This article is a long, detailed, critical, but balanced account of the history, from the 1970’s to today, of the second ever battered women’s shelter in the US. I’m posting the first few paragraphs, which cover the setting up of the shelter and its early years, and include details of what was happening in second wave feminism at the same time, but I would recommend reading the whole thing.
In the winter of 1975, a week after a ten-inch snowfall, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez decided to turn Cherie’s apartment into a shelter for women who were getting beaten up at home. Cherie lived downstairs from Chris in a building on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither knew what running such a shelter involved, but nobody did; there was only one in the country, which had opened in St. Paul the year before. They were both on welfare, and each had a little kid, but rent was cheap, and their apartments were bigger than they needed. They put up signs with Cherie’s phone number in laundromats, and the bathrooms of broken-bone units in hospitals, and the waiting rooms of maternity wards. Cherie painted a picture on her wall of a woman brandishing a rifle. They met a few times with a lawyer they knew, to ask questions like: What if a guy found a woman in their apartment and killed her—would they be responsible? They got some women together to make plans, but the meetings were long and kind of boring, so they decided to just do it.
Chris grew up in the projects in South Boston. One night in 1966, when she was seventeen, she went to the Waldorf, a twenty-four-hour restaurant on Tremont Street where gay people used to go after the bars closed. She met a deaf Puerto Rican guy there, got pregnant, and married him. Soon after she gave birth, he started beating her up. He tried to strangle her and drown her in the bathtub. She fought back, but he was stronger. They had terrible arguments, all in sign language. She left him when she was eighteen and moved back in with her parents; her mother watched the baby while Chris went downtown and turned tricks. The money was good, and she moved to a nice apartment in Back Bay with a woman she’d been seeing who worked as a prostitute, too. She changed her last name from her husband’s name, Mendez, to Womendez.
Later, around 1973, Chris had a minor nervous breakdown, became religious, moved to Cambridge, and found work moving furniture and delivering the Gay Community News in her van. Then, one night, she met Cherie at a Daughters of Bilitis meeting, and they went out afterward to a lesbian bar in Boston called the Saints. They became friends, and then a couple, and talked every night about how they wanted to do something to really turn things upside down. They thought, There are so many women getting beat up who need a place to stay—we should just open our place up, make it a shelter. They would call it Transition House.
Cherie, like Chris, had fled a violent early marriage. When she was a teen-ager, she went to Puerto Rico with some friends and met her future husband, a rich man from San Juan, in a hotel lobby. They had a daughter together, but he hit her, and then he became violent with their daughter, too. She left him and travelled around for a while, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a high-end escort. She spent some time in Mexico City, then stayed for a summer with friends who had an organic farm in Michigan. Finally, she fetched up in Cambridge and met Chris.
Word about the shelter spread fast. It was Cambridge in 1975, and there was a lot going on. Women were meeting for consciousness-raising sessions at the Sergeant Pepper Coffee House, and helping rape victims at the Women’s Center, and starting up the Combahee River Collective. There were biker feminists in leather, and Cambridge feminists in bandannas, and Dorchester feminists in dresses. There were socialist feminists who believed that all victimized groups should struggle together against capitalism, and radical feminists who believed that misogyny was the fundamental oppression—that if the patriarchy could be broken then all other oppressions would follow.
Cherie and Chris opened their shelter on New Year’s Day, 1976, and it was full almost immediately. There were mattresses stacked up in the kitchen and all over the floor, and children everywhere. The women who came to stay all pitched in, cleaning the house, taking donations, answering the phone, which began ringing constantly, helping out with child care while mothers went to the doctor or the housing office. A lot of women showed up at the apartment to help. One was Betsy Warrior, a former battered woman who was a founding member of Cell 16, a radical feminist group whose journal, No More Fun and Games, advocated celibacy, separatism, and wages for housework. Another was Lisa Leghorn, an ardent young student who had met Warrior in Cell 16 and spent time with her studying social movements. (They concluded that the basis of women’s subjugation was their place as unpaid laborers in the home, reinforced through violence.) There was Rachel Burger, who had grown up in a pacifist Anabaptist community in England and Paraguay, and, having seen abuse that nobody talked about in that community, had gone looking for another. There were housewives from the suburbs who turned up carrying homemade cakes.
The idea was that there should be no difference between women who came to stay and women who came to help. They made decisions together, went on protest marches together, went out drinking and dancing. “We were changing consciousness,” Leghorn says. “A woman would come into the shelter in the morning, and by the evening she was showing a new resident around. Women were learning that they weren’t just victims.” Nobody wanted to make rules or control behavior; the only rule was to keep the shelter’s location a secret. Chris and Cherie had almost no money, but they were determined not to fund-raise from any source other than individual women, because doing so would compromise their independence and their politics.
Chris and Cherie worked around the clock, taking naps when they could. There were a lot of people and a lot of frantic emotions in a small space. Everyone was in crisis, panicking about where she was going to go next. One woman kept begging Chris to kill her, and Chris would say, Not today, honey, maybe tomorrow. A volunteer went to help a woman escape from her house and got beaten up herself. Some of the women had not been battered but had come because they were homeless; Chris and Cherie couldn’t decide what to do about them. Some days, when the weather was nice, all the women would take a picnic out to the back yard and the kids would play and everybody would be at peace for an hour or two.
In August that first year, Transition House helped to organize a women’s march that rallied at Government Center, in Boston. Five thousand people turned up. Leghorn spoke passionately about female servitude. Florynce Kennedy, the founder of the Feminist Party, advised battered women to occupy the nearest cathedral, mosque, or synagogue, because religions had been “pushing the family trap” and had taken upon themselves “a monopoly on the license to fuck.” Afterward, dozens of women showed up at the shelter to volunteer.
Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”
Domestic violence felt like the front line of the liberation struggle. “When we started to understand how deeply pervasive and corrosive it was, when we heard stories from women whose father beat their mother and then they replicated that in their own relationship, it felt like the work was so central to creating a world in which women could be liberated,” Sullivan says. All women needed was a place to go—a refuge where they would realize that they could survive on their own—and then they would be freed from dependence on violent men, or any men, forever. The stories were brutal, but the work was exhilarating.
Unlike most small feminist organizations founded in the nineteen-seventies, the shelter survived the decade, and the next, and the ones after that. It is still open, in a clapboard house in Cambridge with an unpublished address. It was founded not just to be a refuge for battered women but to embody a set of principles and enact a theory of how women would be liberated. It survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.
Each abandonment was the occasion of bitter fights, mutinies, and accusations of betrayal. For many women who worked there, Transition House was their first political love, to which they attached their most utopian hopes for the future, and, after all the devotion and the sacrifices and the impassioned arguments and the work day and night, it was hard to leave its founding principles behind, no matter how destructive they had become. Women left in anger, or hurt, or from exhaustion, or because they got older, or it was a different time. But the doors stayed open.
QotD: “Husband killed his wife ‘when 48-hour bondage sex session’ during their ‘honeymoon period’ in Germany left her with a perforated bowel”
A German man is in court facing manslaughter charges for killing his new wife in a 48-hour BDSM sex session just days after they walked down the aisle together.
Ralph Jankus, 52, and his wife Christel, 49, took part in a 48-hour sex session for their nuptials, he claims.
New bride Christel suffered severe internal injuries allegedly after a sharp object was inserted into her.
When emergency services were called four days later, they were unable to save Christel.
Self-confessed sadomasochist Jankus faces manslaughter charges at the court in Krefeld, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany.
He is being prosecuted for failing to call for help, allegedly leaving her injured for four days. He claims he was not aware his wife was seriously ill.
The public prosecutor believes that Jankus must have been aware of how unwell his wife was and that her life was in danger.
When questioned, he told police the sex had been consensual and that he had been taking part in sadomasochism sessions for the past thirty years.
Jankus has reportedly admitted that his wife had previously complained about discomfort and had been to see an internal medicine specialist who had carried out a colonoscopy, but nothing had been found to be wrong with her.
Forensic medicine specialists came to the conclusion that the woman must have had some sort of barbed hook inserted into her and when it was removed this caused a perforated bowel.
The victim’s 30-year-old son, who has not been named, claimed his mother had been abused as a child and was mentally unstable.
He added that his mother was dominated by her husband and had started wearing clothes that covered her up well.
She had also allegedly reported abuse at the hands of her husband before they got married, in 2017, but later withdrew these allegations and had spent some time in a psychiatric clinic.
Her son claims that she fled to a women’s shelter in 2018, before turning up happier and marrying her partner in July of the same year.
He said: ‘She had injuries over her whole body and in her genital region.’
The son said: ‘I made accusations to her that she was putting up with too much and that it should never have gone this far.’
He added he had seen bruises which his mother had shown him and she allegedly told her son that she never wanted to see her partner again and never wanted to be hurt by him.
He claims that Jankus ‘abused, mistreated and humiliated’ his mother, but added: ‘I do think she loved him though.’
Her son’s partner, who is also a witness and who has not been named, said: ‘We had no idea about the violence at first. But over time it became more apparent, she was not allowed to leave the apartment. She was forced into taking drugs. She was beaten for going to the hairdressers without permission.’
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.
This is entirely true, I entered the search term into Google myself just now:
QotD: “These levels of physical and sexual violence are bordering on and including behaviour that would meet the criminal code definition of torture”
A concerning new trend tracked by welfare workers at the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence reveals clients who have been raped had been subjected to increasing violence.
Centre director Di McLeod in an address yesterday to more than 50 community stakeholders detailed the shocking violence which included women being subjected to group sex along with strangulation and choking.
Much of the violence had occurred after women were forced to have nonconsenting sex and their injuries required them to obtain treatment at the emergency departments at Gold Coast Hospitals.
“These levels of physical and sexual violence are bordering on and including behaviour that would meet the criminal code definition of torture,” Ms McLeod told the Problem with Porn conference at the Sharks Event Centre at Southport.
“What used to be an uncommon story is now very much an everyday story involving women of varied ages and diverse backgrounds.”
In the past five years the Coast centre had experienced a 56 per cent increase in referrals from emergency departments of local public hospitals, the forum was told.
“Sometimes the sexual violence is committed by a just-met partner, but in cases where the woman has knowledge of the offender’s habits she has often identified that the offender is a regular consumer of pornography,” Ms McLeod said.
The forum was told it was clear not everyone who viewed pornography would commit sexual and domestic violence “because some men who use pornography don’t rape”.
“But what research is finding and what we are seeing at our centre is that pornography is clearly influencing sexual expectations and practices between intimate partners, so that the correlation between pornography, rape and domestic violence can no longer be ignored,” Ms McLeod said.
The key finding by welfare workers was violent men using pornography could not see the difference between fantasy and reality and believed “women are up for it 24-7”.
The increased reporting figures were due to the extent of the injuries and view that many women felt less shame about admitting what had happened.
There is a common criticism of journalism and political argument on this topic, a criticism that is often voiced by trans-rights advocates and others. It can be summarised as: “By discussing trans rights and cases of abuse in the same context, you are demonising trans people and implying that trans people are sexual predators and perverts. That is harmful because it adds to the stigma some trans people experience. Please stop.”
And if that was indeed the point being made, I think that would be a fair response.
But it’s not. The concern that has been raised about self-ID and other trans-rights policies is about safeguarding, about protecting vulnerable people from manipulative and abusive men. The expressed gender identity of those men doesn’t really come into it, except where those people might use the concept of gender to exploit those rules and facilitate their abuse.
Put more bluntly, no one is scared about trans people here. They’re scared about rapists. Some rapists say they’re trans. Get over it.
Because acknowledging that some sex offenders will use gender laws to facilitate their abuse is no more “anti-trans” than accepting that some sex offenders used their positions as Roman Catholic priests to carry out abuse is anti-Catholic. Bad people do bad things. Anyone making, implementing or advising on policy should accept that basic fact and work to mitigate it, not cry bigot when someone asks whether that policy is open to misuse.
One of the feminist groups that raised such concerns is Fair Play for Women. These are the people who really sounded the alarm about transgender offenders in the women’s prison estate, with a report last autumn that was later borne out in official figures released by the MoJ. As the group’s warnings over prisons are being so horribly vindicated by the Karen White case, I hope that people in authority will pay more attention to FPFW’s most recent work, which is about domestic violence refuges and shelters.
That report makes two points that deserve much more attention in political conversation about gender, law and domestic violence. The first is that a lot of women who run and use shelters feel they can’t talk freely about this issue, for the familiar reasons that they will be accused of transphobia, lose their jobs and lose funding for the services they provide for vulnerable women.
The second, and more fundamental, point is that the people who run shelters and refuges believe that laws proposed to make life easier for transgender people will also have the effect of making it easier for abusive men to abuse women.
The report, based on the accounts of domestic violence workers and volunteers, makes abundantly clear the fact that the sort of men who wish to hurt, rape and kill women will take every opportunity to do. One shelter manager with 37 years’ experience told FPFW researchers:
With self-ID policies we will effectively be giving the keys to women’s refuges to abusive men. If that happens, beyond a shadow of a doubt, women will die. Never ever underestimate the potential for abusive men to track down, find and torture their victim.
Perhaps you think that’s hyperbolic or excessively dramatic. If so, consider again the case of Karen White.
In 2016, the Prison Service put in place a policy that was intended to make life easier for transwomen in custody. That policy meant Karen White, a rapist and child abuser, was able to gain access to vulnerable women and sexually assault them. In the words of the prosecution in White’s latest trial, White is a “predator” who sought to “use a transgender persona to put herself in contact with vulnerable persons she can then abuse.”
Those words were spoken in a trial that ended in Karen White being given a life sentence and the judge telling White: “You are a predator and highly manipulative and in my view you are a danger.”
The Karen White case came about even after MPs had been given clear warnings by several experts that dangerous and manipulative predators like Karen White would try to exploit gender laws and rules in order to abuse women. They failed to act on those warnings and properly scrutinise the rules involved in the Karen White case.
Now, that Fair Play for Women report about domestic violence shelters gives MPs and other people in power another chance to do better. They have been given a clear warning by the professionals who spend their every waking moment dealing with the harm done by abusive men and trying to protect women from abusive men, that such men will try to exploit laws on gender change to find, abuse and kill women.
What will it take to persuade them to listen to that warning this time?