I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome called Prostitution: Is Italy ready for the Nordic model?. The event was the first of its kind to be held in the Italian senate and it has caused some controversy.
A new bill drafted by senator Alessandra Maiorino was launched at the event, which, if approved by parliament, would criminalise the buying of sex and decriminalise those in prostitution. Known as the Nordic model, this approach to tackling the harms of the sex trade was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted by a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel.
Outside the venue, a small protest group representing sex workers and allies accused the organisers of “talking about our lives and bodies without even inviting us to the discussion table”, despite the fact that the views of pro-legalisation individuals are in the evidence that is included in the bill. Perhaps more significantly, the voices of those women who have survived the sex trade and since left it are loud and clear in this debate.
The tide is turning in Italy about the sex trade. Maiorino, a parliamentarian in the Five Star Movement party, has garnered cross-party support, with speakers at the conference representing youth, violence against women and gender equality.
Evaluation shows that this Nordic model approach has reduced the number of women in prostitution and that it challenges the culture of acceptability of men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many sex trade survivors, to introduce the law globally.
Italy has a history of legislating against the sex trade. In 1958, senator Lina Merlin introduced the Merlin law, which effectively abolished legal brothels. Before the law was introduced there were 560 state approved brothels. The law also abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex and providing support to leave. The key aim of the law was to reduce the numbers of women being forced, coerced or exploited into prostitution. It is regarded by Italian feminists as the foundation for a human rights critique of commercial sexual exploitation.
The law periodically comes under fire from those in favour of legalisation. The most recent example came in March 2019 whenit was challenged by the court of appeal in Bari in relation to a case in which businessman Giampaolo Tarantini was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution by recruiting “escorts” for the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lawyers argued that prostitution is organised differently than in 1958 and that women now have sexual freedom and therefore can freely choose to be sex workers. The appeal was rejected by the constitutional court and the Merlin law was upheld.
According to Maiorino, there is more violence, abuse and exploitation in the sex trade than in 1958. “There are increasing ways in which women can be coerced into prostitution,” she said.
In fact, as Ilaria Baldini from Resistenza Femminista, a feminist activist group, told me, prostitution across Italy was “totally normalised” and the police often ignored the criminal exploitation of women in brothels and on street, rarely targeting pimps or buyers.
In March, Roberto Saviano (whose book Gomorra exposed one of Italy’s most powerful mafia networks) wrote an article for Corriere della Sera, arguing that legalising prostitution in Italy was necessary, that prostitution was a “real profession” and that the only way that women can be protected within the sex trade is to “regulate” it.
The article caused huge controversy and the newspaper was inundated with emails from anti-sex trade feminists, demanding a right to reply. Monica Ricci Sargentini, a reporter at the newspaper, supported the call for a feminist response; as a result, she was issued with a written warning and threatened with a three-day suspension.
Despite the significant resistance from pro-legalisation activists in Italy and elsewhere, its benefits are clear. Everywhere it has been implemented, the number of women in prostitution has fallen, as has violence – including homicide – against them. Neither is it an overly punitive or “carceral” law; proposals within Maiorino’s bill for sex buyers are typically modest: for first offenders, a fine of €1,500 to €5,000 and a police caution. Those that reoffend more than once in five years can be fined up to €15,000. A prison sentence of between six months to three years can be avoided if the buyers participate in a perpetrator re-education programme.
On the other hand, legalisation is always disastrous, as I discovered during my research. Germany introduced blanket legalisation in 2002 and, as parliamentarian Leni Breymaier told delegates in Rome, it has since become one of the fastest growing destinations for traffickers of women and children.
“There should never have been the scandal of Berlusconi,” she tells me. “And nor should any Italian men be led by his example.”
Most parents approach children’s questions about sex with careful thought. We know that our period chat, puberty Q&A, our bleakly vital guidance on sexting and porn won’t just affect their present happiness and bodily ease, but future relationships too. We entrust schools to make up for our shortfalls or embarrassment, to further our conversations with sensitivity and fact.
We’d expect RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) lessons to be conducted by trained teachers, schooled in biology, alert to pornified and misleading internet content. We’d hope our kids learn not just where babies come from but that sexuality is diverse, that sex isn’t just about problems, like STIs and abortion, but a source of joy.
Instead your child may be taught by the School of Sexuality Education which asked kids to Google then draw masturbating animals. Or the Proud Trust, whose dice game asks 13-year-olds to speculate how various body parts and objects will pleasure their anus. Or Diversity Role Models, which promoted the message beloved of paedophiles: “Love has no age limit.”
Because any organisation can now teach RSHE, including activist groups with political agendas. Staff don’t need education or child development qualifications. There is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum. The Department for Education (DfE) says it is a school’s responsibility to oversee lesson content but many don’t have time, often entrusting outside speakers to address classes with no teacher present. And if parents demand to see teaching resources, groups often cite copyright law and refuse.
RSHE teaching, as Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and former biology teacher, noted in her Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, is “a wild west”. Indeed it is a deregulated, privatised, quintessentially Conservative mess.
The government’s response to criticism about inadequate sex education was to make it mandatory from September 2020 for both primary and secondary pupils. The DfE advocates a “programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils”. But instead of providing funds to recruit or train RSHE specialists, it left schools often to outsource lessons to groups, some newly formed to win these lucrative contracts. Since then many parents have voiced concerns. First at the inappropriately sexualised content of lessons for young children: 11-year-olds asked to work out from a list if they are straight, gay or bisexual; ten-year-olds told to discuss masturbation in pairs. Compelling pre-pubescent children to talk about explicit material with adults transgresses their natural shyness and is a safeguarding red flag.
Many groups brand themselves “sex positive”, a confusing term which doesn’t mean “relationships are great” but that no sexual practice is off-limits and the sex industry, specifically pornography, is wholly liberating. BISH Training’s website entry on “rough sex” dismisses the notion that online porn is responsible for a rise in choking, hair-pulling and spitting as “annoying”. Although 60 British women have died of strangulation during sex, BISH simply tells young people to go slow “at first”.
Reading RSHE groups’ online material, and most is hidden from public scrutiny, none addresses the fact that boys and girls are fed different sexual scripts from increasingly violent mainstream porn. Those being choked, violently penetrated in multiple orifices are rarely male. Yet there is no feminist critique or much focus on female pleasure.
Such teaching is supposed to uphold the 2010 Equality Act in which sex is a protected characteristic, yet much of it blurs biology. The Sex Education Forum divides us into “menstruaters” and “non-menstruaters”. Just Like Us states that sex can be changed. Amaze suggests boys who wear nail varnish and girls who like weightlifting could be trans.
Researching my report on the Tavistock child gender service, I spoke with parents of girls on the autistic spectrum who’d always felt like misfits but after listening to outside speakers at school assemblies or RSHE classes now believed they were boys. Gender ideology, with no basis in science or fact, is being pushed in schools, as Cates says, “with religious fervour”.
In its carelessness and cheap-skatery, the government has enabled teaching that is well out of step with public opinion. More In Common polling of 5,000 people found that while 64 per cent of us are happy for schools to teach that some children have two dads or mums, only 31 per cent believe primary schools should teach about trans identity. Parents know it is confusing, unscientific and predicated upon gender stereotypes.
The government’s present hands-off policy also leaves schools vulnerable when challenged by homophobic religious groups, as in Birmingham when extreme Islamists stirred up parents to oppose teaching about gay parents. Head teachers then said they’d have welcomed more prescriptive government guidance so parents could hold elected politicians, not individual schools, to account.
At Thursday’s debate, the chastened schools minister Robin Walker noted that parents should have ready access to all RSHE teaching materials and said the equality and human rights commission is working out guidance on how gender identity should be taught in schools. Such lessons must include evidence of social contagion, the harms of puberty blockers, warning about irreversible treatment and the experience of a growing number of “detransitioners”.
But the government needs to go further, with a register of outside groups and close monitoring of misleading materials. It should also teach critical thinking, so children can evaluate the porn-suffused culture in which they live. There’s no point parents putting such care into how we teach children about sex if the government gives none at all.
Just read a Guardian piece on “50 years of Deep Throat’. The thinly veiled sneeriness at feminist critiques is predictable but what also gets to me is the pretentiousness. Like you’re not just a prude but a cultural ignoramus if you’re insufficiently appreciative.
It reminded me of the section in [Louise Perry’s] The Case Against the Sexual Revolution on ‘The Sadeian Woman’ – the urge to mystify and render edgy an ultimately unsophisticated exploitation that isn’t really new.
“You just don’t get it because you miss the broader cultural, political and intellectual context” is another of those Emperor’s New Clothes coercive narratives. No one wants to look stupid so it’s easy to scare people off stating the obvious about a glaringly obvious film.
(I remember this pressure – never EVER be the idiot who states the obvious – very vividly from being an arts postgrad in the late 90s, and it’s really dangerous when what you’ve decided to be an authority on is pornography and/or violence against women).
Amelia Tiganus is a sex-trade survivor, originally from Romania. She has been campaigning to introduce laws to criminalise demand – the men that pay for sex – for a number of years. This week saw her wish come true, when the Spanish parliament voted in favour of clamping down on pimping and introducing criminal penalties for men buying sex.
Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
Tiganus was prostituted in Spain, where she still lives. She has long been involved in a campaign to end the sex trade, working since 2015 with Feminicidio as coordinator of its online training platform and projects for the prevention and awareness of prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence against women. She is currently documenting the number of murdered prostituted women in Spain.
Tiganus has published several articles on the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the past two years, she has given more than 100 lectures and workshops throughout Spain and Argentina. I spoke to Tiganus about being trafficked and abused in state-sanctioned brothels, and about her life and activism after escaping prostitution. Here is her story.
Last Monday, James Martin was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for killing Stella Frew. They had argued in his van, then he accelerated away with her hanging off its side, eventually running Frew over, causing her catastrophic injuries. Martin sped away with her handbag in the van, which he later dumped.
The cause of their altercation? Martin refused to pay her for the sex act she had just performed on him. Like many women who sell sex, Frew struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was under their influence when she approached Martin. Her daughter described her for the court as the “kindest, most warm-hearted woman” who had been abused and hurt by men her whole life. The judge commented that Martin had shown barely any empathy for his victim.
And so it has always been. Prostitution is laced with mortal peril: women who sell sex are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women who don’t, according to one study. Yet these women have throughout history been cast as second-class citizens, not worthy of the same concern as other victims.
How best to prevent violence against those selling sex, the vast majority of whom are women, is a question that has long divided feminists. For some, it is about decriminalising the selling and buying of sex, which in England and Wales would mean dropping criminal offences such as kerb crawling, soliciting and running a brothel. There will always be prostitution, so the argument goes, so best to keep it out in the open. Others agree that the selling of sex should be decriminalised in all circumstances and think women should be provided with ample support to get out of prostitution, but argue that the buying of sex, an almost exclusively male activity, should always be a crime.
The full decriminalisation argument is driven by a belief that it is possible to sufficiently strengthen the agency of those who sell sex to transform it into “sex work”, like any other job. You can see what makes it an appealing frame, powered by an archetype that has evolved from the Pretty Woman male saviour narrative, to the sex-positive woman sticking two fingers up at a socially conservative society by making bags of money doing something she loves. Sex work is a choice that should be respected and we should destigmatise it by decriminalising the men who buy it and regulate it to make it safer. Women railing against this are depicted as prudes constrained by their own squeamishness about sex.
There are two reality checks that bring these theoretical arguments crashing down to earth. The first is that for every woman or man selling sex who regards it as a positive choice, and there are some, there are many more who have been trafficked or exploited and are effectively enslaved to criminal networks, working for a pittance, or for drugs to forget the trauma of being forced into selling yourself to be penetrated again and again, or for nothing at all.
In one investigation into sex trafficking, Leicestershire police reported that 86% of the women in brothels they visited were Romanian; in Northumbria, it was 75%. Numerous studies have shown just how dangerous prostitution is: a majority of women selling sex have experienced severe and repeated violence, with more than two-thirds suffering from PTSD at levels comparable to war veterans. Women who are actually or effectively being forced into selling sex have little voice in policy debates, although there are prominent survivor networks that argue for abolition.
Second, as the feminist campaigner Julie Bindel exposed in her 2017 book The Pimping of Prostitution, decriminalisation and regulation has not been the success its advocates claim. Bindel visited and interviewed women working in legal brothels in the Netherlands, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia and found exploitation to be rife, with legalisation acting to empower brothel owners. In one Las Vegas brothel, women weren’t allowed out unaccompanied or without their manager’s permission. In a German brothel, women had to service six men a day at the minimum rate just to make back the room rent. In a New Zealand brothel, women said men could simply complain to the manager and get their money back, leaving them with nothing.
Decriminalisation increases the overall extent of prostitution in a country without decreasing its harms or delivering any of the promised benefits of regulation. In New Zealand, Bindel revealed there were only 11 brothel health and safety inspections over a 12-year period. And decriminalisation makes it even harder for the police to combat trafficking; Spanish police describe how difficult it is to investigate when they enter a brothel and clearly frightened and distressed young women tell them they are working there by choice.
Decriminalisation can’t make prostitution safe because it is inherently dangerous and exploitative. How is a woman selling sex supposed to maintain safe boundaries or withdraw consent when a man physically capable of killing her is hurting her?
The men who buy sex all too often escape scrutiny. The Invisible Men project documents the nauseating way men talk online about their experience of women selling sex, very little of it printable. Research finds that men who buy sex are also more likely to abuse their partners, have a stronger preference for impersonal sex and to commit rape and other sex offences.
Correlation may not equal causation, but it’s not hard to imagine how using women for a price, even if it hurts them, further hardens already toxic attitudes towards women. These men have a vested interest in the sanitisation of their sex-buying. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is the former MP Keith Vaz, who chaired a home affairs select committee inquiry that came down against criminalising those who buy sex, and who a few months later was exposed as having offered to buy cocaine for two men selling sex.
There should be zero stigma, only help and support for those caught up in prostitution. But we legitimise the men who engage in the harmful practice of buying sex to our detriment. In the UK, it is estimated about one in 10 men have paid for sex; in Spain, where it is decriminalised, it is much higher. To accept that prostitution is always going to happen, and therefore the best we can do is regulate it, not only means tolerating the abuse of women: it is to be complicit in its expansion.
We are horrified that Penelope Jackson has been convicted of murder by a 10 to 2 majority verdict and sentenced to life with a minimum term of 18 years, following her trial at Bristol crown court.
As the evidence revealed, Penelope was a victim of sustained coercive control over her 28-year relationship with the deceased. Evidence was heard before the court which showed that she had to get a tattoo placed on her bottom saying she was the property of the deceased – to stop his jealous and possessive behaviour. Like many victims of coercive control she did not perceive that she was a victim until after the offence when she escaped his abuse and control.
This is a classic case of a slow build-up of fear and anger arising from the controlling behaviour, which became more unbearable when she was trapped in her home with her abuser during lockdown. This finally led the defendant to lose complete control and stab the man she had been married to for 24 years and father of her daughter.
Penelope who is now 66 and of entirely good character will not be eligible for released until she is 84. There is nothing to suggest she represents a risk to anyone other than the man who treated her so cruelly for years.
It is understood Penelope Jackson’s defence team will be appealing the conviction.
Sally Challen, whose own conviction for murder was overturned in 2019 said:
“I am appalled, upset and I cannot believe that the dinosaurs in the Judicial System and the CPS haven’t learnt from my case. My love goes out to Penelope’s family”
Harriet Wistrich, solicitor for Sally Challen and Director of the Centre for Women’s Justice stated,
“The majority jury verdict and harsh sentence of the judge shows that there is a long way to go before victims of coercive and controlling behaviour can get justice and the understanding they deserve. There needs to be a radical transformation of the criminal justice system which is still steeped in misogynistic myths and stereotypes. Women are punished most severely if they resist, whereas men who snap and kill for no reason get off lightly. Contrast this case with the recent cases of Anthony Williams who strangled his wife to death and was sentenced to five years, or Sam Pybus who strangled an extremely vulnerable woman Sophie Moss to death during a drunken episode of so called “rough sex” who got 4 years 8 months”
In our research report women who kill, published earlier this year, we have set out a series of recommendations to improve criminal justice outcomes.
This morning the Court of Appeal handed down a long-awaited judgment in the case of Re C, a legal case fraught with tension due to the sensitive and complex nature of what lay at its heart.
In short, C, a learning-disabled man, wished to seek out the “services” of a prostituted woman to pay her for sexual access, but he lacked the mental capacity to make such arrangements for himself.
One of several legal issues at hand was the fact that, if such a care worker was permitted to make such arrangements, they may be committing an offence under s.39 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which prohibits care workers from “causing or inciting sexual activity”.
To cut a long legal story short, the Court of Appeal overturned the original ruling of the Court of Protection, and stated that in this instance C’s care workers were categorically not permitted to facilitate the purchasing of sexual access on behalf of their learning-disabled client.
Understandably, this case produced a strong emotional reaction: why should individuals with learning disabilities be prevented from having sex? Surely they too should be allowed to engage in “autonomous sexual expression” which “respects the […] humanity and dignity of all involved” as the original judgment from the Court of Protection stated.
But this is a subtle misdirection. To view this through the prism of blanket sexual autonomy is to obfuscate the reality of prostitution. For many women and children trapped within the brutal system of prostitution, agency or choice is far from their reality.
For example, in one case in the Netherlands (where prostitution is legalised), six defendants were found guilty of trafficking more than 100 women into State-regulated prostitution via a sprawling and organised network of accomplices, where women were subjected to violence including “rape and coercion into breast enlargement or abortion” which was used as a method to control them.
One study spanning five countries found that women were frequently subjected to treatment such as “… [being] urinated on, pinched in the breasts, sodomized, objects inserted in anus and vagina, bestiality … weapons used against women … being strangled with a bandana, burned … bound with extension cords, assaulted with … knives and guns, hit with shoes and a liquor bottle…”
Furthermore, even if women do try to escape this form of modern slavery, studies have reported consequences such as: “physical punishment when they made mistakes or tried to run away … they had to service men … even when they were ill or did not feel well … Their movement was highly controlled, and most were not allowed to leave the premises and were tightly guarded”.
And so we see the argument begin to shift. No longer is the purchasing of sexual access an issue in which parties of equal bargaining power are coming to an amicable contractual arrangement, exercising their shared autonomy. In the vast majority of cases, a man is exploiting the vulnerabilities of a woman who has few other choices but to acquiesce to the offer of payment.
It should be noted as well that the Court expressly acknowledged that C posed a “risk of sexual and violent deviancy”, and that there was “a serious question mark over whether he could safely be left alone with a sex worker”. Would a situation in which C was left alone with a prostituted woman be any different from one of the violent scenarios outlined above? Perhaps not.
As a result, the heart of the issue is whether any given individual has a right to purchase sexual access. This was an argument advanced by C, arguing that his Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for your private and family life) meant if criminal liability were to be incurred under s.39 SOA 2003, it would be an interference with his private life. A private life which, it is implied, includes the right to purchase sexual access to another human being. Thankfully, the Court rejected this argument.
As the judgment states, there is no sign that Article 8 includes an obligation for states to allow care workers to facilitate the purchase of sexual access for their clients (or the obligation to permit this to occur more generally without criminal sanctions). As Dr Charlotte Proudman, one of the barristers who worked on this case, told me:
I welcome the court’s decision today. It is not a human right to pay for sex. The government’s public policy approach shows that it needs to take a cautious approach to prostitution because of the exploitation that underpins the sex trade.
This judgment rightly shows that s.53A makes it difficult (if not impossible, as I would say) to prove that a woman hasn’t been coerced into prostitution particularly when we reflect on the plethora of coercive constraints that women are subjected to — sex abuse as children and in adulthood, grooming, financial control, trafficking, objectification, verbal and physical abuse, rape and it goes on.
I’ve seen many of my clients exploited in prostitution and it would be wholly wrong for the law to condone this in any way, especially to confer a right to a man to sexually exploit or buy a woman’s body. This is not a human right. It’s abuse.
Beyond the context of this case, this ruling will hopefully begin to change how we talk about prostitution and the way in which people with disabilities have been used by the pro-sex trade lobby.
As Julie Bindel outlines in her book The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, many disability-rights activists find it extraordinarily distasteful to suggest that individuals who may have either a physical or mental impairment must rely on purchasing sexual access to lead a fulfilling and rich life — “If you have a disability, you are so undesirable that you must pay to have sex with somebody.” It is quite clear why many would, and should, find this grotesquely offensive.
As for the issue of an individual’s “rights” when it comes to prostitution, the reality is beginning to come out in the wash. For too long the discourse has focused on the rights of those purchasing sexual access — but what about the rights of the women to not be subjected to degrading and violent exploitation? It is those women who must be our concern and priority, and both the law and the Government must no longer tolerate their subjugation.
All women are controlled by men’s violence. Whether or not they are the ones on the receiving end, it affects every one of us. When we clutch our keys as we walk home at night, when we pick the safest route along well-lit streets but also when we worry about whether a new partner, or a troubled male relative, could become abusive: we fear the kitchen knife pointed towards us, or the hands around our neck.
I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s, in the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”. We all knew, even children, about this bad man who was picking off women. And men’s violence against women was also around me as a child. It is there for so many of us — not just in public spaces but in intimate places too. That was one reason I have spent all my adult life working in specialist women’s services.
The deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have reignited a conversation about male violence, but it has focused on “stranger danger” when most women are killed by someone they know.
The Femicide Census, which I co-created with Clarrie O’Callaghan and which is supported by Freshfields, the law firm, and Deloitte, the auditors, annually publishes information about women who have been killed and the male perpetrators. We found that about 62 per cent of women killed by men are killed by current or former partners. About one in 12 are killed by strangers, roughly the same number as are murdered by their sons. Yet there hasn’t been any critical analysis of the danger sons pose to adult women; we never hear about “filial peril”. We don’t have an accurate picture of what men’s violence against women actually looks like in this country.
The census came about after I started my own record in January 2012, Counting Dead Women, which contemporaneously records female deaths at the hands of men. A young woman, Kirsty Treloar, who had been referred to Nia, the charity where I have been chief executive since 2009, was killed by the boyfriend she was trying to leave. I searched online to see what had happened to her. What I found instead was report after report of women who had been murdered. I have supported female victims of male violence for decades, yet the volume of crimes still surprised me. There was a phrase that kept appearing in these reports: “This was an isolated incident.” But there is nothing isolated about it. How could it be “isolated” when it was happening to so many women? And why were we not looking for the connections? That’s why I kept recording these deaths.
I was also angry that the government’s official data does not group together all the women killed by men. Even now, the Office for National Statistics records the sex of people who have been killed but not the sex of the person who killed them — so they don’t allow us to understand the difference between violence committed by men and violence committed by women. They only give you half the story.
You often hear the same, inaccurate, statistic: that two women a week are killed by men in England and Wales. That was the standard way murdered women were talked about — as a number. I wanted us to remember that they are human beings who are loved and missed. And recording all their names, I started to notice patterns: many older women are murdered and sexually assaulted during burglaries and women are often killed as they are either about to leave, or have just left, an abusive partner.
For many women, the moment they try to leave is incredibly dangerous. Staying with a violent man, horrific as this is, is the best survival strategy on offer for some women. Yet the places they would escape to, refuges, have had their funding cut for more than a decade and the expertise stripped out by allowing services to be delivered by the cheapest bidders, rather than specialist feminist organisations.
Young, professional, conventionally attractive, white women who are killed by strangers get the most attention but we must stop perpetuating this hierarchy of victims. I was really struck last week that in the judge’s sentencing remarks, he called Sarah Everard “a wholly blameless victim”. You can’t talk about her innocence without implicitly victim-blaming other women and we shouldn’t separate between women we empathise with and women we don’t. And women are killed by all kinds of men: from the unemployed to airline pilots and doctors — and, of course, police officers.
I think misogyny runs through the police. At least 15 serving or former police officers have killed women since 2009. The culture of the police needs fixing: it’s not a few bad apples; it’s a rotten orchard. We need an inquiry into institutionalised sexism in the police.
Killing a woman is not a gateway crime: it is not the first thing you do. If you murder a woman, you have usually been doing something abusive or criminal to women for a long time, you just haven’t been caught. And if Wayne Couzens is stage ten in violence against women, what are the police doing about officers, and other men, who are at stage three, four or five?
More broadly, we need to stop pussyfooting about naming men as perpetrators. Then to tackle the violence, we need a five-pronged strategy.
We need to focus on individual men, the perpetrators, and hold them to account. We must give women more options to leave. We should look at relationships and how those shape our culture. We need to ensure the police, the courts and social services are not institutionally sexist. Then we should address inequality: the objectification and sexualisation of women.
That is the only way anything will change.
Women woke to find a new item on our stay-safe list. Beneath “stick to well-lit streets” and “wear flat shoes you can run in”; after “text your taxi’s number plate to a friend” and “clutch keys in your fist like a claw” came new guidance: “Don’t trust a policeman working alone.”
Is this our duty too? To adjudge on dark nights whether men paid with our taxes to protect us may prefer to kill us? The North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott said that Sarah Everard “should never have submitted to arrest”. But women are raised to comply. It’s drummed into us: be good, be kind. Sarah got into Wayne Couzens’s car because, in visiting her friend, she knew she’d broken lockdown rules. Sorry, officer, I’ll come to the station. Handcuffs? Are you sure? OK . . .
No more. If Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, in which women’s rage converts into high-voltage electricity, were true, skies would crackle, buildings blaze. Not just for Sarah or Sabina Nessa, bludgeoned crossing a park, or Julia James, walking her dog, or Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, enjoying a summer night. Nor even for all 80 women killed by men since Sarah. But because we will no longer accept male violence, and the misogyny which underpins it, being shrugged away.
The police should have no doubt this is their Jimmy Savile moment. Cressida Dick chose the day Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping and rape to talk about the odd ‘bad ’un’ in the force. But what does that make colleagues who let him slide across the spectrum, from slapping a female cop’s backside to stopping only women motorists, using personal details to loiter outside their homes. Women now know that acquiring the nickname The Rapist is no impediment to a police career.
It’s all banter isn’t it, just a laugh? Couzens, spotted driving around naked from the waist-down? A kink, maybe. (Once flashers were comedy staples, now it’s argued that indecent exposure is an outdated offence in our sex-positive age.) Couzens using violent pornography or hiring prostitutes? Only a prude would judge. (Unembarrassed men browse PornHub right beside you on a train.) Every warning sign that Couzens saw women as disposable objects was glossed over, not even picked up in professional screening which granted him a gun.
Because we never riot and, alas, lack electric super-powers, police disregard our deaths. Even our grief at the Sarah Everard vigil, where officers stomped flowers and strong-armed speakers, wasn’t worthy of the respect protesters receive for lying on the M25. They are political: women are collateral.
If a man is freaked out by lockdown he might kill his wife of 44 years: Ruth Williams. If he’s drunk, horny and has watched choking porn he might strangle his mistress: Sophie Moss. (Both men got five years.) All these reported pillars of the community, decent dads, nice, quiet blokes who just “turned”. Nothing to see. Just an annual 150 or so one-offs.
Yet Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, has spoken of “institutional misogyny” so ingrained in the decision-making “they don’t realise they are doing it and why”. She reports police calling young women “whores” or “sugar tits”, older ones “Dorises”.
No surprise that Couzens and colleagues traded racist and misogynist WhatsApp messages or that other Met officers posed for selfies by Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies. Because we know northern police forces ignored gangs trafficking underage girls for sex for decades, since they were just “little slags”. We learnt this week that police chiefs disregarded undercover cops having sexual relationships with women by deception. The impunity of the penis rules the police, as elsewhere.
Now a third of officers are women, yet it is still hard to complain about men like Couzens. Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent, said female officers hesitate to report colleagues lest they be labelled as troublemakers so “when you press your emergency button on your radio for back up, no one comes and you get beaten up in the street”.
In a super-complaint lodged by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), of which I am a trustee, 666 women reported abuse by police officer partners. Australian research has shown that since policemen tend to have more authoritarian personalities they are more likely to be controlling spouses, yet their conviction rate for domestic violence is 3.9 per cent compared with a 6.2 per cent average in the general population.
CWJ argues this is because the police service looks after its own. Abusive officers told their wives that since colleagues would investigate their claims, they would never be believed. Indeed, in case after case women report that witnesses aren’t contacted, statements and evidence lost, no further action taken. (CWJ wants a separate channel for police partners to report abuse away from boys’-club meddling.) No wonder that since 2009 at least 15 serving or ex-police officers have killed women.
This statistic is from the femicide census, the annual list read in parliament by Jess Phillips compiled by the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith from news reports. She does this because, astonishingly, the government doesn’t keep data on how many women are killed by men. The first of many acts police need to perform to win back women’s trust is create a femicide league table showing which forces have brought women’s deaths down. And spare us that sly obfuscation “gender-based violence”.
It is time for the demands of violence against women campaigners to be addressed. Cressida Dick should dedicate her remaining years to this most intractable crime. Male violence is a problem with the deepest, most tangled roots. And police are just men, but with handcuffs and warrant cards.