Innocent Victims? Isn’t that just another way of blaming women and girls for men’s violence?

The phrase “innocent victim” has re-emerged to describe Sabrina Moss – a 24-year old teacher who was shot dead in London as she celebrated her birthday in August 2013 – in British bastions of judgemental conservative journalism The Daily Mail and the Express.

It’s a phrase that came in to my consciousness when it was used to describe 16-year-old Jane MacDonald who was murdered on 26 June 1977 by being hit on the head with a hammer three times and stabbed in the chest and back around 20 times. When her face-down body was turned over by police, they found a broken bottle complete with screw-top embedded in her chest.  She was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe and was the fifth woman of thirteen that he is known to have killed.  Before her, there had been 28-year-old Wilma McCann, beaten with a hammer and stabbed to death in October 1975; 42-year-old Emily Jackson, beaten with a hammer and stabbed 52 times with a screw-driver in January 1975; Irene Richardson, 28, beaten with a hammer and stabbed and slashed with a Stanley knife in February 1977 and Patricia Atkinson, 32, beaten and clawed with a hammer and also stabbed, in April 1977.  Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson and Patricia Atkinson had not been described by the press as innocent victims.  Why? Because Jane MacDonald was the first woman known to have been murdered by Sutcliffe who was not in prostitution.  Sutcliffe himself shared this belief that prostituted women were less worthy than none prostituted women.  In his confession, referring to Jane MacDonald, he said

“The next one I did I still feel terrible about, it was the young girl Jayne MacDonald. I read recently about her father dying of a broken heart and it brought it all back to me. I realised what sort of a monster I had become. I believed at the time I did it that she was a prostitute.”

and

“When I saw in the papers that MacDonald was so young and not a prostitute, I felt like someone inhuman and I realised that it was a devil driving me against my will and that I was a beast.”

Leaving aside Sutcliffe’s failure to take responsibility for his actions –  blaming them on being driven by the devil, not his own violent misogyny –  the implication is clear, that beating and stabbing four prostituted women to death was something less than monstrous. He became a monster when he killed Jane, not when he had killed Wilma, Emily, Irene and Patricia.

This week, Oscar Pistorius was found not guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, the woman he killed.  State prosecutor Gerrie Nel refered to Pistorius as causing “the death of an innocent woman” and again referred to him being “convicted of a serious crime of killing an innocent woman.”  Of course, Reeva Steenkamp, in comparison to Pistorius was innocent, but surely that is almost always the case when comparing murder victims to their killers.    If not innocent, what are they? Guilty? Or perhaps somehow complicit in their own death?

Despite attempts at law reform, some women’s complicity in their own murders is still implied indeed enshrined  in British law.  Academic Adrian Howe has looked at infidelity in the sentencing of men convicted of intimate partner homicide.  She points out that  “For over 300 years, criminal courts have regarded sexual infidelity as sufficiently grave provocation as to provide a warrant, indeed a ‘moral warrant’, for reducing murder to manslaughter.”  and that whilst “ ‘sexual infidelity’ was expressly excluded as a trigger for loss of control in the new loss of control defence laid down in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009”, “sexual infidelity still has mitigating prowess” in diminished responsibility pleas, as does men’s ‘distress’ if they kill a partner who is in the process of leaving them.  This ‘distress’ could just as easily be described men’s entitlement, or their rage that their partner has the audacity to reject them and move on.  A woman’s murder is somehow less heinous, deserving a reduced plea of manslaughter or a reduced sentence, if the court accepts that something that she did contributed to a man’s choice to kill her.

Dead women get no opportunity to defend their character; but even if they could, it should not make a difference.   Victims of violence should not be graded according to their worth, the balance would inevitably be tipped to discredit those not deemed to be ‘good’ women according to a scale reflecting class-biased and sexist values of what a woman should be.  We can see this when we look at the justice system and men’s sexual violence against women.  Women are not equal in the eyes of the law. The concept of ‘lady-like’ behaviour controls, judges and stratifies; acceptable/respectable standards of woman or girlhood align with middle-class standards of conduct and appearance.  Catharine MacKinnon argued  that the law divides women along indices of consent from ‘the virginal daughter’ to ‘whorelike wives and prostitutes’ with women who meet standards closer to the former, less likely to be found to have consented to unwanted intercourse, more likely to be believed regarding rape and sexual violence. Women who are socially or educationally disadvantaged are less likely to ‘perform well’ in the criminal justice system1 and women from working-class backgrounds are more likely to refuse to adhere to the status of victim, more likely to endure/cope and more likely to minimise injury2, as victims is it we who are on trial, we who are judged and the men who attack us who benefit from our perceived innocence.  In Rotherham, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and beyond, we’ve seen how labelling girls as slags and troublemakers allows the men who abuse to continue to do so.

Women victims of male violence should not have unequal status under the law.  Whether we have fucked one man or woman or five hundred; whether we pay our bills though prostitution, preaching, teaching or trust funds. Our laws, written by white middle-class men, favour white middle-class men and all women victims of male violence deserve justice, not just those of us who according to some scale of judgement are deemed ‘innocent’.

 

1 Temkin 2002b:6

2 Skeggs, 2005:971

 

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Is it so shocking to believe that women should be able to get blind drunk without being raped?

Offensive? The poster warning against binge drinking

In December, I spoke to the Yorkshire Post about the above poster produced by Calderdale Council.  Anti sexual-violence posters are regularly produced by police forces to celebrate Christmas, a collection of which are reviewed in this piece by Ending Victimisation and Blame.  Campaign messages are not neutral.  They can either reinforce or challenge accepted narratives.  Calderdale’s poster, like too many others, reinforces the message that women should be held responsible for what happens to them.

Though the poster doesn’t explicitly mention rape,  the lines “when you drink too much you lose control and put yourself at risk” together with an image of a dishevelled young woman in a short dress, make clear that the risk is that of sexual violence. The article was picked up widely re-reported including in The Independent and Daily Mail and eventually discussed in a piece by Sarah Vine under the title “Sorry sisters, but girls who get blind drunk ARE risking rape” in which she stated her  refusal to join “the chorus of feminist disapproval” and argued that women need to take responsibility for their own safety, going on to mention “one or two nasty brushes” that made her realise how important it was to not willingly put herself in the path of danger and “stupidly” becoming a victim.

The concept of a victim of violence ‘willingly and stupidly putting themselves in the path of danger’ is judgemental victim blaming.  Whether though an act of choosing  or not choosing to do something, a victim of sexual violence is never responsible for what is done to them. Rapists and abusers are the only ones responsible for rape and abuse.

Rapists and abusers use excuses to justify their actions,  to discredit their victims and to shift responsibility for their choices away from themselves and on to their victims.  They use exactly the kind of excuses encapsulated in the Calderdale poster and Vine’s piece, in short: “She didn’t take care. “ or “She was asking for it.”

The government estimates that there are around 78,000 rapes in the UK every year, that’s 214 every day. On top of this, there are an estimated 476,000 other sexual offences. Women and girls make up the vast majority of victims and 95% of those who experience serious sexual assault identify the offender as male. Most – but not all –  victims of sexual violence and abuse are stone cold sober when they are abused.  Those who are drunk or intoxicated through drug use are no more deserving of abuse. Most (an estimated 91%) victims of rape and sexual violence know their attacker before they are abused.  45% of rape victim/survivors identifying a current partner   as the rapist, a further 11% identifying a date and yet a further 11% identifying a former partner.  It’s hard to see how Christmas and New Year sobriety would make any difference to these women.

Sex with a person whose judgement is impaired – for example through alcohol or drugs – means they are legally unable to consent.  Non-consensual sex is rape.  If Calderdale Council want to run a useful campaign related to increased alcohol consumption around Christmas and New Year, they might consider  addressing this issue instead. It’s hard for me to imagine that their poster would prevent any woman from drinking.  Perhaps I’m naive to the powers of persuasion of a public awareness campaign. It isn’t so difficult to imagine a victim of rape who had been drunk, who had been partying, who had been wearing a short sequined dress seeing the poster and questioning her own responsibility.  Self-blame, shame, fearing that she will not be believed and questioning whether what happened was rape are  all reasons that contribute to an estimated 79-85% of rapes not being reported. If rapes are not reported, who benefits? Rapists whose behaviour goes unpunished and who are free to rape again.  That’s why I said the only ones who are helped by the Calderdale posters are rapists.  They’re provided with victim blaming excuses and are less likely to be held to account when victim/survivors are deterred from reporting

Calderdale’s poster will not reduce sexual violence, neither will it assist victims.  If Calderdale Council want to reduce sexual violence, then they need to focus on men and boys.  The West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioners’ September 2013 Quarterly Performance Report details that reports of sexual offences increased by 51.1% in the 12 months to June 2013. The report identifies that this is the largest increase across all police forces and compares to a national average increase of 8.9%.  . Men, boys, women, girls, policy makers, support providers need to understand the concepts of consent and coercion.  Consent alone is not enough, but must always be understood in the context of coercion at both the individual and societal level.   Clearly there is much to be done.

If Calderdale Council want to better support victims of sexual violence, then they might want to consider funding local specialist women’s support services.  It is interesting that on the council’s web-page for information and support on rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse the services listed are in Manchester, Huddersfield and Wakefield – none of which are in Calderdale. Does the council  provide or fund any specialist services for victims of sexual violence?  Calderdale Council may also like to consider whether future campaigns support victims and ensure that they challenge not reinforce self-blame, shame and victim blaming.  At the same time as Calderdale Council ran their victim-blaming campaign, the police force responsible for Calderdale, West Yorkshire Police, were running an appeal to increase reporting of sexual violence.  I’d happily raise my glass to the Assistant Chief Constable Ingrid Lee, who, taking quite a different approach to that of the council , is quoted as saying :

 “Sadly society at times has negative perceptions about sexual offending and these perceptions allow sexual crime to go unreported and offenders to go unpunished, we need to change those perceptions by providing people with information that enables them to understand better the nature of the problem and what it is that constitutes rape or other sexual violence.

“And that is why my commitment is to the victims of this dreadful crime that, if they come forward and tell us what has happened, we will not only do all we can to bring the offender to justice but also with our partners provide support and counsel to help them through what is a very difficult and distressing time.

Men’s violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men. Restricting women’s movement and choices and putting responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls on to women and girls will never reduce men’s violence.

Vawg – I hate how vawg has become a word.

Yesterday I went to a meeting about men’s violence against women and girls in London.  Access to the meeting room was initially difficult because when I entered the building and told the person on reception that I was here for the ‘Violence Against Women and Girls Meeting’ in Room X, she told me that the room was booked for something else. Eventually she told me that the room was booked for the ‘fourth meeting’.  Could someone have asked to book a room for a ‘vawg meeting’ and been misheard, I suggested. Yes, of course they could, it transpired.   I hate how vawg has become a word and this was an unwelcome reminder.  At the start of the meeting, I started doing a tally about how many times the word ‘vawg’ was used.  I almost immediately forgot because the actual subject matter demanded full attention and constructive engagement.

I hate how vawg has become a word because it allows users to disconnect from VIOLENCE against WOMEN and GIRLS.  It hides the violence. If we who are engaged in raising awareness about men’s violence against women and girls as a step towards ending men’s violence against women and girls, want to raise awareness, how are we doing this if we allow the very words to be erased? Never more so when even ‘vawg’ is misheard and becomes ‘fourth’.

I hate how vawg has become a word though I celebrate that as a concept it has entered the mainstream because it connects the different forms of men’s violence against women and girls under patriarchy: rape, sexual violence, domestic violence, femicide, FGM,  prostitution, pornography and other harmful practices.

I hate how vawg has become a word because I am not particularly fond of acronyms and jargon.  Lazy acronyms make important information inaccessible to the ‘not one of the club’ non-specialist.

I hate how vawg has become a word though I acknowledge that it is useful when we’re writing, especially when we’re tweeting and have restricted characters (Men’s Violence against women and girl is 37 characters) and in these situations I use VAWG or MVAWG myself. It really doesn’t take so long to say it: “violence against women and girls” though, does it?

I hate how vawg has become a word because it renders men – the perpetrators –  invisible. I know, I know, not all men. But saying that men as a class benefit under patriarchy and men’s violence against women and girls is an instrument of maintaining women’s subordination is not the same as saying ‘all men are violent and women never are’.  It really isn’t.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say patriarchal violence against women and girls but this also disguises the role and responsibility of men.

I hate how vawg has become a word.

25th November – What’s In A Name?

Mirabel sisters

In July 1981, at the first Feminist Conference  for Latin American and Caribbean Women in Bogota, Colombia, 25th November was declared an annual day of protest, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, in memory of three sisters who had been murdered.  Patria, Maria Teresa and Minerva Mirabel were assassinated in a ’car accident’ in the Dominican Republic in 1960. They were political activists, killed for their involvement in efforts to overthrow the fascist government of Rafael Trujillo.  At that first conference, women linked and denounced all forms men’s violence against women from domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment to state violence including torture and abuse of women political prisoners.

On 6th December 1989,  Marc Lépine shot 14 female  students  dead and injured another 10 at the University of Montreal, Canada claiming he was ‘fighting feminism’.  This led to  a group of men in Canada launched the first White Ribbon Campaign in 1991.  The White Ribbon Campaign has become a global campaign to ensure men take more responsibility for reducing the level of violence against women.  I support men’s acknowledgement of their role in ending violence against women, it is essential for this to happen if we are going to end men’s violence against women and girls.

On December 17, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The UN invited governments, international organisations and NGOs to organise activities designated to raise public awareness of violence against women on this day.

Increasing though, the 25th November is referred to as White Ribbon Day by the majority of the minority of people actively interested in ending men’s violence against women and girls.  The campaign by men overshadowing, not complementing, the International Day for the Elimination of  Violence Against Women.  Based on a huge assumption about the founders of White Ribbon Day,  one  might be tempted to question the race and sex dynamics at play when a campaign founded by white men eclipses a campaign founded by women of colour.

Sadly, many even fail to take the time to understand even the central them of ‘White Ribbon Day’ as illustrated by an email a colleague of mine received from an organiser of a ‘white ribbon event’ who told her that their day would be ‘for all victims of domestic violence, because men can be victims too’, simultaneously erasing the linking of the different forms of men’s violence against women and the campaign for men to take responsibility for their violence against women.

Men’s violence against women is endemic:

  • globally 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence (World Health Organisation)
  • In Japan 15% of women reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime; in Ethiopia it is 71%
  • 17%of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported their first sexual experience as forced
  • 66,000 women are killed through men’s violence every year, in the USA four women are killed though men’s violence every day
  • In the UK, 120 women were killed by men in 2012, so far in 2013, more than 100 have been killed; the Home Office estimates that  69,000, women are raped every year.

UK media reports of violence against women and girls disproportionately cover violence against white and middle-class women in comparison to those of women of colour and working class women (unless they are sensationalising race and/or other oppressions, such as murders of prostituted women) and I do not want to contribute to this generally or specifically in relation to the erasure of Patria, Maria Teresa and Minerva Mirabel from the history of femicide:  men’s fatal violence against women.

Women’s activists have marked November 25 as a day to fight violence against women since 1981.  For me the 25th November is The International Day for the Elimination of  Violence Against Women.  It is about recognising the global nature of men’s violence against women. It is about standing side by side with my sisters.

On The International Day for the Elimination of  Violence Against Women this year, I’ll be commemorating the UK women killed through suspected male violence this year on the twitter account @countdeadwomen.  I will start with the 2nd January when Janelle Duncan Bailey, 25 was strangled by ex-boyfriend Jerome McDonald.  Every 10 minutes, I will move on and tweet the next date on which a woman was killed and the name of the women and the man convicted or primary suspect for her killing.  If I start at 6.00 am, and name a women every 10 minutes, I’ll still be naming women at midnight, 18 hours later.

Remembering the women who are killed though male violence does not mean forgetting those who live

Most women who are victims of male violence don’t get killed.  I’ve been writing – a fair bit – about the UK women who are killed through  male violence; women who were killed by their partners, ex-partners, sons, grandsons, fathers, rapists, robbers, friends and more. But the women who are killed by men are only part of the story.

The government estimates that around 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 85,000 women are raped every year. Most women live to tell the tale, except, according to the same report, around 28 per cent of women who are raped never tell anyone.  That means almost 24,000 women in the UK were raped last year, and no-one, except them – and the man or men who raped them – knows. It means that you may know one, or more woman, who was raped in the last year and have no idea. Others might tell a friend, or an organisation like Rape Crisis, but only around 15% tell the police.

UK police receive an average of one phone call per minute about domestic violence, that’s around 1,300 calls a day, or 570,000 a year.  Over eighty per cent of these calls are from women.  Most, through certainly not all, are still alive. There are various estimates of what proportion of domestic violence that occurs is reported to the police, it is usually stated that something between 26-40 per cent is reported. This means that between 60 and 74 per cent of domestic violence is not reported to the police. Even if you assume that one phone call means one incident and take the higher estimate of reporting: 40%  (and therefore the lower estimate of under reporting) and so assume that for every one incident reported, 1.5 are not, this would mean 855,000 domestic violence incidents happen – and are not reported – every year.  Most, but not all, of the women who experience these violent assaults from them men they share their lives with, are still alive.

Between 11th and 15th June 2012, Women’s Aid members reported that approximately 11,380 women were supported in non-refuge/community-based services.  In addition there were an estimated 2,095 calls to local and regional domestic violence helplines. Most, but not all, of the women who used these services and made those phone calls, are still alive.

Women’s Aid estimate that 19,510 women and 19,440 stayed in refuges last year. Around 69% of them had sought help from the police, around two thirds of them had been experiencing violence for at least two years before they contacted the police. Around a third of women living in refuges had never contacted the police. Most of them are still alive.  More than half had spent more than five years living with an abusive man before leaving him, more than half had left him at least once before.  Not dead.  But you don’t live through domestic violence until you reach the point where – for your own safety and well-being, and/or that of your children – you choose to move in to a refuge, and remain unaffected.

Some of the women who have been raped in the last year, or who have experienced sexual assault, or who reported male violence to the police, or who stayed in refuges, or who phoned helplines, or visited outreach services, who took out injunctions, whose situation was discussed at a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference, who were visited by social services because of safeguarding concerns about their children, who told only a friend, or who told absolutely no-one at all, some of these women will be dead this time next year. Most will not be.  Some of the women who will be dead this time next year, are living in fear of death now, as you read this.  Some of them will have told a friend, a family member or a professional that they ‘know’ that ‘x’ is going to kill them , that it’s just a matter of time. Some of them don’t expect to die, because that sort of thing happens to someone else.  Most of them will be right, but some will be badly and sadly wrong.  Some of the women who have told someone that they are afraid that they are going to be killed will be wrong, too many of them will be right.

I want us to know about the women who are killed through male violence, I want us to commemorate them and to learn lessons from their deaths that might prevent other women being killed.  That doesn’t mean I ever forget those that live every day  with male violence, or its after-effects.  Portia Smart wrote a painfully honest blogpice: Being is Bewildering  on living with PTSD after multiple experiences of male violence and a woman left this comment on my petition asking the government to properly record and analyse all forms of fatal male violence.  They say so much about living with male violence even after the violence itself has stopped:

“My father beat my mother even after she divorced him, he beat my mother when I was a child and that’s all I knew! My brothers thought it was ok so they beat me, it didn’t stop until we moved away, so I know all about male violence and what it does to children and women, it demoralizes them, makes them feel like they deserved it, that they started it, that they didn’t wear the proper dress or didn’t have their make up right or didn’t get the tea in time, or didn’t clean up after the kids…male dominance was a part of my life for a very long time and the police did nothing for a very long time, my mother is 70 odd years old now and still she gets afraid when people shout…..that’s my father’s legacy.”

Most male violence against and abuse of women doesn’t kill women, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It doesn’t mean that those affected are not profoundly affected