British troops have been banned from paying for prostitutes abroad as part of a crackdown on unacceptable behaviour in the armed forces.
The Ministry of Defence said any personnel found to have bought sex while deployed outside the UK would be thrown out of the military.
However, the rules do not apply to troops paying for prostitutes while on operations in the UK.
Under the new rules, senior personnel are now banned from having sexual relationships with junior ranks in situations where it would be considered an “imbalance of power”, the MoD added.
Leo Docherty, the minister for defence people, said the rules sent “a clear message” that “predatory behaviour” would not be tolerated, adding that “the highest values and standards” were expected of all serving personnel.
The move comes a decade after the death of Agnes Wanjiru, 21, a Kenyan sex worker, allegedly at the hands of a British soldier. Her body was dumped in a hotel’s septic tank.
Paying for prostitutes has long been rife in Kenya, where hundreds of British soldiers are deployed every year for training in hot weather.
Soldiers deployed at a British base in Nanyuki were known to have jumped over fences to pay visits to prostitutes during the night despite a curfew. One officer claimed a chain-link fence had needed replacing with a more substantial barrier because soldiers would pay for and obtain sex through it.
“Money would exchange hands through the gaps in the fence,” said the officer last October.
After a string of scandals involving affairs between senior officers and lower-ranking personnel, the MoD has launched a new strategy aimed at stamping out “poor behaviours”, including a zero-tolerance approach to sexual exploitation.
As part of this, the MoD said it now “prohibits all sexual activity which involves the abuse of power, including buying sex whilst abroad”.
It added: “The policy will ensure that every allegation will be responded to, no matter where the allegation takes place, and introduces a presumption of discharge for anyone found to be engaging in the targeted behaviours, including buying sex whilst deployed outside the UK.”
Anyone convicted of an offence will be thrown out of the military and there will be a “presumption of discharge” from the armed forces for any person who has “behaved in a sexually unacceptable way”.
Asked why it had taken so long for the MoD to tackle troops paying for sex overseas, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said: “Life has moved on, it’s a different generation. We want more and more women to be in our forces.”
Earlier this year it was announced that any sexual relationship between an instructor and a trainee would result in the instructor being discharged from the military.
That followed the death in 2019 of Olivia Perks, 21, a cadet at Sandhurst military academy who took her own life after having an affair with an instructor.
Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has just been forced to resign by Sadiq Khan. I first became aware of her when my partner, Harriet Wistrich was representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. He was an innocent man, but police shot him dead in London in a case of mistaken identity. Dick was the officer in charge of the operation, but did not face any consequences for her role in the tragedy.
During the case, I got to know some of de Menezes’ family members, including Maria Otoni de Menezes, Jean Charles’ mother, who I interviewed after the 2008 inquest. I still recall her distress at the fact that Dick had not just kept her job following her son’s death but had been promoted through the ranks.
Cressida Dick is an out lesbian and the first woman to rise to the top of policing ranks — an impressive accomplishment. That she has made monumental and catastrophic errors should not serve as an excuse for the offensive banter I often hear, including childish skits on her name. It is possible for a woman to be both the victim of bigotry and at serious fault herself. Both of these things can be true at the same time. It is possible that in order to survive and thrive in such a male-dominated profession, Dick protected her officers rather more vehemently than she should have done. But the fact is that her primary loyalty should have been to Londoners, not officers.
During Dick’s tenure, the public has been deluged with stories of sexual and domestic violence committed by serving police officers; a failure to police such crimes among civilians; and clear evidence of appalling racism, misogyny and homophobia among officers of all ranks. As a result, faith and trust in the Metropolitan police is at rock bottom. Why Dick did not use her tenure as Met Police Commissioner to begin the process of root-and-branch reform? Instead, under her command, whistle-blowers were either silenced or punished. Her most shameful moment surely was in her description of Wayne Couzens as a ‘bad apple’.
After the Savile scandal in 2011, victims and their families accused the Met of ignoring or covering up allegations of abuse, and in doing so failing to prosecute one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders. In response, the Met instituted a policy of automatically believing victims who report sex crimes. But in 2018, Dick announced that the Met would be abandoning this policy. She has presided over mounting evidence of multiple allegations of abuse and police failures to tackle violence against women and racism, but nothing has changed.
Who will take her place? Is there anyone that has the genuine desire and ability to tackle the rotten culture at Britain’s largest police force, and to bring about real change in the institution? I can’t say that I’m holding my breath.
When Andrea, a Metropolitan Police constable, was summoned into a room by her inspector he stood up, she assumed, to greet her politely. Instead he lunged, grabbing her breasts and forcing his hands into her underwear. She froze, then aimed a kick at his groin and fled.
Andrea hadn’t intended to report him — “you shut up and put up with it. If you speak out, you’re finished” — but she confided in a colleague who did. Compelled to pursue a complaint, a 30-month ordeal began which ended in her dismissal for discreditable conduct in 2020. The inspector kept his job.
Speaking to Andrea about her 20-year police career answers key questions about the Met. Such as, why were no red flags raised about Wayne Couzens, nicknamed “the rapist” because he loved violent porn, used prostitutes, unnerved female colleagues and indecently exposed himself, long before he murdered Sarah Everard? Or why did Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis take selfies with the bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to share with colleagues for a laugh?
Why did a policeman feel entitled to have sex with a vulnerable woman in Charing Cross police station? The subsequent investigation has brought to light WhatsApp messages between officers of sickening misogyny. To a female colleague an officer wrote: “I would happily rape you . . . chloroform you . . . if I was single.” Others discussed how beating women keeps them loyal. One remarked about his girlfriend: “Swear to got [sic] I’m going to smack her.”
Such attitudes are shocking, but not for Andrea. The inspector lied to investigators that she’d given him oral sex in her car, that she was a stalker out to destroy his career and marriage. She was threatened with a charge of perverting the course of justice. Her union rep sat in silence as her character was trashed (she had an impeccable record) while senior officers referred to her assailant chummily by his first name.
A year into the inquiry, despairing that no one believed her, Andrea attempted suicide. Regardless, she was then brought back for another brutal seven-hour interrogation: “If my sister hadn’t been with me afterwards, I’d have thrown myself under the Tube.”
Almost daily in the Met, Andrea witnessed what in any other workplace would bring a visit from HR or even instant dismissal. She was paired with an officer who liked to park near secondary schools to ogle teenage girls’ breasts; colleagues constantly watched porn on their phones; a PC, convicted of gross indecency for masturbating on a train, kept his job; men would return from domestic violence scenes saying the victim was mad and deserved a slap.
If Andrea failed to laugh at such banter, colleagues would ask: “Are you on your period?” If she left her notebook lying around she’d find a penis drawn inside. Older women were “Dorises” or “white goods” (ie domestic appliances). When a young tourist disappeared, men gathered around the computer to gawp at her photograph, one saying: “She’s locked in my sex dungeon at home.” When the station carpet was treated for a flea infestation they joked: “It’s for Andrea’s crabs.”
Only a third of Met officers are women, well below the national average, and Andrea often worked in otherwise all-male teams. Having trained in a more diligent home counties force, she was shocked by the impunity in the sprawling, disparate, unaccountable Met. Above all, she knew that to report what she saw, even via the anonymous complaint line, marked you out as a traitor, a grass. “Even if you’re moved, everyone knows everyone.”
WhatsApp groups, she says, “are the worst thing to happen in policing”. Every station has one; officers can share things too gross to say out loud, entrenching, even amplifying, racist and sexist attitudes. Plus a group can deliberately exclude someone like Andrea and plan her demise.
When the Centre for Women’s Justice (of which I am a trustee) first lodged its super-complaint on failure to address police-perpetrated domestic abuse it had 19 cases, mainly wives and girlfriends of police, with some female officers like Andrea. The women found their menfolk were investigated by officers they knew: evidence was “lost”, cases dropped, the women themselves were threatened with arrest. “Who’s going to believe you?” one was told. “There are lots of us.” After the CfWJ went public, it was flooded with calls: it now represents 163 women.
The College of Policing and the police inspectorate will decide whether to take up its recommendations in April, which include abuse being investigated by a neighbouring force. CfWJ also asks the home secretary to expand an inquiry into Couzens to encompass the broader culture of the Met.
Let’s hope it does. After the Charing Cross revelations, Sadiq Khan has put Met chief Cressida Dick “on notice”. A poll shows women’s faith in policing has tumbled since Everard’s death. Soon another Met officer, David Carrick, will go to trial, charged with 23 sexual assaults including 13 rapes, with potential for even more reputational damage. Dick clearly lacks the strength or courage to take on the old boys, the locker room culture, the vested interests in her force. Only a tough, clear-sighted outsider will do.
Women are half the electorate, half the taxpayers funding police salaries. What a dismal service we receive. If we are raped, there is now only a 1.6 per cent chance our attacker will even be charged. It should be those police who think sexual assaults are a joke, that domestic violence victims had it coming, that they have licence to grope female colleagues who are forced to hand over their warrant cards in disgrace. Not women like Andrea.
Last Monday, James Martin was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for killing Stella Frew. They had argued in his van, then he accelerated away with her hanging off its side, eventually running Frew over, causing her catastrophic injuries. Martin sped away with her handbag in the van, which he later dumped.
The cause of their altercation? Martin refused to pay her for the sex act she had just performed on him. Like many women who sell sex, Frew struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was under their influence when she approached Martin. Her daughter described her for the court as the “kindest, most warm-hearted woman” who had been abused and hurt by men her whole life. The judge commented that Martin had shown barely any empathy for his victim.
And so it has always been. Prostitution is laced with mortal peril: women who sell sex are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women who don’t, according to one study. Yet these women have throughout history been cast as second-class citizens, not worthy of the same concern as other victims.
How best to prevent violence against those selling sex, the vast majority of whom are women, is a question that has long divided feminists. For some, it is about decriminalising the selling and buying of sex, which in England and Wales would mean dropping criminal offences such as kerb crawling, soliciting and running a brothel. There will always be prostitution, so the argument goes, so best to keep it out in the open. Others agree that the selling of sex should be decriminalised in all circumstances and think women should be provided with ample support to get out of prostitution, but argue that the buying of sex, an almost exclusively male activity, should always be a crime.
The full decriminalisation argument is driven by a belief that it is possible to sufficiently strengthen the agency of those who sell sex to transform it into “sex work”, like any other job. You can see what makes it an appealing frame, powered by an archetype that has evolved from the Pretty Woman male saviour narrative, to the sex-positive woman sticking two fingers up at a socially conservative society by making bags of money doing something she loves. Sex work is a choice that should be respected and we should destigmatise it by decriminalising the men who buy it and regulate it to make it safer. Women railing against this are depicted as prudes constrained by their own squeamishness about sex.
There are two reality checks that bring these theoretical arguments crashing down to earth. The first is that for every woman or man selling sex who regards it as a positive choice, and there are some, there are many more who have been trafficked or exploited and are effectively enslaved to criminal networks, working for a pittance, or for drugs to forget the trauma of being forced into selling yourself to be penetrated again and again, or for nothing at all.
In one investigation into sex trafficking, Leicestershire police reported that 86% of the women in brothels they visited were Romanian; in Northumbria, it was 75%. Numerous studies have shown just how dangerous prostitution is: a majority of women selling sex have experienced severe and repeated violence, with more than two-thirds suffering from PTSD at levels comparable to war veterans. Women who are actually or effectively being forced into selling sex have little voice in policy debates, although there are prominent survivor networks that argue for abolition.
Second, as the feminist campaigner Julie Bindel exposed in her 2017 book The Pimping of Prostitution, decriminalisation and regulation has not been the success its advocates claim. Bindel visited and interviewed women working in legal brothels in the Netherlands, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia and found exploitation to be rife, with legalisation acting to empower brothel owners. In one Las Vegas brothel, women weren’t allowed out unaccompanied or without their manager’s permission. In a German brothel, women had to service six men a day at the minimum rate just to make back the room rent. In a New Zealand brothel, women said men could simply complain to the manager and get their money back, leaving them with nothing.
Decriminalisation increases the overall extent of prostitution in a country without decreasing its harms or delivering any of the promised benefits of regulation. In New Zealand, Bindel revealed there were only 11 brothel health and safety inspections over a 12-year period. And decriminalisation makes it even harder for the police to combat trafficking; Spanish police describe how difficult it is to investigate when they enter a brothel and clearly frightened and distressed young women tell them they are working there by choice.
Decriminalisation can’t make prostitution safe because it is inherently dangerous and exploitative. How is a woman selling sex supposed to maintain safe boundaries or withdraw consent when a man physically capable of killing her is hurting her?
The men who buy sex all too often escape scrutiny. The Invisible Men project documents the nauseating way men talk online about their experience of women selling sex, very little of it printable. Research finds that men who buy sex are also more likely to abuse their partners, have a stronger preference for impersonal sex and to commit rape and other sex offences.
Correlation may not equal causation, but it’s not hard to imagine how using women for a price, even if it hurts them, further hardens already toxic attitudes towards women. These men have a vested interest in the sanitisation of their sex-buying. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is the former MP Keith Vaz, who chaired a home affairs select committee inquiry that came down against criminalising those who buy sex, and who a few months later was exposed as having offered to buy cocaine for two men selling sex.
There should be zero stigma, only help and support for those caught up in prostitution. But we legitimise the men who engage in the harmful practice of buying sex to our detriment. In the UK, it is estimated about one in 10 men have paid for sex; in Spain, where it is decriminalised, it is much higher. To accept that prostitution is always going to happen, and therefore the best we can do is regulate it, not only means tolerating the abuse of women: it is to be complicit in its expansion.
All women are controlled by men’s violence. Whether or not they are the ones on the receiving end, it affects every one of us. When we clutch our keys as we walk home at night, when we pick the safest route along well-lit streets but also when we worry about whether a new partner, or a troubled male relative, could become abusive: we fear the kitchen knife pointed towards us, or the hands around our neck.
I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s, in the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”. We all knew, even children, about this bad man who was picking off women. And men’s violence against women was also around me as a child. It is there for so many of us — not just in public spaces but in intimate places too. That was one reason I have spent all my adult life working in specialist women’s services.
The deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have reignited a conversation about male violence, but it has focused on “stranger danger” when most women are killed by someone they know.
The Femicide Census, which I co-created with Clarrie O’Callaghan and which is supported by Freshfields, the law firm, and Deloitte, the auditors, annually publishes information about women who have been killed and the male perpetrators. We found that about 62 per cent of women killed by men are killed by current or former partners. About one in 12 are killed by strangers, roughly the same number as are murdered by their sons. Yet there hasn’t been any critical analysis of the danger sons pose to adult women; we never hear about “filial peril”. We don’t have an accurate picture of what men’s violence against women actually looks like in this country.
The census came about after I started my own record in January 2012, Counting Dead Women, which contemporaneously records female deaths at the hands of men. A young woman, Kirsty Treloar, who had been referred to Nia, the charity where I have been chief executive since 2009, was killed by the boyfriend she was trying to leave. I searched online to see what had happened to her. What I found instead was report after report of women who had been murdered. I have supported female victims of male violence for decades, yet the volume of crimes still surprised me. There was a phrase that kept appearing in these reports: “This was an isolated incident.” But there is nothing isolated about it. How could it be “isolated” when it was happening to so many women? And why were we not looking for the connections? That’s why I kept recording these deaths.
I was also angry that the government’s official data does not group together all the women killed by men. Even now, the Office for National Statistics records the sex of people who have been killed but not the sex of the person who killed them — so they don’t allow us to understand the difference between violence committed by men and violence committed by women. They only give you half the story.
You often hear the same, inaccurate, statistic: that two women a week are killed by men in England and Wales. That was the standard way murdered women were talked about — as a number. I wanted us to remember that they are human beings who are loved and missed. And recording all their names, I started to notice patterns: many older women are murdered and sexually assaulted during burglaries and women are often killed as they are either about to leave, or have just left, an abusive partner.
For many women, the moment they try to leave is incredibly dangerous. Staying with a violent man, horrific as this is, is the best survival strategy on offer for some women. Yet the places they would escape to, refuges, have had their funding cut for more than a decade and the expertise stripped out by allowing services to be delivered by the cheapest bidders, rather than specialist feminist organisations.
Young, professional, conventionally attractive, white women who are killed by strangers get the most attention but we must stop perpetuating this hierarchy of victims. I was really struck last week that in the judge’s sentencing remarks, he called Sarah Everard “a wholly blameless victim”. You can’t talk about her innocence without implicitly victim-blaming other women and we shouldn’t separate between women we empathise with and women we don’t. And women are killed by all kinds of men: from the unemployed to airline pilots and doctors — and, of course, police officers.
I think misogyny runs through the police. At least 15 serving or former police officers have killed women since 2009. The culture of the police needs fixing: it’s not a few bad apples; it’s a rotten orchard. We need an inquiry into institutionalised sexism in the police.
Killing a woman is not a gateway crime: it is not the first thing you do. If you murder a woman, you have usually been doing something abusive or criminal to women for a long time, you just haven’t been caught. And if Wayne Couzens is stage ten in violence against women, what are the police doing about officers, and other men, who are at stage three, four or five?
More broadly, we need to stop pussyfooting about naming men as perpetrators. Then to tackle the violence, we need a five-pronged strategy.
We need to focus on individual men, the perpetrators, and hold them to account. We must give women more options to leave. We should look at relationships and how those shape our culture. We need to ensure the police, the courts and social services are not institutionally sexist. Then we should address inequality: the objectification and sexualisation of women.
That is the only way anything will change.
Women woke to find a new item on our stay-safe list. Beneath “stick to well-lit streets” and “wear flat shoes you can run in”; after “text your taxi’s number plate to a friend” and “clutch keys in your fist like a claw” came new guidance: “Don’t trust a policeman working alone.”
Is this our duty too? To adjudge on dark nights whether men paid with our taxes to protect us may prefer to kill us? The North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott said that Sarah Everard “should never have submitted to arrest”. But women are raised to comply. It’s drummed into us: be good, be kind. Sarah got into Wayne Couzens’s car because, in visiting her friend, she knew she’d broken lockdown rules. Sorry, officer, I’ll come to the station. Handcuffs? Are you sure? OK . . .
No more. If Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, in which women’s rage converts into high-voltage electricity, were true, skies would crackle, buildings blaze. Not just for Sarah or Sabina Nessa, bludgeoned crossing a park, or Julia James, walking her dog, or Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, enjoying a summer night. Nor even for all 80 women killed by men since Sarah. But because we will no longer accept male violence, and the misogyny which underpins it, being shrugged away.
The police should have no doubt this is their Jimmy Savile moment. Cressida Dick chose the day Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping and rape to talk about the odd ‘bad ’un’ in the force. But what does that make colleagues who let him slide across the spectrum, from slapping a female cop’s backside to stopping only women motorists, using personal details to loiter outside their homes. Women now know that acquiring the nickname The Rapist is no impediment to a police career.
It’s all banter isn’t it, just a laugh? Couzens, spotted driving around naked from the waist-down? A kink, maybe. (Once flashers were comedy staples, now it’s argued that indecent exposure is an outdated offence in our sex-positive age.) Couzens using violent pornography or hiring prostitutes? Only a prude would judge. (Unembarrassed men browse PornHub right beside you on a train.) Every warning sign that Couzens saw women as disposable objects was glossed over, not even picked up in professional screening which granted him a gun.
Because we never riot and, alas, lack electric super-powers, police disregard our deaths. Even our grief at the Sarah Everard vigil, where officers stomped flowers and strong-armed speakers, wasn’t worthy of the respect protesters receive for lying on the M25. They are political: women are collateral.
If a man is freaked out by lockdown he might kill his wife of 44 years: Ruth Williams. If he’s drunk, horny and has watched choking porn he might strangle his mistress: Sophie Moss. (Both men got five years.) All these reported pillars of the community, decent dads, nice, quiet blokes who just “turned”. Nothing to see. Just an annual 150 or so one-offs.
Yet Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, has spoken of “institutional misogyny” so ingrained in the decision-making “they don’t realise they are doing it and why”. She reports police calling young women “whores” or “sugar tits”, older ones “Dorises”.
No surprise that Couzens and colleagues traded racist and misogynist WhatsApp messages or that other Met officers posed for selfies by Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies. Because we know northern police forces ignored gangs trafficking underage girls for sex for decades, since they were just “little slags”. We learnt this week that police chiefs disregarded undercover cops having sexual relationships with women by deception. The impunity of the penis rules the police, as elsewhere.
Now a third of officers are women, yet it is still hard to complain about men like Couzens. Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent, said female officers hesitate to report colleagues lest they be labelled as troublemakers so “when you press your emergency button on your radio for back up, no one comes and you get beaten up in the street”.
In a super-complaint lodged by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), of which I am a trustee, 666 women reported abuse by police officer partners. Australian research has shown that since policemen tend to have more authoritarian personalities they are more likely to be controlling spouses, yet their conviction rate for domestic violence is 3.9 per cent compared with a 6.2 per cent average in the general population.
CWJ argues this is because the police service looks after its own. Abusive officers told their wives that since colleagues would investigate their claims, they would never be believed. Indeed, in case after case women report that witnesses aren’t contacted, statements and evidence lost, no further action taken. (CWJ wants a separate channel for police partners to report abuse away from boys’-club meddling.) No wonder that since 2009 at least 15 serving or ex-police officers have killed women.
This statistic is from the femicide census, the annual list read in parliament by Jess Phillips compiled by the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith from news reports. She does this because, astonishingly, the government doesn’t keep data on how many women are killed by men. The first of many acts police need to perform to win back women’s trust is create a femicide league table showing which forces have brought women’s deaths down. And spare us that sly obfuscation “gender-based violence”.
It is time for the demands of violence against women campaigners to be addressed. Cressida Dick should dedicate her remaining years to this most intractable crime. Male violence is a problem with the deepest, most tangled roots. And police are just men, but with handcuffs and warrant cards.
The hours after a fatal attack on members of the public are harrowing. Confusion reigns, rumours swirl and anxious people try to contact loved ones to make sure they are safe. Last Thursday evening, as reports of gunfire and possible fatalities on a housing estate in Plymouth began to circulate, the question of whether it was a terrorist incident was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. When Devon and Cornwall police announced it was not terrorism-related, I wondered how they could be so sure – and their judgment has been called into question by everything that has emerged since.
We now know that 22-year-old Jake Davison was a misogynist who shot dead his mother, who had recently been treated for cancer, before taking the lives of four others. There are parallels between Plymouth and the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012, when Adam Lanza shot his mother five times before going to a primary school where he killed 20 children and six adults, all women. Not for the first time, the significance of extreme misogyny in the genesis of a fatal attack on members of the public seems to have been missed.
It is hard to see how Davison’s actions fail to meet the government’s definition of terrorism, which includes “the use of threat or action… to intimidate the public”. Examples include serious violence against one or more people, endangering someone’s life or creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public: tick, tick and tick. But here is the get-out clause. The definition stipulates that terrorism must be “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and it is often argued that even the most extreme misogyny does not meet that test.
It seems that its deadly interaction with other forms of extremism is poorly understood, something that struck me forcibly after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Five years earlier, Salman Abedi was already showing signs of being radicalised, but the significance of his assault on a young Muslim woman at college was not recognised. Abedi punched her in the head for wearing a short skirt, almost knocking her out in front of witnesses. It was an act of staggering brutality, displaying a toxic combination of misogyny and allegiance to Islamist ideology, along with a low threshold for violence. Yet Abedi was not charged. Greater Manchester police dealt with the incident through restorative justice and Abedi owned up to anger management issues, avoiding a referral to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme. In what seems to be an example of history repeating itself, it has been revealed that Devon and Cornwall police recently restored Davison’s firearms licence, which he lost in December, after he agreed to take part in an anger management course.
Yet Davison made no secret of his seething resentment of women, posting hate-filled diatribes on YouTube. He compared himself to “incels” – involuntary celibates – angry young men who blame women for their inability to get sex and revealed an obsession with guns. In a video uploaded three weeks before the shootings, he came close to justifying sexual violence. “Why do you think sexual assaults and all these things keep rising?” he demanded in a 10-minute rant, claiming that “women don’t need men no more”. One of the questions Devon and Cornwall police need to answer is if they were aware of the content of Davison’s social media posts when they returned his licence.
In North America, incels have been linked with white supremacy, as well as being held responsible for the murders of around 50 people. In Canada, their ideology has been designated a form of violent extremism following an attack on a Toronto massage parlour last year in which a woman was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old man. It was the second such attack in the city in two years, after a self-described incel drove a van into pedestrians in 2018, killing 10 people.
In the UK, however, misogyny is not even widely recognised as the driving force behind violence against women. Time and again, we hear about men who supposedly “just snapped” and killed their female partners in what the police describe as “domestic” and “isolated” incidents. Not so isolated, given that 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK between 2009 and 2018, but we are expected to believe that such homicides could not be predicted or stopped. In fact, it is rare for a woman to be murdered by a current or former partner without a previous history of domestic abuse.
Hatred of women is normalised, dismissed as an obsession of feminists, even when its horrific consequences are staring us in the face. In June last year, two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were murdered in a north London park by a teenager. Danyal Hussein, now 19, had been referred to Prevent after using school computers to access rightwing websites, but was discharged after a few months with no further concerns. What seems to have been missed is his virulent misogyny, which led him to make a “pact” with a “demon” to kill six women in six months.
Five years ago, I began to notice how many men who committed fatal terrorist attacks had a history of misogyny and domestic abuse – practising at home, in other words. No one would listen so I wrote a book about it, listing around 50 perpetrators who had previously terrorised current and ex-partners. It was published in 2019 and inspired groundbreaking research by counter-terrorism policing, showing that almost 40% of referrals to the Prevent programme had a history of domestic abuse, as perpetrators, witnesses or victims. Project Starlight has produced a number of recommendations, arguing that counter-terrorism officers need to look for evidence of violence against women when they are assessing the risk posed by suspects.
That is a welcome development, but we need to go further. We are all in shock after hearing about the horrific events in Plymouth, while the grief of the victims’ families is awful to contemplate. But Davison’s murderous rampage demonstrates that our understanding of what constitutes terrorism is too restrictive. Extreme misogyny needs to be recognised as an ideology in its own right – and one that carries an unacceptable risk of radicalising bitter young men.
In the end, Valérie Bacot could take it no longer. For almost four decades, her husband, Daniel Polette, had been a malign presence that dominated her life: he molested her when she was 12, made her pregnant at 17 and then trapped her in an abusive relationship, during which she bore him three more children.
Now in the ultimate humiliation, he was pimping her out for sex in the back of their battered Peugeot people-carrier in the woods near their home in Saône-et-Loire, in central France, getting his kicks from watching through a chink in the curtain in its rear window.
In March 2016, after an encounter with a particularly brutal client, Bacot claims to have grabbed the loaded pistol that Polette kept next to the driver’s seat and, closing her eyes, shot him.
Daniel Polette first began to show an unhealthy interest in Bacot when she was a young child
“There was a loud noise; the flash, the smell,” she said in an interview with Le Parisien last week. “I got out of the car, opened the door, he fell. I thought only of saving myself because I was sure he was going to kill me.”
But he was dead. When Bacot told her elder children she had killed their father, they hugged her. Two of her sons, together with her daughter’s boyfriend, then helped her bury his remains in the forest. “I packed the earth down like crazy with my hands. I was too afraid he would come out to kill us,” she recalled.
Next month Bacot, 40, goes on trial for murder in a case that has turned a spotlight on conjugal violence in France — and on the few victims who dare to fight back.
By this weekend more than 384,000 people had signed a petition demanding Bacot’s freedom. A television interview with her drew an audience of 4.5 million and a book in which she tells her life story went to the top of the bestseller list after its release last week.
“I was struck by Valérie’s strength, her courage and her intelligence. I really wanted to help her to tell this story,” said Clémence de Blasi, a journalist who ghostwrote the book, Tout le monde savait (Everyone Knew), having met Bacot after her release in October 2018 pending her trial.
In talking to Bacot’s children and others around her, de Blasi realised what a powerful hold Polette had over his wife. “He was watching her permanently, day and night,” she told me. “He was someone who was extremely dangerous and ready to do anything.”
It was Bacot’s mother who first brought Polette into her daughter’s life. After breaking up with her husband, she had a series of casual relationships before meeting the lorry driver in 1992 and inviting him to live in their home in the village of La Clayette, 60 miles north of Lyons.
Polette soon began to show an unhealthy interest in the young girl, who had just turned 12, going into the bathroom while she was washing and insisting on rubbing her with cream. Bacot’s mother tried to keep his activities quiet but word eventually reached the local authorities, and in 1995 Polette was arrested and convicted of sex offences against a minor.
Bizarrely, however, on his release after 33 months in jail, he was allowed to return to the home in La Clayette and was soon abusing Bacot again and raping her. After she became pregnant in 1998, she moved with him into a little house in Baudemont, a neighbouring village of a few hundred people, where, despite an age difference of 25 years, they lived as a couple for two decades, marrying in 2008.
According to Bacot’s account, it was anything but marital bliss: he frequently beat her, on one occasion breaking her nose and on another holding an unloaded pistol against her temple and pulling the trigger. “The next time there will be a bullet for you and for each of the children,” he told her.
Bacot thought of denouncing him to police but was fearful of how he would retaliate and did not dare to go herself. Instead she sent her children, but the police refused to listen to their claims and sent them away.
In the meantime, he had forced her into prostitution, initially only at weekends but then, after he gave up his job, almost full-time. To get clients, he made her distribute flyers in the local area. Once their daughter was 14, Bacot feared he would force the girl to sell her body too.
With no money and no friends or family to turn to, Bacot felt she had no alternative but to stay with her tormentor — until the day she shot him.
At first the family pretended he had gone away. But Bacot was eventually denounced to the police, apparently by the mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. At 6am one day in October 2017, the police came for her; she knew she was going to be arrested and for days had been sleeping in her clothes.
Bacot’s experiences show in an extreme form the plight of women who fall victim to conjugal violence and the failings of social services, according to her lawyers, Janine Bonaggiunta and Nathalie Tomasini. “Valérie was transformed by the extreme violence she suffered into a remote-controlled puppet who, against her will, became an object for her perverse husband,” they write in a preface to the book.
In too many cases, such violence ends with the woman being murdered. Earlier this month a 31-year-old mother-of-three in the Gironde died after her former partner shot her in both legs, poured petrol on her and set her on fire while still alive.
It was the 39th such killing this year, after 90 in 2020, according to Féminicides par compagnons ou ex (Women killed by partners or exes), a campaigning group that tracks such cases.
In a few instances such as Bacot’s, however, it is the victim who turns killer — as with Jacqueline Sauvage, whose case became a cause célèbre in France after she was sentenced to ten years in jail for shooting dead her husband in 2012 with a hunting rifle. He had abused her and driven their son to suicide. After an outcry over her treatment, François Hollande, then the president, gave Sauvage a full pardon.
Bacot’s growing band of supporters would like her to be pardoned too. “Even though she committed murder by killing her torturer,” their petition says, “given the 25 years of suffering she endured to general indifference, it is her freedom that we ask for.”
The campaign — together with Bacot’s highly unusual step of writing a book in effect justifying her actions — may not go down well with the court, however, and Bacot herself seems reconciled to her impending punishment.
“I am looking forward for this to end, to finally know what is in store for me,” she told Le Parisien. “I have done my job, fulfilled my role as a mother; now I can go to prison with peace of mind.
“I deserve to be jailed for a very long time. This trial is not only mine, it is also that of ‘the other’ ” — the term she uses for Polette, whose name she cannot bear to say out loud. “I hope that I can be stronger than him and for once in my life win against him.”