A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.
There is a common criticism of journalism and political argument on this topic, a criticism that is often voiced by trans-rights advocates and others. It can be summarised as: “By discussing trans rights and cases of abuse in the same context, you are demonising trans people and implying that trans people are sexual predators and perverts. That is harmful because it adds to the stigma some trans people experience. Please stop.”
And if that was indeed the point being made, I think that would be a fair response.
But it’s not. The concern that has been raised about self-ID and other trans-rights policies is about safeguarding, about protecting vulnerable people from manipulative and abusive men. The expressed gender identity of those men doesn’t really come into it, except where those people might use the concept of gender to exploit those rules and facilitate their abuse.
Put more bluntly, no one is scared about trans people here. They’re scared about rapists. Some rapists say they’re trans. Get over it.
Because acknowledging that some sex offenders will use gender laws to facilitate their abuse is no more “anti-trans” than accepting that some sex offenders used their positions as Roman Catholic priests to carry out abuse is anti-Catholic. Bad people do bad things. Anyone making, implementing or advising on policy should accept that basic fact and work to mitigate it, not cry bigot when someone asks whether that policy is open to misuse.
One of the feminist groups that raised such concerns is Fair Play for Women. These are the people who really sounded the alarm about transgender offenders in the women’s prison estate, with a report last autumn that was later borne out in official figures released by the MoJ. As the group’s warnings over prisons are being so horribly vindicated by the Karen White case, I hope that people in authority will pay more attention to FPFW’s most recent work, which is about domestic violence refuges and shelters.
That report makes two points that deserve much more attention in political conversation about gender, law and domestic violence. The first is that a lot of women who run and use shelters feel they can’t talk freely about this issue, for the familiar reasons that they will be accused of transphobia, lose their jobs and lose funding for the services they provide for vulnerable women.
The second, and more fundamental, point is that the people who run shelters and refuges believe that laws proposed to make life easier for transgender people will also have the effect of making it easier for abusive men to abuse women.
The report, based on the accounts of domestic violence workers and volunteers, makes abundantly clear the fact that the sort of men who wish to hurt, rape and kill women will take every opportunity to do. One shelter manager with 37 years’ experience told FPFW researchers:
With self-ID policies we will effectively be giving the keys to women’s refuges to abusive men. If that happens, beyond a shadow of a doubt, women will die. Never ever underestimate the potential for abusive men to track down, find and torture their victim.
Perhaps you think that’s hyperbolic or excessively dramatic. If so, consider again the case of Karen White.
In 2016, the Prison Service put in place a policy that was intended to make life easier for transwomen in custody. That policy meant Karen White, a rapist and child abuser, was able to gain access to vulnerable women and sexually assault them. In the words of the prosecution in White’s latest trial, White is a “predator” who sought to “use a transgender persona to put herself in contact with vulnerable persons she can then abuse.”
Those words were spoken in a trial that ended in Karen White being given a life sentence and the judge telling White: “You are a predator and highly manipulative and in my view you are a danger.”
The Karen White case came about even after MPs had been given clear warnings by several experts that dangerous and manipulative predators like Karen White would try to exploit gender laws and rules in order to abuse women. They failed to act on those warnings and properly scrutinise the rules involved in the Karen White case.
Now, that Fair Play for Women report about domestic violence shelters gives MPs and other people in power another chance to do better. They have been given a clear warning by the professionals who spend their every waking moment dealing with the harm done by abusive men and trying to protect women from abusive men, that such men will try to exploit laws on gender change to find, abuse and kill women.
What will it take to persuade them to listen to that warning this time?
Who was Francisca Marquinez? What we can garner from the evidence is that she was choked to death in October 2015. Beyond that, we know little about who she was.
The overwhelming theme of the messages I found through the online condolences book her family set up for her tell the story of a kind and caring woman. Marquinez was “a fun, outgoing and genuine person with positive energy.” She had an “infectious laugh and a beautiful spirit.” She worked for many years in the Human Resources sector and liked to dance merengue and salsa. Her niece Carla says her aunt was “a woman whose happiness shone through.” Yet no news outlet discussed the 60-year-old woman’s personality or life. The media was far more interested in talking about her murderer’s penis.
Marquinez was murdered by her boyfriend, 65-year-old Richard Henry Patterson, in Margate, Florida. Patterson was charged with second-degree murder in October 2015, but was found not guilty in May 2017. The ruling happened almost a year ago and yet there is still far more information available online about Patterson’s genitals than about the woman whose life he took.
The attorney for the accused argued that Marquinez had “accidentally” choked on Patterson’s penis during consensual oral sex. But in all likelihood, this murder was far more gruesome and far less titillating than it was portrayed. The case was referred to in the media as the “penis defense murder trial.” Instead of referring to an “asphyxiation defense” or the “suffocation defense,” the Sun Sentinel called it an “oral-sex defense,” thereby providing legitimacy to an implausible claim.
For Patterson’s defense to be plausible, Marquinez would have had to not realize her death was imminent. Associate Broward Medical Examiner Iouri Boiko, who conducted Marquinez’ autopsy, said that although it was not possible to confirm a cause of death due to the decomposition of the body when it was found by police, it is impossible for it to have been an accidental oral sex scenario. Marquinez would have had to remain absolutely passive while her airways were blocked for more than 30 seconds, until she lost consciousness. In reality, Boiko says, she would have kicked, bitten, or done something else to prevent the blocking of her airway, he explained in court. “It’s the normal reaction.” Even after those fatal 30 seconds, Patterson would have had to keep his erect penis blocking the throat of the unconscious woman for two to three minutes. Only then, after this ongoing blockage of her airway, would Marquinez have finally died.
Patterson waited several days before informing anyone of Marquinez’ death, allowing time for her body to decompose beyond the point where an autopsy could reveal causes of death. Eventually, he called his ex-girlfriend (not the police or an ambulance). During the trial, the jury was presented with a recording in which his ex-girlfriend asked, “Were you arguing?” Patterson replied, “Holly, it doesn’t matter what happened. I’m not telling you what happened because you don’t need to know. Period.” He texted his daughter, saying, “Your dad did something really bad last night,” and that he was “so, so sorry.” He also told his ex and daughter, “I choked Francisca (not, “she choked”). Because Patterson didn’t contact the police, it was his ex-girlfriend who decided to contact a lawyer to defend him in the inevitable trial that would ensue. All reasonable evidence incriminating Patterson was considered less relevant than the star of the trial: his penis.
Due to Patterson’s claim that the size of his penis was a factor in Marquinez’ death, he asked the court to view it as evidence. Assistant state attorney Peter Sapak considered this, asking: “Do we do it in the back? Do we do it in open court? How is the defendant going to be erect when the jury views it? Because a flaccid penis, whether it be a picture or the jury actually seeing it, is completely irrelevant. It needs to be erect.” Patterson’s defense said they were willing to provide a picture of his clients penis next to a tape measure and a frontal picture of Patterson’s naked body.
Patterson’s penis — not the fact that he killed a woman — was the big news story. The media framed the case in a way that would ensure the public read it as funny and titillating. “Massive penis man who claimed his girlfriend choked to death during oral sex is dramatically found NOT GUILTY of murder,” read one headline. Another read, “Murder suspect tries big-penis defense — and it might work.” This narrative — that a woman had consented to her own death — was believed by the media because it confirmed what we’re constantly told: that women enjoy and seek out the violence perpetrated against us, that sex and violence are interchangeable, and that no femicide is so cruel or harrowing that it is above being considered “consensual sex.”
To imagine that Francisca Marquinez likely fought for her life, as a man — someone she once loved — used his penis as a murder weapon is heartbreaking. Those 30 seconds when she was aware that she was going to die must have been terrifying. Why would a jury acquit a man of such a gruesome femicide? The answer to this question lies in porn culture.
“The last thing these two adults did together was oral sex. He thought that’s how she died,” Patterson’s lawyer said during the trial. “The humiliation of having to tell people was just too much for him.” In other words, a man who, during his trial, focused on trying to show his genitals to a jury, and used his alleged “big penis” as a defense against a murder charge, wanted this jury to believe he was too shy to call an ambulance or the police while Marquinez lay dying. And they believed him.
Tragically, this is not the first time that a jury has found it plausible for women to “consent” to being murdered in the name of sex.
In 2015, a 49-year-old man said that his 91-year-old neighbour had suffocated during a “sex game” in Porto, Portugal. His semen was found on her body and it was revealed in the autopsy that the woman had died from asphyxia. The woman’s body had “extensive genital injuries,” but the local newspaper called the woman’s death “a tragic accident.”
In 2011, Cindy Gladue, an Indigenous mother of three daughters, was murdered by a john who stabbed her in her vaginal canal, leaving a perforation that was more than 11 centimeters long. She did not die immediately. Gladue was placed in a bathtub where she bled to death after hours of agony. Her murderer, Bradley Barton, was found not guilty of first-degree murder in a trial wherein Gladue’s disjointed pelvis was physically shown to the jury. The jury preferred to believe that the fact she was a prostituted woman somehow justified her death and that being stabbed in the vagina could be “an accident” following “consensual sex.”
During the trial, it was revealed that Barton’s search history included pornography that sexualized violence against women. The judge described finding pornography depicting “gaping vaginas and extreme penetration and torture,” but this evidence was not permitted in court because it was obtained unlawfully by the police. During trial, Barton’s defense argued that even though Gladue must have gone through “an awful final hour of her life,” the jury should not let that gruesome factor “poison” them against Barton. The jury agreed.
QotD: “I keep reading the Fae tweet and keep wondering what exactly domestic violence “gone right” would be. Presumably when the woman complies before the man has murdered her?”
I keep reading the Fae tweet and keep wondering what exactly domestic violence “gone right” would be. Presumably when the woman complies before the man has murdered her?
Peddling of falsehood wrapped up as knowledge (actually most men who commit intimate partner femicide make a decision to kill) and the minimising of the impact of domestic violence & abuse for those who live with it let alone those who have been killed, a new low for Jane Fae
Last week, when the Danish amateur engineer Peter Madsen was found guilty of the premeditated killing, sexual assault, and dismemberment of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall, his life sentence marked the close of the most macabre crime investigation in recent Scandinavian history.
The state prosecutor, Jakob Buch-Jepsen, in his closing remarks, argued that some of the “most damning” evidence against Madsen came from the death porn found by police on his hard drives. But, although Madsen’s deep involvement in hardcore sex films and snuff movies—as a consumer and, allegedly, as an actor and a would-be producer and director—played a key role in his conviction, the Madsen verdict has yet to open a wider conversation: the most disturbing reaches of a global industry in which Denmark once played the role of pioneer.
From the perspective of the Internet age, with PornHub downloads and the dark Net catering to all extremes of taste, the early days of legalized porn seem more like a hundred years ago than fifty. Porn wasn’t invented in Denmark, but, in the late sixties, the tiny Nordic nation was the first to legitimize it. When, in October, 1969, the world’s first porn fair, Sex 69, opened its doors in Copenhagen, the atmosphere was one of excitement and celebration. Special buses made the trip from Germany, charter flights arrived from Tunisia and Egypt, and American tourists eschewed the art galleries of southern Europe in favor of the new, sensational pleasures of the north. Held in K. B. Hallen, a vast, modernist sports hall designed by Hans Hansen in the Bauhaus tradition, the four-day event featured stripteases, live sex shows, and stalls selling porn magazines and sex toys. The Danish artist and provocateur Jens Jørgen Thorsen, in his opening speech, claimed Sex 69 as a victory for freedom of expression. Despite the fact that ninety per cent of the event’s fifty thousand visitors were male, there were no significant protests from Danish feminists: at the time, many perceived the legalization of porn as the triumphant, liberating end to generations of sexual repression and taboo.
Meanwhile, those concerned that freely available porn would lead to more sex crimes were soon assuaged: the Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky, in his 1970 report for the U.S. President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, “Pornography and Sex Crimes in Denmark,” demonstrated how the legalization of porn had actually led to a decrease in child molestation, voyeurism, and minor sexual offenses, though rape figures stayed the same. In 1971, Sweden followed Denmark’s lead in legalizing porn, and soon the porn industry in these countries was booming, leading to a conception—still held among baby boomers—of Denmark and Sweden as “sexy countries,” though neither has been a large-scale porn producer in decades.
It’s always disappointing when mainstream journalists don’t do their research properly, Kutchinski has rejected his conclusion that porn was harmless, as reported in Transforming a Rape Culture:
But the industry had its dark side, even in the early days. Child porn was not criminalized in Denmark until as late as 1980, and the industry’s second wave included films depicting violence against women, such as Jørgen Hallum’s “Englene” (“Angels”), from 1973: in one scene, bikers storm a confirmation service, crucify the priest, and rape young girls in front of the altar. The burgeoning women’s movement became uneasy; what feminists had initially perceived as empowering was beginning to look very much like the opposite. In a 1978 anthology, “Back in the Sixties,” the leading Danish feminist Bente Hansen reflected on the “pioneer” era of porn: “We had second thoughts about this so-called liberation. What exactly had been liberated and who reaped all the benefits?”
For many of the health professionals who were observing Madsen’s trial, the submarines carried clear Freudian symbolism. “For Madsen, the submarine is like a womb, a place of regression, where he can withdraw and protect himself against the world of failures and betrayals,” Bo Møhl, a professor of clinical psychology at Aalborg University, said. “He’s in another element, in which he is omnipotent. He can breathe underwater. All his needs are satisfied.”
Madsen liked to take women out in his submarines—and his fame gave him plenty to choose from. His pattern, the court learned, was to have a regular girlfriend (and later, at the time of Wall’s murder, a wife) and seek out “crazy ladies” on the side. Former lovers and friends told of how he would sometimes appear at fetish parties in a naval uniform and cap, scouting for women with whom to experiment sexually. He began to stage his fantasies, seeking out porn stars and, according to one witness, acting in two porn films, one shot in Denmark and the other in Germany. He loaned two submarines to the producers of “Thunderpussy,” a porn film from 2007 about a woman running amok with a libido-unleashing drug. Most significant, he had also—as far back as 2010, but possibly long before—been downloading videos of women being tortured and killed.
The prosecution argued that Madsen may have been actively planning to shoot his own snuff video when he invited Wall to visit his submarine on August 10th: on July 26th, he’d carried out Internet searches for “executions” and “dismemberment,” and, on August 4th, he exchanged texts with a friend and former lover who had asked him to “scare” her, writing that he would take out his utility knife and check out her jugular, and that he wanted to tie her up and “impale her on a roasting spit.” The night before he murdered Wall, he ran Internet searches for “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony.”
Some of the videos and animations of the torture and beheadings of women that the police found on Madsen’s hard drives were shown during the trial, including footage of what were purportedly Mexican-cartel members slitting a woman’s throat. It is not illegal to download death porn in Denmark, or to have it on your computer, so Madsen was not breaking any law. Wall’s parents, the public, and the press were not subjected to the screen images of what the police believe is a real snuff movie, but the judges watched them with the audio on. The sounds of a tortured woman’s cries turned the austere, neoclassical courtroom into a death chamber for several minutes, reducing some to tears. When the presiding judge called for a recess, and then asked the prosecutor to spare the court any further evidence from Madsen’s hard drives, the relief in the courtroom was palpable.
In Denmark, a life sentence averages sixteen to seventeen years, but Madsen can theoretically be released on parole after twelve years. His defense lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, says Madsen is appealing his sentence to the Eastern High Court, but, because a mental assessment by the Danish Medico-Legal Council has deemed Madsen a narcissistic psychopath who poses a “severe threat to others,” he will remain in prison until the judgment. Madsen, who spent much of his adult life building womblike capsules, will now inhabit another closed environment: a cell.
If, as the prosecution suggested during the trial, Madsen’s intention was to make a snuff movie starring Kim Wall, then she is, for now, the most high-profile victim of a sick genre. As long as there are humans such as Madsen with deadly fantasies, innocent people will be tortured, mutilated, and murdered, and there will be a tiny, repulsive corner of the porn world dedicated to serving their needs.
I think we need to boost Catherine Bennett, for making the connection, in a mainstream newspaper, between the male violence of MRAs and ‘incels’ and the male violence of trans activists (This article is published in the Observer, which is editorially independent from the genderist trash-heap that is the Guardian).
In the days since the Canadian man murdered 10 people, a good deal of attention, including glossaries of special terms, has focused on the peculiarities of “incel” online behaviour. Here, the standard misogynistic repertoire – “you deserve to be raped”, etc – is ornamented, a bit, with coinages such as femoids. But actually, so what? To many social media users, neither the language nor the sentiments expressed in posts such as the one above, however far along the woman-hating continuum, are likely to look radically out of the ordinary.
Apart from anything, Jack the Ripper, who would now be the toast of angry celibates, had the disembowelling idea 130 years ago. And further demonstrating that misogynistic tropes are by no means the monopoly of resentful male virgins, curators at San Francisco library are currently staging an exhibition featuring a display of dissident-silencing weaponry (axes and bats) and other hate-advertising artefacts.
Photographs of one vitrine, featuring a red bespattered T-shirt reading: “I punch terfs!” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists/women who disagree with me), may have struck a chord with anyone following the current UK debate about the government’s self-ID proposals. To date, threats, from one side, which echo, inescapably, some of those in the pro-Rodger playbook (“die in a fire terf scum”) have yet to generate comparably widespread concern, even after a woman was punched. Her assailant had earlier expressed the wish to “fuck up some terfs”.
For many prominent women, the violence threatened by Rodger fans must sound especially familiar. Caroline Criado-Perez, to whom we owe the new statue of Millicent Fawcett, is just one brilliant woman to have been rewarded, on Twitter, with sexualised menaces (”choke you with my dick” etc), which attracted nowhere near the appalled interest that now surrounds “incels”, as we should surely agree not to call these men, and not only because it implies that involuntary celibacy represents a special condition. It’s often called, for instance, “being single” and is what dating websites were invented for.
To agree to use the lads’ pet terminology, is, moreover, to suggest that something distinguishes them from legions of other threatening men expressing a similar wish to control, punish or just silence women and, critically, in similar language. Such as, to non-compliant sexual targets, “choke on my dick”. A glance at Twitter confirms how generously such abuse has been accommodated, even as the repetitive insults and threats indicate gendered hostility to women in general.
If sexism does not explain how rapidly the language employed against dissenting women (including some trans women) in the UK self-ID debate, degenerated, in some quarters, into generic-sounding obscenities (eg, to unco-operative lesbians, “choke on my ladydick”), perhaps it’s because social media has for so long facilitated the delusion that hate speech, as applied to women, is simply part of the landscape.
The very odiousness of the misogynist language that has become, according (pre-Rodger) to one academic, Emma Alice Jane, “a lingua franca in many sectors of the cybersphere”, may help explain, she argues, why the “ethical and material implications” of this form of hate speech have been so under-studied. Hate speech that persists unchallenged, by both – for their different reasons – reactionaries and progressives, is unlikely, anyway, to be corrected.
Maybe women should skim the Elliot Rodger plan for subjugating their sex, if only to appreciate that, once non-subservient women are expected to live with obscene online threats – and axe exhibitions and punching – at least some elements of his vision have surely been realised.
Theodore Johnson first killed a woman in 1981. He tipped his wife Yvonne over the balcony of their ninth-floor flat in Blakenhall Gardens, Wolverhampton, having already hit her with a vase. Well, they had been arguing – a factor that enabled him to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. The second woman Johnson killed was Yvonne Bennett, in 1992. He strangled her with a belt while their baby slept. Her “provocation” was that she refused the box of chocolates he had bought to win her back; he was able to plead diminished responsibility and, after a two-year stay in a secure psychiatric unit, was released and again free to form new relationships. Then, in December 2016, Angela Best became the third victim of Johnson, 64, and on Friday he will be sentenced for her murder. Best’s spur to his violence had simply been to end their relationship and start a new one with someone else.
Johnson’s case seems extraordinary. How could it happen? A list of victims, a history of violent and controlling behaviour in relationships … yet twice he was freed to kill again. Somehow, Johnson slipped through the system. Or was the problem that the system failed to take proper account of Johnson, of his capacity to kill, and as a result failed to take care of the women he went on to meet?
For all the apparent uniqueness of Johnson’s triple killing, he is not the only male perpetrator of femicide to have been given the opportunity to reoffend. In July last year, Robert Trigg, 52, from Worthing, was convicted of the murder of his partner Susan Nicholson six years earlier, and the manslaughter of his previous girlfriend, Caroline Devlin, five years before that. The deaths had initially been treated by West Sussex police as unsuspicious; the convictions were obtained only after the family of Nicholson, unconvinced by the police investigation, commissioned an independent pathologist.
And before that, in 1983, Keith Ward killed his partner, Julie Stead. He pleaded provocation, received a three-year custodial sentence and seven years later killed his ex-partner Valerie Middleton. According to the Office for National Statistics, one woman in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and two women are killed each week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. So what does the case of Theodore Johnson tell us about the sentencing and treatment of domestic violence in the UK?
Prof David Wilson is a criminologist with a special interest in serial killers. “When I looked at Theodore Johnson,” he says, “I saw a man who has killed three or more people in a period greater than 30 days. Technically, he’s a serial killer. What is the context in which he has been able to kill, especially after being incarcerated on two separate occasions? That context is misogyny. Women being killed by men who are in a relationship with them is seen as a thing that happens, something that just occurs. Last year, two women a week died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. That is an extraordinary figure that begins to reveal something not about serial murder but about the phenomenon of everyday murder. There is this unreflective acceptance that violence towards women is normalised.”
Domestic homicide and domestic violence are better understood now than when Johnson was first convicted in 1981. But does there linger a sense that these are somehow explicable categories of homicide and violence? Maybe it’s that word “domestic” that seems somehow to qualify it. Media reports of such crimes tend to sympathise with the perpetrator. The Daily Mail, for instance, described Lance Hart, who killed his wife and daughter in July 2016, as “a jilted father” and quoted a source as saying: “I don’t know what the issues were in their marriage, but I can’t understand why he had to kill his daughter as well.”
An act of domestic violence tends to be seen as something that occurs within the walls of a particular relationship. It belongs to the relationship, rather than to society at large. “We often hear that the murder of a woman by a man is a tragic accident or a crime of passion – an isolated incident that surely will never be repeated,” says Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid and a former barrister. To shed light on the phenomenon of domestic homicide, Women’s Aid, in conjunction with Karen Ingala Smith (who set up the blog Counting Dead Women), has for the past two years published what it calls a “femicide census”. It records all the women killed by men in a year and last month published data for 2016 showing that 113 women were killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The femicide census shows that these are not isolated incidents,” says Ghose. “They are part of a repeated pattern with misogyny as the root cause. I think that is probably what the case of Theodore Johnson is telling us: it is revealing a more systemic pattern and a failure in our society to wake up to femicide.” She uses the term “femicide”, she says, “to label very clearly the killing of women because they are women. But whatever the words, we need to get away from the idea that this is a family or private matter.
“What gets me,” she says, “is that these are repeated patterns of control and violence.” In the case of Johnson, he had a controlling relationship with all three of the women he killed. He twice attempted suicide after the killings; most recently he threw himself under a train after he murdered Best, and lost an arm and a hand in the process. These attempts, according to Wilson, are further examples of controlling behaviour. “It’s about him continuing to try to construct a narrative to explain what he did. He is trying to maintain control of the narrative.”
“It is the repeated patterns of behaviour that need to be exposed and which need to inform criminal justice,” Ghose says. She cites the most recent femicide census that found that more than two-thirds of women killed by men were killed by a current or former partner. Two-thirds of the women killed in 2013 were killed in their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator; 77% of women killed by a former partner were killed in the first year after separation.
“If we better understood these patterns and root causes of fatal male violence against women, the criminal justice system can hand down more appropriate sentences for perpetrators who are high-risk,” Ghose says. “And when perpetrators are eligible for release, there should be proper support and protection for women. If the safety and the right of women to live freely were prized, we would not see patterns of male violence ignored.”
Domestic violence of all categories is not only a problem of the criminal justice system. After all, as Suzanne Jacob, the CEO of the charity SafeLives, points out, only one in five victims of domestic abuse contacts the police. When they do, and when a perpetrator is brought to justice, the most likely charges that will be brought against them are actual bodily harm or criminal damage, “neither of which carries a particularly robust sentence”. Women, on the other hand, who kill violent partners tend to be strongly sentenced, according to Harriet Wistrich, the founding director of the Centre for Women’s Justice: “Victims of domestic violence who retaliate are quite frequently convicted of murder, where men [who kill] are able to use defences to reduce their convictions.”
“It’s somehow seen as not as large a breach of the social contract we all have with each other,” says Liz Kelly, the director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. Nor is the review likely to mention misogyny, a word that is also absent from risk assessment forms. As Kelly says, “Misogyny is not seen as a form of extreme dangerousness … We need to identify these men who hate women and [understand] that they are a danger to all women.”
Of the 113 women killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, 85 died in their homes, according to the Femicide Census, an annual analysis by the charity Women’s Aid.
Nine in 10 women killed during 2016 died at the hands of someone they knew. Of these, 78 women were killed by their current or former intimate partner, three by their sons and five by another male family member. Nine were killed by a stranger.
Women’s Aid said that the census revealed patterns in the killings. Many were committed in similar locations, a sharp instrument was used as a weapon in 47 cases.
“More needs to be done to address men’s fatal violence against women, as once again the Femicide Census reveals fatalities not as isolated incidents but as part of a repeated pattern of male violence against women,” said Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid.
“Shockingly, in 2016, over two-thirds of women killed by a man were killed by a current or former intimate partner; 83% of these women were killed at their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator.
“The government must urgently put the prevention of femicide at the centre of its work to combat male violence against women and girls.”
Women escaping domestic violence can be rehoused in refuges, but Ghose warned that the government was planning to remove supported housing funding for refuges, placing women in greater jeopardy.
“Without a safe space to escape to, more women will be killed by men that they know,” Ghose said. “The government must act now. Refuges are a vital lifeline, not an optional extra; they are not just a bed for a night but essential for women and their children to safely escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives away from the perpetrator. A crucial part of preventing more fatalities must be to ensure sufficient provision for domestic abuse and sexual violence services, including refuges.”
She added: “Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women away or closing their doors for ever.
“Only by creating a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges can we ensure that every woman can safely escape domestic abuse.”
Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of the charity, nia, which campaigns to end violence against women and children, said the census provided vital data allowing for male on female violence to be contextualised.
“Men are killing women and girls; most often women and girls that they are related to,” she said. “Nine out of ten women killed by men in the census were killed by someone they knew. Over three quarters by a current or former partner. Every woman killed was important. But when we think about women killed by men, it’s important that we don’t forget about women who were killed by a man who wasn’t a partner; in 2016 they included a 30-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted and killed as she walked to work, a 20-year-old woman who suffered 60 separate injuries as she was raped and murdered by a delusional sexual predator who had promised to help her get home safely and an 81-year-old woman who was battered on the head and set alight by an intruder in her home. Men’s fatal violence against women extends beyond their partners and families.”
The National Domestic Violence helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247
Feminism exists so that no woman ever has to face her oppressor in a vacuum, alone. It exists to breakdown the privacy in which men rape, beat, and kill women. What I am saying is that every one of us has the responsibility to be the woman Marc Lepine wanted to murder. We need to live with that honor, that courage. We need to put fear aside. We need to endure. We need to create. We need to resist, and we need to stop dedicating the other 364 days of the year to forgetting everything we know. We need to remember every day, not only on December 6. We need to consecrate our lives to what we know and to our resistance to the male power used against us.
Andrea Dworkin on the mass murder in Montreal where 14 female students were murdered by anti-feminist Marc Lepine on Dec. 6, 1989