and class.
There are ways to identify women who may be at risk, for example through questioning during routine health appointments.
But identifying a potential attacker is harder. Several groups have worked towards developing models that look for what makes someone become an abuser.
A recent US Department of Justice review of evidence suggests that a combination of factors – from adverse conditions in early childhood to impulse control problems or repeated exposure to violent pornography – “likely contribute” to sexual violence.
The trait of anger is also associated with a higher risk of intimate partners violence, a major review of the literature showed in 2015.
Researchers have mainly focused on the likelihood of people re-offending, rather than finding them in the first place – the key tool used in the British prison service has just been updated and predicts this with reasonable accuracy.
And sexual offenders can also be treated. The UK’s Horizon programme is targeted at prisoners deemed at risk of re-offending and it looks at problem solving, self-regulation, relationships, sexual attitudes and behaviours.
Those in prison are at one end of the scale, whereas violence against women is much more pervasive although often less extreme, making it hard to predict where it might come from.
One in three women globally experience sexual or physical violence in their lives and harassment is even more common: recent figures from UN Women showed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed.
“One of the things we have to jettison very fast is this notion that it’s unusual for men to behave in ways that are abusive or enable abuse,” says Dr Sen, who says the idea there is a “type” is also reductive.
“It’s more about what maleness looks like across society and how we think about each other and how we behave,” she adds.
While there are no “types” of man there are defined patterns of behaviour for the worst offenders.
Professor Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer and forensic criminologist, is a specialist in domestic homicide. The narrative of “he just snapped” when discussing the murder of a – usually female – partner is wrong, she says in her book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder. These attacks can be predicted and stopped, she argues.
She has plotted an eight-stage timeline in these relationships, with the risk increasing. Stage one is the man’s previous abusive relationship history and stage eight is murder.
“They are the most predictable homicides, which is why we can and should be preventing them,” Prof Monckton-Smith writes.
Prevention has a role to play across the board, the experts agree, and at a more fundamental societal level. That also applies to the work that needs to be done for victims, ensuring that they can get justice.
Dr Sen says that the Nordic countries, regularly voted as the safest places to be a woman, have at least in part achieved their success by tackling inequality at its root, from addressing the sex industry to childcare.
“There is an expectation inculcated in all men, whether they use it or not, that they have control over, or an entitlement to, women. So this has really changed things,” she says.
Dr Scully says that a complex interplay between a man’s environment and his upbringing influences his attitude towards women. She believes education is important but adds: “It’s much bigger than education – even if you think about what’s on TV, never mind what’s going on in someone’s home, there are so many things that influence our attitudes and behaviour. But we have to start somewhere,” she says.
Deniz Ugur, deputy director at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, is more blunt.
“Violence against women and girls is inextricably tied to inequality and until we talk about it in those terms, women will never be free,” she said.
At the beginning of the first lockdown, a year ago, Ruth Williams, aged 67, was strangled by her 70-year-old husband, Anthony Williams, at her home in Brynglas, Cwmbran. Judge Paul Thomas called the killing, “an act of great violence”. A fortnight ago, Williams was sentenced to five years for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He may be free within a year.
Williams said he had “snapped” and “choked the living daylights” out of his wife. Her neck was fractured in five places. He said he had found lockdown “really hard”, and he’d attacked his wife after she told him to “get over it”.
He had no documented history of depression. During the trial, one psychologist said Williams had an impaired ability to exercise self-control. A second psychologist said the defendant “knew what he was doing at the time”. The judge said Williams was suffering from depression, an obsession about coronavirus and “a largely irrational anxiety”. “There is no logical explanation why a placid, non-aggressive, inoffensive man… should, out of the blue, strangle his wife for such an innocuous comment as, ‘Get over it’.”
Ruth Williams was a victim of femicide, the killing of a woman by a man. Today, after a two-month investigation, the Observer launches a campaign to better identify femicide (Name it), to improve the knowledge of it (Know it) and to encourage improved methods to end it (Stop it). We are working with the groundbreaking Femicide Census, drawing on its unique database, created by Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of Nia, a sexual and domestic abuse charity, and Clarrie O’Callaghan, a former solicitor, supported pro bono by law firm Freshfields and the consultant Deloitte.
Last November, the census published an overview of the years 2009-2018, during which 1,425 women were killed, aged 14 to 100, one every three days. In spite of better legislation, training and knowledge, the horrendous toll of fatal violence against women has remained unchanged for a decade. We have yet to learn the full impact of the pandemic.
“If domestic abuse isn’t believed, if rapes aren’t prosecuted, if killing means a man may receive a few years in prison or even walk free, if a woman’s death in suspicious circumstances is not properly investigated, then these are crimes hidden in plain sight – in the name of justice, that has to stop,” O’Callaghan says.
This, the first article in the campaign, focuses on women aged 60 and over, like Ruth Williams. While younger women are more likely to be killed by a partner or ex-partner, the census tells us, half of older female victims were killed by sons, grandsons and relatives; a smaller group of 78 were killed by friends, neighbours, strangers, burglars and tradespeople. Taxi driver Andrew Flood, 43, strangled Margaret Biddolph, 78, and Anne Leyland, 88, both his regular customers. The judge referred to Flood’s “unspeakably wicked crimes”. Unfortunately, they are more common than even the official statistics reveal.
Until three years ago, women of Ruth Williams’s age would not have been counted in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). Then, it had a cap of 59 years, now it is 74, and is due to be raised next year, excluding institutions such as care homes and refuges; a hidden death toll.
According to a study by Dr Hannah Bows, one in four domestic homicides involve people over 60, the vast majority female – 25% of the total, the fastest-rising domestic homicide rate. One in six older people experience abuse every year. Yet, in a 2020 poll of the public, conducted by the charity Hourglass (previously Action on Elder Abuse), shockingly, 30% didn’t view harmful behaviour towards older people, such as hitting, as abuse.
“If you are found at the bottom of the stairs at 40, the police are probably going to ask questions,” says Bows, one of the few researchers working in the area. “Deeply entrenched ageism means that if you are 80, it’s, ‘Well, she probably fell.’
“When you look at police data on abuse, rape and murder, older women aren’t there. If a crime is looked at, at all, it’s treated as a safeguarding issue, gender neutral, ‘elder abuse’ with no perpetrator.
“Family counselling is suggested or a woman is removed to residential care, losing her home. It’s too easy to cast doubt on an older victim’s veracity and mental capacity. What’s desperately concerning is the lack of proper scrutiny.”
“If you want to get away with murder,” says criminologist Jane Monckton Smith, “kill someone who is expected to die.”
So, what does the Femicide Census tell us about older women and their killers? And what needs to be done? Over the decade, out of the total of 1,425 dead women, 278 were aged 60-plus. In 127 cases, extreme violence was involved. Older women are more likely to have suffered five or more injuries than younger women, known as “overkill”. In one study, nine out of 13 victims aged over 80 were also victims of sexual assault. Murderers of older women were the least likely to express remorse or empathy.
“Invisibility, devaluation and derision towards the older woman is added to everyday misogyny,” Ingala Smith says. “Does this contribute to the increase in brutality and the higher likelihood of sexual assault, especially by younger men? We don’t know because there is so little research.”
Irene Lawless, 67, was killed and raped by her 26-year-old neighbour who searched the internet for “older woman rape porn”. Delia Hughes, 85, was beaten eight times with a lump hammer by Jamie Boult, 25, who stole her jewellery. After he was sentenced to 25 years, Hughes’s daughter, Beryl, said: “Seeing my mum… black and blue with bruises, sitting in a pool of blood, is a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life… Gone, my lovely mum.”
The threat that some young men potentially present may be clear from childhood but early intervention in the areas of mental health, troubled relationships and addiction repeatedly fail to happen. Boult, in court, was described as a recluse, diagnosed with “social phobia” since he was 13. “Substance abuse is common in this society but most in that group don’t kill a family member,” says Bows. “It’s not cause and effect. Substance abuse might increase risk but, anyway, that risk is never captured correctly.”
Another group of killings of older women is parricide. The killing of one or both parents is overwhelmingly committed by sons. Bernadette Green, 88, died in May 2018. Her son, John Green, 65, a retired policeman, almost got away with murder. In 2013, Bernadette Green weighed 12 stone; at the time of her death, she weighed under six. Her son had refused all help. He had sent texts calling his mother “a stinking corpse”. “She’s at death’s door but nobody’s opening it.”
Initially, Bernadette Green’s death was not thought to be suspicious but mortuary staff noticed pressure sores on her body. A postmortem revealed she had been smothered. John Green was sentenced to 14 years.
Rebecca Zerk, project manager of the Dewis Choice Project, says: “Deaths are going under the radar. Windows are left open in winter, the wrong medication is given, food and fluids are withheld, and some families make excuses – ‘she’s frail; he’s had a lot to cope with’.
“Once a woman reaches 60, the response from agencies and families to abuse is completely different. That’s a violation of older women’s human rights. It denies them justice.”
The Dewis Choice Project is based at the Centre for Age, Gender and Social Justice in Aberystwyth. Its aim is to drive much-needed change for all older “victim-survivors”, including LGBTQ people and those dealing with domestic abuse and dementia. The initiative has conducted a five-year longitudinal study of 120 later-life domestic abuse cases, trained over 8,000 frontline professionals and, together with “victim-survivors”, it has designed the only one-stop holistic service in the UK for people aged 60 and over who have experienced abuse.
“We had one woman of 80 whom we supported, and she decided she wanted a divorce after decades of marriage,” says Sarah Wydall, the centre’s director. “The response from her family was, ‘Is that really necessary at your age?’ Ageism in itself is a huge barrier.”
Older women stay in abusive relationships twice as long as younger women, increasing the chances of fatal violence. They may “normalise” a husband’s controlling behaviour over the years. “I met him when I was 16,” explains Lindsay, 67. “He let me have a dog so I could have a friend.”
Some experience shame about their situation, and they rightly feel they don’t “fit in” to domestic abuse services designed for younger women. If her abuser is a son, a grandmother might fear losing her grandchildren. In addition, if a victim has health problems or a disability and/or mobility issues, that adds to the challenge of finding somewhere safe. In 2017, Women’s Aid assessed that only one out of 276 refuges offered specialist services for women aged 45 and over.
“The reality that abuse and violence are common in later life is unpalatable to many people,” says Wydall. “In 120 cases, we saw only one instance of carer stress; the rest have involved coercive control.”
Coercive control, a crime since 2015, means a perpetrator strips a victim of the freedom to think, speak and act for themselves, losing all confidence. When a victim, after decades of constant servitude, becomes dependent on the perpetrator as carer, the key in the prison lock is fully turned. Yet carers’ behaviours are rarely assessed and viewed as a risk.
Dewis Choice provides support for a year or more. “Sometimes it takes six months to build trust before a woman even begins to disclose severe sexual abuse,” says Elize Freeman, service development lead. “Contrary to what many believe, given the right help, older women can and do leave a perpetrator and start life afresh.” The support Dewis Choice offers is hugely over-subscribed. It costs £18,000 a month to run and, in June, the majority of its funding ends.
A third group of older women highlighted by the Femicide Census is those who have their lives taken in so-called “mercy killings”. Over the decade, there were 27 known mercy killings. Only one resulted in a conviction for murder and a full-life tariff. In 10 cases, the killer pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, and eight received a suspended sentence. They walked free.
“My own research has shown that sentencing for partners who claim they killed out of love is much lower,” says Monckton Smith.
In 2016, Philip Williamson, 89, a retired vet with terminal cancer, killed his wife of 62 years, Josephine, 83, who had dementia, before stabbing himself. Pushed down the stairs, she had multiple lacerations and bruises. “I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag,” Williamson told police. “I loved her too much for that.”
Angus and Margaret Mayer married in 1952 and had six children. “We had such a fun childhood,” says their daughter, Catherine Ignarski. “Mum loved all sport and played bridge at an international level. Like many women, she was the lubricant of family life. They’d go to concerts and entertain friends. He said every day was a blessing.”
Margaret Mayer was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. For four exhausting years, her husband was her carer. “Out of the best intentions, my father was very regimental in my mother’s care. She’d been such an independent person. She had all her choice taken away by the person she loved. They both needed help.”
In 2016, Angus Mayer, 86, killed his wife, 85, and threw himself under a train, dying seven weeks later. In nine of the 27 mercy killings, the perpetrator committed suicide. Ignarski says: “My husband suggested that they come and live with us. We both work but we could have managed. I believe we failed my mother and father.”
She says that agencies also need to find a way to offer older men support and respite that they feel they can accept. “I speak about it now so other families don’t go through this. Something has to be done.”
The Mayers’ deaths were a tragedy. In other mercy killings, however, decline may have a final toxic impact on a relationship in which coercive control, little understood by GPs, social workers, police and the courts, has always been present. Mercy killing trials are studded with comments about “the utterly devoted” accused. Robert Knight, 53, “a devoted son”, in 2019 pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of June Knight, 79. Knight threw his mother from her care home’s first-floor balcony. He told the police he did not want to see his mother in pain. He walked free.
Coercive control may or may not have been present in the Knight family. However, what’s repeatedly missing in investigations is a forensic examination of a relationship, unfolding over years. Freeman, of Dewis Choice, says one man left his wife, in her 80s, for eight hours on the floor when she fell. “He told her that if she fell again, he would leave her there. That probably would have been seen as an accident, not domestic homicide.”
The tools to assess risk by the police and others are modelled on younger women. Physical violence is wrongly deemed a greater threat than bruise-free coercive control. When a woman is considered at high risk, she may be referred to a Marac – a multi-agency risk assessment conference – in which a safety plan is created and an independent domestic violence adviser (IDVA) allocated. One study showed that only 3% of women with Maracs and IDVAs are over 60. Older lives merit protection too.
Next week, Solace Women’s Aid is publishing a tool kit aimed at helping professionals, including GPs, to support older women better. The College of Policing says it is improving training on coercive control. Only 6% of coercive control offences led to a charge in 2018/19. Older women are not counted in statistics, overlooked by the police, marginalised by services and many are left dangerously at risk in a relationship because the few exits available to them are barred by ageism, stereotyping, underfunding and ignorance.
In a study of 30 domestic homicides involving older women, it was judged in 14 cases that the death was preventable. Eleven required an intervention in mental health; one needed help with an aggressive husband with dementia; one disclosure of abuse hadn’t been acted upon; one victim’s request to go into a care home, rather than return to her son, was ignored. A concise and deadly microcosm of how little is being done.
Bristol is set to become the biggest city in the country to ban lap-dancing clubs in a move campaigners claim will help undermine the sexist cultural norms that lead to violence against women.
The city council’s licensing committee last week voted to consult on proposals to introduce a “nil-cap” for sexual entertainment venues. Bristol currently has two lap-dancing clubs.
Margaret Hickman, leader of the council’s ruling Labour group, said evidence suggested sexual entertainment venues were linked to violence against women. “We can’t ignore the fact that casual street harassment of women and domestic homicide are one of the biggest social issues that Bristol has to deal with,” she said.
The radical policy, which is supported by the city’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, as well as Avon and Somerset’s police commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, puts Bristol at the forefront of municipal efforts to use equality laws to clamp down on lap-dancing and strip clubs.
Sasha Rakoff, chief executive of Not Buying It, which campaigns against the sex trade, said councils had a duty to promote sex equality: “Bristol is ending the ‘strip clubs on the high street’ phenomenon because they recognise that this breeds and feeds the very attitudes that leads to harassment, abuse and ultimately violence against all women and girls.”
The Bristol proposals state the council has a duty to eliminate harassment and discrimination under equality legislation – and may risk legal challenges if it allows the city’s lap dancing clubs to continue trading.
Helen Mott, an expert in gender equality from Bristol Fawcett Society, said: “The offer in our city right now is that from the age of 18 as a young man you can go down town and pay for a woman to strip for you,” she said. “It is hampering and undoing the council’s own efforts to advance equality between women and men.”
Although councils have had the power to limit the number of sexual entertainment venues since 2010, only a minority of cities have introduced bans. These are thought to include seven councils – North Tyneside, Swansea and Exeter among them, where no lap-dancing clubs are permitted, and nine London boroughs. Last month Blackpool decided to refuse all new applications for lap dancing clubs and not renew existing licences. Officers in Bristol did not find any evidence from councils that operate bans that the sex industry had been driven underground.
Rakoff, who won a landmark judicial review case against Sheffield for failing to apply its equality duty when licensing lap-dancing clubs, called on other councils to follow Bristol’s lead. “Even if it’s a perfectly run club with no sexual contact and the punters are all gentleman, it is still harmful,” she said. “Allowing these clubs to remain open signals women can be objectified and bought.”
She added the women in the industry would need help finding other careers. “There needs to be exit support so lap dancers, who actually have to pay to work in strip clubs, are redeployed into safe, alternative work with full employment rights – including in former strip clubs reimagined as bars, clubs and restaurants.”