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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Abusers who throttle their partners will face five years in jail after ministers bowed to campaigners to include it in the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill.
It will make non-fatal strangulation and suffocation a criminal offence amid concerns that many perpetrators receive lenient sentences because they are charged only with common assault.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said that the bill would be expanded to make threats to disclose naked and intimate images with the intention to cause distress a criminal offence.
Laws governing controlling or coercive behaviour will be strengthened to no longer make it a requirement for abusers and victims to live together. A government review found that people who left abusive partners could often be subjected to sustained or increased controlling or coercive behaviour after separation.
The measures were added to the bill after peers tabled amendments in the Lords and are expected to be on the statute book by the end of this month.
Victims and women’s groups have argued that existing domestic abuse laws are not sufficiently punitive. The Centre for Women’s Justice has argued that strangulation is a gender-specific crime, which is often a precursor to even more serious crimes.
In 2018 about a third of female killings in the UK were a result of strangulation or suffocation, compared with 3 per cent of male killings. People accused of non-fatal attacks are often charged with common assault, which has a maximum sentence of six months.
Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner, said the changes “will better support victims and will save lives” but called for ministers to go further. She added: “The government must still go further to make this bill genuinely landmark, by increasing the provision of services in the community and ensuring protections are extended to all victims and survivors, regardless of their immigration status.”
The government had signalled that it would not make non-fatal strangulation or suffocation a specific offence but peers, led by the former victims commissioner Baroness Newlove, argued that it should be included in the bill to ensure that it reaches the statute book sooner.
Although disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress became an offence in 2015, under the new rules those who even threaten to share such material could face two years in prison. The charity Refuge has been lobbying for the change, supported by the former Love Island contestant Zara McDermott, a victim of revenge porn.
McDermott, 24, said she was “thrilled” about the amendment. “My life when I left the Love Island villa was turned upside down as a result of the sharing of intimate images.”
Buckland said: “We are delivering the support victims need to feel safer while ensuring perpetrators face justice for the torment they have inflicted.”
Separately, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is expected to announce a package of £19 million in the Budget on Wednesday to help to tackle domestic abuse.
Home can be a dangerous place. Every week, two women are killed by current or former partners, and the number of domestic homicides in London tripled last year to 29.
But there’s another connection between domestic violence and murder that doesn’t appear in official figures. Most terrorists – and indeed most of the men responsible for mass shootings in the US – have a history of abusing women and children.
I’ve spent a year researching the backgrounds of the perpetrators of fatal attacks on strangers in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. Some claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamist organisations such as Isil or al-Qaeda, while others were followers of right-wing ideologies.
How much they actually know about these organisations is another matter; two British men who were preparing to travel to Syria to join Isil knew so little about the ‘caliphate’ that they ordered books on Islam, including Islam for Dummies, from Amazon. The Nice truck attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had shown little interest in Islam until a few weeks before he murdered 86 peopleand injured more than 450.
What these men are interested in is violence. Robert Dear Jr, an evangelical Christian who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, had previously been investigated in relation to a rape, accused of domestic abuse by two of his former wives, and was reported to the police by a neighbour who spotted him peering into her bedroom. The rape charge was dropped and the only convictions Dear had were for driving offences, allowing him to buy four semi-automatic weapons.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Terrorism is a form of male violence, just like rape and domestic abuse, and we know that it doesn’t stay in neat categories.
Men with repeat convictions for beating up family members often have convictions for other forms of assault, including attacks on police and prison officers. They don’t ‘keep it in the family’ – and a small but significant number burst onto a public stage with catastrophic consequences, as we saw two years ago this week in Manchester, and shortly thereafter in London Bridge.
What is surprising is the fact that this connection has been overlooked by police and counter-terrorism agencies.
At the end of 2017, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson QC, published an interim report on three of that year’s fatal attacks in the UK. It offered revealing insights into MI5’s thinking, drawing on a mass of previously unpublished research into the backgrounds of known terrorists. Domestic violence wasn’t mentioned, yet I’ve found dozens of cases in which wives, girlfriends, children, mothers and evenmothers-in-law suffered years of abuse before the perpetrators went on to kill total strangers.
The Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks were all carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. No doubt Darren Osborne, a right-wing extremist who ranted in a pub about killing Muslims before he drove a hired van into worshippers in north London, would have regarded the Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood as his sworn enemy.
Yet they had strikingly similar backgrounds: Osborne was a career criminal who was known to neighbours in Cardiff as a ‘shouty’ man who verbally abused his family in the street. He had dozens of convictions, including one in 2003 for actual bodily harm against his female partner, with whom he had four children. He had shown no interest at all in right-wing ideology until she threw him out of the family home in Cardiff shortly before the attack.
Masood, likewise, had a long criminal record. The mother of his two eldest children left him following ‘ongoing domestic abuse’ around the time he was sent to prison for slashing a man’s face with a knife. He then converted to Islam and married a young Muslim woman, who endured such abuse at his hands that she ran away from the marriage after only three months. At the time of the Westminster Bridge attack, Masood is believed to have been separated from his second wife, who described him as ‘controlling and angry’ at the inquest into his victims. She also said he was a habitual user of steroids, another common factor among the perpetrators of recent terrorist outrages.
‘The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home,’ confirmed Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west of England, when I interviewed him. Afzal is the lawyer who prosecuted members of the Rochdale gang who ‘groomed’ and raped under-age girls, sending the ringleader to prison for 19 years.
‘They would rather believe it was driven by politics than what it was really driven by,’ Afzal said when we discussed the Manchester Arena bombing.
Five years before the bomber set out to murder teenage girls at an Ariane Grande concert, he punched a teenage girl in the head for wearing a short skirt – an assault for which he was never charged. Salman Abedi wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme that exists to deal with individuals showing signs of radicalisation. MI5 didn’t know about Abedi’s history of misogyny and violence against women when they began to investigate him as a potential terrorist two years later.
The web of male violence extends much further than we realise. And when it comes to terrorism, we’ve been blind to the obvious – that the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved men who pose a risk to their own families long before they pick up a knife or strap on a suicide belt.
Living in an atmosphere where angry scenes and blows are a daily occurrence desensitises them to the effects of abuse; they’re practising at home, lowering the threshold that deters most people from committing acts of violence. Some of them start off as victims, growing up with violent fathers or step-fathers before they begin abusing women themselves. But domestic abuse is creating a pool of volatile, hyper-vigilant men who are far more susceptible than the rest of us to propaganda that appears to ‘legitimise’ violence.
And there are thousands of them: at the end of 2017, MI5 revealed that well over 500 counter-terrorism investigations were under way, involving more than 3,000 individuals who might be planning an attack, plus another 20,000 who had been investigated but were no longer believed to pose an active threat. There’s every reason to think the figure is higher now, as more right-wing plots are uncovered and ‘foreign fighters’ attempt to return home following the collapse of Isil.
It’s impossible to monitor every single one of these individuals day and night. ‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ Afzal told me. ‘You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.’
Terrorism isn’t an enigma. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it has the same origins as other forms of male violence; misogyny and histories of abuse almost always lurk beneath the rationalisations of religion or politics. If only we recognised this fact, and started looking closely at suspects with a history of abusing their families, we might be able to stop the next terrorist attack before it happens – and save lives.
Knife play, choking and rough sex have found a home on FreakTok, but the line between sex positivity and sexual violence is becoming blurred.
“When he claims he’s freaky but won’t drag a knife across your skin… it’s funny how people have become pussies all of a sudden”.
Welcome to #freaktok, one of the darker corners in TikTok’s labyrinth maze of subcultures and alternative communities. Where #thriftflipping clothes or #astralprojecting into an alternative dimension doesn’t cut it, users instead like to brag about rejecting ‘normal’ sex.
And it doesn’t seem to be niche. At the time of writing, #Freak has over 1.2 billion views. #ChokeMe has 45.3 million. While a lot of this content is innocent, it is easy to find far more sinister videos. One, of a girl encouraging her reluctant boyfriend to choke her, has 1.1 million views. Another, of a user mocking viewers for being quote-unquote vanilla has 78,000 likes.
“Vanilla is the new frigid,” says 19-year-old Lily from Buckinghamshire. After leaving a comment on a video of a boy mocking his girlfriend for not being into choking, Lily came under fire. “I wrote something like ‘not wanting to be choked doesn’t mean you’re boring’ and I ended up being called out for it,” she says. “People kept saying that I didn’t know how to have a good time and that I obviously wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality.”
As a result, Lily began to question her own preferences. “I started wondering whether this was what sex-positive people did and that maybe I just didn’t understand what ‘good’ sex looked like,” she says. “I found myself defending my own preferences because people weren’t open to the idea that I actually liked ‘normal’ sex.” In the end, Lily deleted her comment because the replies were becoming increasingly personal.
17-year-old Mina from Arkansas had a similar experience. After sharing another user’s TikTok referring to the problem of glamorising rough sex, Mina was met with accusations of kink-shaming; calling her a prude and a snowflake. “There were a lot of negative responses,” she says, but none of them were a huge surprise, with her peers now deeming choking and strangulation as being more acceptable than vanilla sex. “I’ve seen people I know push themselves to seem like they enjoy really extreme things just to be part of the in-crowd. The type of sex you have has become this huge competition,” she says.
For Fiona MacKenzie, founder of campaign group We Can’t Consent To This — a group formed in response to the increasing violence exhibited against women during sex — the trend is worrying. “Young people are being told that everyone is doing this,” she says. The social pressure means that women in their teens and twenties now are being told that not enjoying being slapped or choked is abnormal. “It’s a default expectation now.”
In the process of shaming people, the boundaries between consensual sex and sexual violence risk being blurred. “People’s negative experiences are being diminished because people dismiss them as simply having vanilla preferences,” Fiona says. Lily agrees, arguing that the difference between being empowered to have the sex you want and being the victim of violence is ignored. “Somebody even messaged me saying that ‘women deserve to be hurt’.”
Alarmingly, videos that glorify sexual violence are also extremely popular on TikTok. There’s videos romanticising domestic abuse, the ‘psychotic boyfriend’ trope and even the ‘things girls want but won’t ask for’. Last summer TikTok was forced to remove some content under the #365days hashtag after users used it to display bruises obtained during sex or footage of grabbing their partners by the throat.
Given that a recent survey of UK women between 18-39 found that 38% have experienced unwanted spitting, choking or slapping during consensual sex, it is concerning that the normalisation of these behaviours is being confused with consent. With uses of the “rough sex defence” in homicide cases increasing 90% in a decade, it is clear that we need to address how sexual violence is increasingly being mistaken with sexual liberation.
Dr Gail Dines, President of Culture Reframed — an organisation that addresses the effects of hypersexualised media on young people — blames porn for the problem. “Pornography is the biggest form of sex education,” she says. And with 88% of the most-watched porn scenes containing acts of physical aggression against a woman, there’s nothing to tell young people that this is not the norm. Mina agrees. “People are watching porn and are becoming desensitised to anything ‘normal’ before they have experienced sex themselves,” she says.