Theodore Johnson first killed a woman in 1981. He tipped his wife Yvonne over the balcony of their ninth-floor flat in Blakenhall Gardens, Wolverhampton, having already hit her with a vase. Well, they had been arguing – a factor that enabled him to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. The second woman Johnson killed was Yvonne Bennett, in 1992. He strangled her with a belt while their baby slept. Her “provocation” was that she refused the box of chocolates he had bought to win her back; he was able to plead diminished responsibility and, after a two-year stay in a secure psychiatric unit, was released and again free to form new relationships. Then, in December 2016, Angela Best became the third victim of Johnson, 64, and on Friday he will be sentenced for her murder. Best’s spur to his violence had simply been to end their relationship and start a new one with someone else.
Johnson’s case seems extraordinary. How could it happen? A list of victims, a history of violent and controlling behaviour in relationships … yet twice he was freed to kill again. Somehow, Johnson slipped through the system. Or was the problem that the system failed to take proper account of Johnson, of his capacity to kill, and as a result failed to take care of the women he went on to meet?
For all the apparent uniqueness of Johnson’s triple killing, he is not the only male perpetrator of femicide to have been given the opportunity to reoffend. In July last year, Robert Trigg, 52, from Worthing, was convicted of the murder of his partner Susan Nicholson six years earlier, and the manslaughter of his previous girlfriend, Caroline Devlin, five years before that. The deaths had initially been treated by West Sussex police as unsuspicious; the convictions were obtained only after the family of Nicholson, unconvinced by the police investigation, commissioned an independent pathologist.
And before that, in 1983, Keith Ward killed his partner, Julie Stead. He pleaded provocation, received a three-year custodial sentence and seven years later killed his ex-partner Valerie Middleton. According to the Office for National Statistics, one woman in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and two women are killed each week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. So what does the case of Theodore Johnson tell us about the sentencing and treatment of domestic violence in the UK?
Prof David Wilson is a criminologist with a special interest in serial killers. “When I looked at Theodore Johnson,” he says, “I saw a man who has killed three or more people in a period greater than 30 days. Technically, he’s a serial killer. What is the context in which he has been able to kill, especially after being incarcerated on two separate occasions? That context is misogyny. Women being killed by men who are in a relationship with them is seen as a thing that happens, something that just occurs. Last year, two women a week died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. That is an extraordinary figure that begins to reveal something not about serial murder but about the phenomenon of everyday murder. There is this unreflective acceptance that violence towards women is normalised.”
Domestic homicide and domestic violence are better understood now than when Johnson was first convicted in 1981. But does there linger a sense that these are somehow explicable categories of homicide and violence? Maybe it’s that word “domestic” that seems somehow to qualify it. Media reports of such crimes tend to sympathise with the perpetrator. The Daily Mail, for instance, described Lance Hart, who killed his wife and daughter in July 2016, as “a jilted father” and quoted a source as saying: “I don’t know what the issues were in their marriage, but I can’t understand why he had to kill his daughter as well.”
An act of domestic violence tends to be seen as something that occurs within the walls of a particular relationship. It belongs to the relationship, rather than to society at large. “We often hear that the murder of a woman by a man is a tragic accident or a crime of passion – an isolated incident that surely will never be repeated,” says Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid and a former barrister. To shed light on the phenomenon of domestic homicide, Women’s Aid, in conjunction with Karen Ingala Smith (who set up the blog Counting Dead Women), has for the past two years published what it calls a “femicide census”. It records all the women killed by men in a year and last month published data for 2016 showing that 113 women were killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The femicide census shows that these are not isolated incidents,” says Ghose. “They are part of a repeated pattern with misogyny as the root cause. I think that is probably what the case of Theodore Johnson is telling us: it is revealing a more systemic pattern and a failure in our society to wake up to femicide.” She uses the term “femicide”, she says, “to label very clearly the killing of women because they are women. But whatever the words, we need to get away from the idea that this is a family or private matter.
“What gets me,” she says, “is that these are repeated patterns of control and violence.” In the case of Johnson, he had a controlling relationship with all three of the women he killed. He twice attempted suicide after the killings; most recently he threw himself under a train after he murdered Best, and lost an arm and a hand in the process. These attempts, according to Wilson, are further examples of controlling behaviour. “It’s about him continuing to try to construct a narrative to explain what he did. He is trying to maintain control of the narrative.”
“It is the repeated patterns of behaviour that need to be exposed and which need to inform criminal justice,” Ghose says. She cites the most recent femicide census that found that more than two-thirds of women killed by men were killed by a current or former partner. Two-thirds of the women killed in 2013 were killed in their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator; 77% of women killed by a former partner were killed in the first year after separation.
“If we better understood these patterns and root causes of fatal male violence against women, the criminal justice system can hand down more appropriate sentences for perpetrators who are high-risk,” Ghose says. “And when perpetrators are eligible for release, there should be proper support and protection for women. If the safety and the right of women to live freely were prized, we would not see patterns of male violence ignored.”
Domestic violence of all categories is not only a problem of the criminal justice system. After all, as Suzanne Jacob, the CEO of the charity SafeLives, points out, only one in five victims of domestic abuse contacts the police. When they do, and when a perpetrator is brought to justice, the most likely charges that will be brought against them are actual bodily harm or criminal damage, “neither of which carries a particularly robust sentence”. Women, on the other hand, who kill violent partners tend to be strongly sentenced, according to Harriet Wistrich, the founding director of the Centre for Women’s Justice: “Victims of domestic violence who retaliate are quite frequently convicted of murder, where men [who kill] are able to use defences to reduce their convictions.”
“It’s somehow seen as not as large a breach of the social contract we all have with each other,” says Liz Kelly, the director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. Nor is the review likely to mention misogyny, a word that is also absent from risk assessment forms. As Kelly says, “Misogyny is not seen as a form of extreme dangerousness … We need to identify these men who hate women and [understand] that they are a danger to all women.”
Of the 113 women killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, 85 died in their homes, according to the Femicide Census, an annual analysis by the charity Women’s Aid.
Nine in 10 women killed during 2016 died at the hands of someone they knew. Of these, 78 women were killed by their current or former intimate partner, three by their sons and five by another male family member. Nine were killed by a stranger.
Women’s Aid said that the census revealed patterns in the killings. Many were committed in similar locations, a sharp instrument was used as a weapon in 47 cases.
“More needs to be done to address men’s fatal violence against women, as once again the Femicide Census reveals fatalities not as isolated incidents but as part of a repeated pattern of male violence against women,” said Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid.
“Shockingly, in 2016, over two-thirds of women killed by a man were killed by a current or former intimate partner; 83% of these women were killed at their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator.
“The government must urgently put the prevention of femicide at the centre of its work to combat male violence against women and girls.”
Women escaping domestic violence can be rehoused in refuges, but Ghose warned that the government was planning to remove supported housing funding for refuges, placing women in greater jeopardy.
“Without a safe space to escape to, more women will be killed by men that they know,” Ghose said. “The government must act now. Refuges are a vital lifeline, not an optional extra; they are not just a bed for a night but essential for women and their children to safely escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives away from the perpetrator. A crucial part of preventing more fatalities must be to ensure sufficient provision for domestic abuse and sexual violence services, including refuges.”
She added: “Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women away or closing their doors for ever.
“Only by creating a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges can we ensure that every woman can safely escape domestic abuse.”
Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of the charity, nia, which campaigns to end violence against women and children, said the census provided vital data allowing for male on female violence to be contextualised.
“Men are killing women and girls; most often women and girls that they are related to,” she said. “Nine out of ten women killed by men in the census were killed by someone they knew. Over three quarters by a current or former partner. Every woman killed was important. But when we think about women killed by men, it’s important that we don’t forget about women who were killed by a man who wasn’t a partner; in 2016 they included a 30-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted and killed as she walked to work, a 20-year-old woman who suffered 60 separate injuries as she was raped and murdered by a delusional sexual predator who had promised to help her get home safely and an 81-year-old woman who was battered on the head and set alight by an intruder in her home. Men’s fatal violence against women extends beyond their partners and families.”
The National Domestic Violence helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247
Feminism exists so that no woman ever has to face her oppressor in a vacuum, alone. It exists to breakdown the privacy in which men rape, beat, and kill women. What I am saying is that every one of us has the responsibility to be the woman Marc Lepine wanted to murder. We need to live with that honor, that courage. We need to put fear aside. We need to endure. We need to create. We need to resist, and we need to stop dedicating the other 364 days of the year to forgetting everything we know. We need to remember every day, not only on December 6. We need to consecrate our lives to what we know and to our resistance to the male power used against us.
Andrea Dworkin on the mass murder in Montreal where 14 female students were murdered by anti-feminist Marc Lepine on Dec. 6, 1989
QotD: “Domestic violence refuges are the refugee camps of women and children on the front line of the war waged by male violence”
Domestic violence refuges are the refugee camps of women and children on the front line of the war waged by male violence. Women must protect these spaces furiously.
Paragraph 68 on page 26 of a 54-page document drawn up by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions reveals plans to remove refuges and other short-term supported housing from the welfare system, meaning vulnerable women will not be able to pay for placements using housing benefit.
Housing benefit is the last guaranteed source of income available to refuges and makes up about 50% of their revenue.
Charlotte Kneer, a survivor of domestic abuse and chief executive of the Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge in Surrey, said: “If this goes ahead, every single refuge will close and every woman who presents herself to a refuge is at risk of murder.”
On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales.
Kneer’s refuge can house up to 11 vulnerable women and 24 children at a time. It offers clean, furnished rooms with televisions and tea-making facilities, a communal living area and kitchen, and a large garden with playground equipment.
The women who stay there have access to counsellors and advice on mental health, housing, job hunting and navigating the benefits system. It needs about £300,000 a year to keep running and just over one-third of the refuge’s funding comes from housing benefit – a room for a week costs £211. There are two full-time support workers, a part-time children’s worker and a part-time play therapist-cum-service manager.
QotD: Miss Peru 2018 turned violence against women into morbid entertainment, not a ‘feminist protest’
Although the so-called protest was reported as being a contestant-driven initiative, the pageant’s organizers and hosts made clear that the “theme” this year was violence against women, repeatedly explaining that the entire pageant was dedicated to “respecting women and violence prevention.”
This is no coincidence. In recent years, feminism in Latin America and the Caribbean has explicitly centered the issue of violence against women. Last October, over 100,000 people took to the streets in Argentina (where a woman is murdered every 36 hours) to protest the gruesome femicide of Lucia Perez Montero. Similar protests were replicated throughout the continent on what was called “Black Wednesday.”
It was a sly move by the organizers of Miss Peru to feature a parade of women listing decontextualized facts about violence against women, and present the event itself as part of the movement against the epidemic. This move ensured the pageant would go viral and seem modern, despite the whole spectacle being inextricably rooted in women’s subordination and subservience.
As Spanish writer Barbijaputa argues at El Diario, stating facts about violence against women in a beauty pageant doesn’t change anyone’s attitude about that violence or about women’s rights. She writes:
The vast majority of society still thinks that the motive [for violence] is biology: that men can’t control their ‘sexual instincts’ and women can’t defend themselves because they are weaker. Stating facts about violence against us makes it seem as if this is inevitable: ‘It’s just the way it is,’ ‘men are crazy,’ ‘I wish it didn’t happen but we can’t fight nature.’
In other words, without understanding why men commit violence against women and without addressing the system that excuses and normalizes male dominance, we cannot successfully combat male violence.
A truly subversive act might have been for contestants to make statements that challenge the objectification of women. Barbijaputa suggests some alternate scripts for pageant contestants:
“I am Miss Tarapoto, and girls and women don’t die; each one of them had a man who killed them. Men are educated to think of themselves as superior to us, while we are being measured by our hips.”
Or perhaps, “I am Miss Cuzco and coming out here in a bathing suit so that men can judge whether or not I am beautiful is sexism and sexism kills.”
Instead, what Miss Peru came up with was little more than a marketing strategy that, in the end, still serves patriarchy. The event’s organizers and Latina, the TV channel that aired and sponsored the pageant, don’t have to pretend to care about women’s rights or liberation any other day of the year.
Peruvian writer Lara Salvatierra points out that Latina has “a misogynist editorial line” and routinely airs content that demeans and objectifies women, “including a TV show which ridicules Indigenous women and girls.”
The fact that it went viral speaks to the guidelines of a patriarchal system: a woman may demand justice, as long as she doesn’t try to escape the mold and the gender roles that the system has approved for her. Patriarchy will always search for ways to naturalize its existence. There is nothing empowering in modeling in a bikini to entertain the same misogynists who then violate us, commercialize us, and kill us.
In a beauty pageant, women are presented to be ogled and enjoyed for an hour or two, as pretty objects. Once objectified, they are put through a process in which, one by one, they are eliminated from the competition. In other words, beauty pageants present women as intrinsically disposable. This is the same thought process that legitimizes the discarding of women under patriarchy, through male violence.
What is an audience meant to feel or think as they read, “Man strangles woman with a cord,” while a young woman parades across the stage in a bikini, desperately seeking male approval and adhering to patriarchal standards of beauty and complacency?
How this capitalist marketing ploy could be interpreted as empowering or liberating is beyond me. But, as Salvatierra points out, this type of “feminist protest” is the kind of activism that a patriarchal system favours the most: one in which women voice opposition to their oppression, but do it within the bounds of the role the system constructed for them.
We oppose the published tentative recommendation by the Office of National Statistics to make sex a non-mandatory field in the 2021 Census. We demand that sex remains a mandatory question in the Census and is included in all government demographic data collection in accordance with SDG5 commitments.
Data collection disaggregated by sex gives us vital information for policy making and distribution of resources. If implemented, the ONS recommendation will make widely acceptable that sex becomes a voluntary question. This will render useless equal opportunities monitoring designed to combat sex discrimination. It will influence governments worldwide making difficult the monitoring of imbalances resulting from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and unequal treatment of girls and women.
Eventually you get to a point in mid-adulthood, having digested a few newspapers and muted a few politicians, when you start to wonder: do cities actually want their women to die? Otherwise, why take these backward steps, cutting services so that more and more women’s refuges are forced to close? Backward steps – no, it’s more like being dragged through shrubland into a dimmer, darker place.
Sunderland is about to become the first UK city without a single domestic violence refuge. The bleakness of this is exhausting. The knowledge that even if a woman in Sunderland finds the courage, cash and energy to leave the partner that hits her, soon there will be nowhere for her to go. The chances are she will end up on the streets (St Mungo’s reports a third of the women they work with say domestic violence contributed to their homelessness) or in a B&B, floundering with no support, no advice on how to begin a life alone, and of course that itch, that feeling that she will always be listening for steps behind her, that she is never safe. Or else, of course, like the two women murdered by their partners in England and Wales every week, she’ll return to a man that kills her.
And the irony is that – apart from at this very sharpest end of the issue, where hundreds of women are being turned away from refuges, due in part to almost a fifth closing since 2010 – elsewhere hard work is paying off. Police now know how to talk to victims of abuse, how to deal with the shadowy cases, the crimes that happen in family homes. Schools now teach pupils the acceptable boundaries of relationships, due to charities working tirelessly to research and fight dating abuse, and expose the horrors of being 14 and terrified. Yet still, if a woman runs, cuts in funding mean she’ll have nowhere to go.
It took a long time to get here, to a place where we could talk about domestic violence, and then acknowledge the many forms it can take, and then the difficulties of escaping it. It took a long time before refuges opened across the country, offering beds and safety to women whose black eyes had been politely ignored by their bosses, at home their children silently watching the ads.
A couple of years ago, Jenny Smith wrote The Refuge, a book about finding sanctuary in the world’s first safe house for women. It was May 1973, when women weren’t allowed to apply for a mortgage without a man, and there was no such thing as marital rape. After two years of being kicked around, people turning away when her husband hit her on the street, she happened upon a piece in the Daily Mirror which read: “Victims of domestic violence? Need help?”
She hid the article under the carpet so he wouldn’t find it. He had beaten her, stabbed her, burned and bitten her – once he tried to drown her. When Smith arrived at the refuge – a terraced house on the other side of London – with her two babies, they welcomed her in, telling her she was safe.
Forty-four years later, two out of every three women that approach a refuge for help are being turned away. When we hear about Sunderland losing its last refuge, it’s as if another brick has been removed from that first safe house in London – it’s not safe. At it’s foundation, it’s not safe. It sounds flippant to wonder whether cities care about the lives of their vulnerable women, whether they want them to die, but all evidence points in that direction. The places those women go to stay alive are disappearing. It’s dreadful to revisit Smith’s book – those 1970s campaigners feeling they had achieved so much, only for the 2000s government to dismantle their efforts with shrugs and cuts.
QotD: “Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion”
Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion; the roles in such cases are seldom if ever reversed. Men perpetrate familial massacres, killing spouse and children together; women do not. Men commonly hunt down and kill wives who have left them; women hardly ever behave similarly. Men kill wives as part of planned murder-suicides; analogous acts by women are almost unheard of. Men kill in response to revelations of wifely infidelity; women almost never respond similarly, though their mates are more often adulterous.
R. Emerson and Russell Dobash, quoted in Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel
QotD: “I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it”
We need to put women first. We need to do anything that will interrupt the colonizing of the female body. We need to refuse to accept the givens. We need to ask ourselves what political rights we need as women. What laws do we need? What would freedom be for us? What principles are necessary for our well-being? Why are women being sold on street corners and tortured in their homes, in societies that claim to be based on freedom and justice? What actions must be taken? What will it cost us and why are we too afraid to pay and are the women who have gotten a little from the women’s movement afraid that resistance or rebellion or even political inquiry will cost them the little they have gotten? Why are we still making deals with men one by one instead of collectively demanding what we need? I am going to ask you to remember that as long as a woman is being bought and sold anywhere in the world, you are not free, nor are you safe. You too have a number; some day your turn will come. I’m going to ask you to remember the prostituted, the homeless, the battered, the raped, the tortured, the murdered, the raped-then-murdered, the murdered-then-raped; and I am going to ask you to remember the photographed, the ones that any or all of the above happened to and it was photographed and now the photographs are for sale in our free countries. I want you to think about those who have been hurt for the fun, the entertainment, the so-called speech of others; those who have been hurt for profit, for the financial benefit of pimps and entrepreneurs. I want you to remember the perpetrator and I am going to ask you to remember the victims: not just tonight but tomorrow and the next day. I want you to find a way to include them – the perpetrators and the victims – in what you do, how you think, how you act, what you care about, what your life means to you.
Now, I know, in this room, some of you are the women I have been talking about. I know that. People around you may not. I am going to ask you to use every single thing you can remember about what was done to you – how it was done, where, by whom, when, and, if you know, why – to begin to tear male dominance to pieces, to pull it apart, to vandalize it, to destabilize it, to mess it up, to get in its way, to fuck it up. I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it.