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.”
The disappearance of Sarah Everard while she walked through Clapham, south London, at 9pm on 3 March gives horrific shape to the hum of fear that women constantly feel in public spaces. My social media timelines are full of women who are distressed by Sarah’s disappearance, and terrified that it could have been them. Men have asked what they can do to help women feel safer. But what’s needed beyond the education of individuals are urgent political solutions to counter men’s attempts to claim public spaces as their exclusive domain.
The fear that we feel in public places is so common that many women consider it a fact of life. In a 2008 US survey of 811 women, 99% reported having experienced street harassment, of which men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. While out running, I’ve been chased by men, and it’s rare that a week passes without random male passersby shouting derogatory comments or making noises at me. The joy I find in running is diminished by fear.
This fear is grounded in the knowledge that harassment can precede assault or even murder. In the space of just nine days in 2016 in the US, Ally Brueger, Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte were all murdered by men while out running. There is no way for women to know whether single instances of abuse will escalate, so we have to anticipate worst-case scenarios, and regard every cat-calling man as a potential rapist or murderer.
Street harassment is how men mark out public spaces as their own, making women into trespassers on male territory. Behavioural psychologists have observed how male pedestrians crowd women’s personal space at cashpoints and traffic lights, how all-male groups take up more pavement space, and how men make more antisocial noises in public than women, considering it more acceptable to speak on mobile phones at checkouts or in train carriages. Women are more distressed than men by such unwanted public noise, and by having to challenge its perpetrators. We don’t know how these encounters might escalate.
This isn’t a new problem. In fact, men have long sought to exclude women from public spaces and make them feel uncomfortable. In the 19th century, pubs, saloons and restaurants in the UK and US were almost exclusively male spaces. State ordinances forbade women from entering, or segregated them off into “ladies’ snugs”. In 1941, one male British pub-goer refused to use the word “pub” to refer to a mixed-sex establishment: “pub” was short for “public house”, and he reasoned that women therefore didn’t belong in a “pub”, in the same way they didn’t belong in “public”.
In formally segregated spaces, women were generally only tolerated if they were there to serve men: as prostitutes or waitresses. Men applied a similar logic to all public spaces: if they treated all women on the street in the way they treated servants or prostitutes, it marked out those spaces as male domains, and suggested that women entering them consented to their own abuse. As the zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester, the third director of the Natural History Museum, wrote, if women “really do wish to be left alone”, they should “avoid the haunts of men”. The haunts of men were all public spaces, and it would therefore be “comic” for a woman to “object being spoken to in the street”.
Many men today still appear to believe in a similar social contract. By abusing and harassing women, men make public spaces their own – and by entering those spaces, they perceive that women acquiesce to their abuse. Frequently the onus to prevent these behaviours falls on women rather than men. Many women will be familiar with advice such as holding your keys when you walk home, avoiding listening to music, not getting drunk, travelling on well-lit roads, or shouting “fire” rather than “rape” in the case of assault, because the former is taken more seriously. Rather than taking boys and men aside and teaching them not to harass, assault or murder us, the responsibility for preventing male violence has been placed on women’s conduct.
We know that it’s a minority of men who rape and murder women. But a great many engage in continual, low-level, unrecorded intimidation that hints towards assault and is threatening to women who they believe to have “strayed” into their territory. It is difficult to overstate the damage this has done to women. Is it any wonder that we are much more likely to suffer anxiety and agoraphobia than men? Fear of male abuse has led women to give up once-loved activities, or stop walking or running alone. Women’s experience of street harassment rockets during adolescence, when many teenage girls retreat to their bedrooms, as “the only place in the world [they] feel safe”, as one told a researcher in 2001. Too often, women feel unsupported by authorities who are supposed to protect us. It’s difficult to feel that much has changed since a US judge refused to prosecute street harassment in 1976, because it was “generally accepted behaviour [that is] too frequent for a justice system to handle”.
What’s missing from discussions about women’s fears is a focus on men. Men’s harassment and assault of women is part of a sustained, long-term attempt to roll back advances in women’s rights and restrict our presence in public spaces. Some well-intentioned individual men ask how they can change their behaviours to make us feel calmer and safer, and are advised to cross the road to ensure they do not walk behind us at night. But we need solutions that rise above individual behaviour, and tackle men’s abuse and intimidation of women as a systemic problem. This is an urgent frontier for women’s rights.
Women who hit back against abusive partners or commit crimes on their behalf such as handling stolen goods or hiding weapons should be allowed to rely on a new defence of coercion, according to campaigners.
The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) is calling for the change to recognise the “devastating impact” that controlling relationships can have and the lack of legal protection for domestic abuse victims who are driven to offend.
Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor who founded the centre, won a landmark coercive control appeal in 2019 in which her client Sally Challen’s conviction for murdering her abusive husband was quashed. The legal team argued that Challen had been controlled by her husband for more than 30 years before she battered him to death with a hammer.
Now Wistrich is calling on the government to amend its Domestic Abuse Bill, which reaches its report stage in the House of Lords today, to extend coercion as a defence for a range of crimes.
These would include assault against an abusive partner or ex-partner, possession of a controlled substance belonging to an abusive partner, carrying a knife on their behalf, theft offences to pay for drugs and alcohol used by them, and taking drugs into prison for an abusive partner.
Campaigners say that coercive control creates “invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life”. While victims can rely on the common law defence of duress, it is harder to prove and they need to be under threat of violence. The CWJ says the law needs to take into account that long histories of abuse can result in violence or other crimes.
Domestic abuse-related offences recorded by police forces in England and Wales rose by 10 per cent to more than 842,000 in the year ending last September, despite overall crime falling in the pandemic.
The government is facing various amendments to its bill to reflect such abuse. A second change, also supported by the CWJ, would give domestic abuse victims the same rights that homeowners have when confronting dangerous burglars. It would allow them to use disproportionate force in self-defence.
Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, also wants changes to stop perpetrators using the family courts to continue abusing and controlling their victims. She has called for mandatory annual training for judges and legal staff working in the family courts so they can detect when perpetrators are using legal mechanisms to inflict psychological abuse.
Barristers have revealed that children who have given evidence against an abusive parent are being forced to continue seeing that parent against their wishes.
In one instance a judge ordered parent contact agreements to take place while the victim was at a domestic abuse refuge, revealing its location. The perpetrator was able to stalk their victim and abduct the child abroad.
There is a saying in Russia: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” The trouble is that, if he beats you, you may well end up dead because the police refuse to save you.
That is what happened to Vera Pekhteleva, 23, an economics student, after she broke up with her boyfriend.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, her story is a reminder of the continuing struggle by Russian women to get legal protection against male violence.
It was after midnight when Pekhteleva’s screams echoed through the corridors of a rundown residential building in Kemerovo, a mining city in southwestern Siberia.
She had come to visit her ex-boyfriend, Vladislav Kanyus, that evening to pick up some personal items. She had exams the next morning and wasn’t planning to stay long. Kanyus refused to let her go and locked the metal door to his room. And then he began to beat her.
As Pekhteleva’s cries grew more frantic, desperate neighbours pounded on the door and called the police at least seven times. Despite reassurances that officers were on their way, help never arrived.
“She’s getting f***ing killed in there right now!” one neighbour told a police operator, who warned him to watch his language and asked: “What do you want me to do?”
Neighbours eventually managed to break down the door, but it was too late: Pekhteleva was dead. Kanyus had tortured her for over three hours, breaking her nose and cutting her dozens of times with sharp objects, before strangling her with the cord from an iron.
The murder took place in January 2020, but the horrific details of the case, including the police’s refusal to act, did not emerge until last month when they were made public by a rights activist, Alena Popova. There was such an outcry that the murder was covered by state media as well as independent news websites.
But a court rejected an argument by Pekhteleva’s family that Kanyus should be charged with murder with particular cruelty, which carries a life sentence. Instead he will be tried for a lesser charge that punishable by six to 15 years in prison. The police were charged with negligence, punishable by a small fine.
Russia is one of a handful of countries not to have specific laws on domestic violence. In 2017 President Vladimir Putin decriminalised first-time assaults on family members that do not cause injuries requiring hospital treatment. Offenders face fines as low as 5,000 roubles (£49) – roughly the same as for parking illegally or crossing the road on a red light. Critics have said that Putin’s move reinforced the perception that the police are uninterested in domestic violence and led to a sharp rise in abuse.
“The state continues to view domestic violence not as a crime, but as a centuries-old tradition of the Russia family that it must not interfere in. As a result, the authorities stand aside and wait to collect another corpse,” said Popova.
In 2016 in the central city of Oryol, police refused to respond when Ayana Savchuk, 36, called to complain that her ex-boyfriend, who had convictions for violence, had threatened to throw her from a window. “Don’t worry, if he kills you, we’ll definitely come and record your corpse,” an officer said. Savchuk was beaten to death the same day.
In 2017 Margarita Gracheva reported her husband, Dmitri, to police after he took her to a forest near Moscow and vowed to kill her. Police told her that his actions were “a manifestation of love” and refused to get involved. Days later, he chopped off both of Gracheva’s hands with an axe. He was sent to prison for 14 years, although lawyers said he would probably have received a lighter sentence had the attack not been covered extensively by the media.
Russian police do not compile figures on women killed by domestic violence, but according to independent estimates the number is between 1,000 and 5,000 a year. (The figure for Britain, with a population roughly half Russia’s, is about 120). A fifth of Russian women say they have been physically abused by a partner, while 40 per cent of all grave and violent crimes occur within the family.
Women in Russia who fight back against abusive partners face the full force of the law. Opposition journalists have calculated that about 80 per cent of women convicted of murder in Russia killed abusive partners. The figure for men is 3 per cent.
Organisations that defend vulnerable women are in the line of fire. In December the justice ministry listed Nasiliu.net (No To Violence) as a foreign agent, a term that has associations with espionage in Russia but can apply to any organisation that receives overseas funding and is engaged in “political activities”.
Such groups are subject to inspections and can be closed if they fail to identify themselves as foreign agents on all their materials, including online.
“By recognising Nasiliu.net as a foreign agent, the state has once again said aloud: Russia has supported and will continue to support violence, and any resistance to violence will be severely punished,” Mari Davtyan, a human rights lawyer, wrote in an online post.
In 2019 the justice ministry said that the level of domestic violence was “exaggerated” and there was “no evidence” that women suffered more than men. However, media reports of violence against women have boosted support for a law on domestic abuse and 80 per cent of Russians favour legislation against violence in families, according to a recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre.
Amid strong opposition from ultra-conservative groups and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, a draft law on domestic violence failed to make it through parliament in 2019. Its supporters said they had received death threats. “The authorities are well aware of the scale of the problem of domestic violence in Russia,” said Popova. “But we don’t know what it will take to awaken their conscience.”