A spate of convictions has put femicide into the headlines again. But, as Jennifer Drew reports, the media is still blaming women – and ignoring ‘everyday’ incidents of male violence against women
It has been a particularly horrible few weeks in respect of UK’s men’s sexual and physical violence against women. On Friday, 22 February 2008 Steve Wright was convicted of murdering five young women. The same day, Mark Dixie was convicted of murdering Sally-Anne Bowman. On Monday, 25 February, 2008 Levi Bellfield was convicted of murdering Marsha McDonnell and Amelia Delagrange. Bellfield was also convicted of attempting to murder Kate Sheedy. All three men have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
So what is the connection between these male murderers. The answer is all three men hate women and all three men targeted women simply because of their biological sex. There is a term for this and it is not misogyny – it is femicide. Femicide means women who are murdered by men exclusively because they are women.
All three cases were high profile and received mass media attention. Steve Wright’s claim to infamy was that he targeted prostituted women and murdered five young women within a very short time frame. Mark Dixie’s claim to infamy is that he chose a young, white aspiring model to rape and murder. Levi Bellfield chose to target young blonde-haired women and he selected these young women while they were travelling home after dark on buses. All the ingredients of salacious sexual violence and murder which is always guaranteed to ensure newspaper sales will increase dramatically for a few days before reverting to normal.
Much has been written in the press and media about the prostituted women’s lives, but there is a now a new twist. The media has created a new myth, namely that drug and/or alcohol abuse caused these young women to enter prostitution and subsequently be murdered by Wright. No need to question male sexual demand which is fuelling prostitution, or the fact most prostituted women do not enter prostitution because of drug addiction. Rather prostituted women use drugs and/or alcohol in an attempt to dissociate from the trauma and intense pain of having to endure innumerable men raping and abusing their bodies. Male demand must never be discussed or analysed because it is supposedly ‘natural’ for men to need a constant supply of fresh women in order to obtain their rightful sexual satisfaction. But upon Wright’s sentence of life imprisonment, details of his life-history are emerging. Wright had been buying women’s bodies for his sexual gratification for more than 25 years and even claimed he resorted to using ‘prostituted women’ because his sex life with his female partner was non-existent. One newspaper, The Daily Mail, claimed Wright’s family “believe his motive for murdering women could be revenge on his mother Patricia, who abandoned him when he was a child”.
The murders of five prostituted women has once again caused the media to focus on why women ‘choose’ to enter prostitution. Little has been written about the numerous male Johns who are the ones ensuring prostitution continues to exist.
Mark Dixie was convicted of murdering Sally-Anne Bowman and his defence was he “stumbled upon” her unconscious body and, in a moment of uncontrollable (male) sexual arousal, raped her. But the media did not refer to his confession as rape, instead said he simply “had sex with a female who was either dead at the time or unconscious”. Apparently it is ‘sex’ because Bowman omitted to tell Dixie she did not consent to him penetrating her body with his penis. Like Wright, immediately after Dixie was convicted, details of his hatred of women emerged. Dixie has a history of sexual offences committed against women and he is known to the police since he has five convictions for sex offences against women.
Bellfield’s history of sexual violence against women was also disclosed by the media immediately after he was convicted of murder. Bellfield too, is a serial sex offender with a history of multiple rapes and sexual abuses committed against women. Bellfield was known to target under-age girls in order to rape and sexually abuse them. Bellfield’s ex-partner Becky Williamson spoke publicly about how he routinely beat and raped her, but his sexual and physical violence against her only ceased when he was arrested for the murder of Delagrange. Another aspect all three men have in common, apart from hatred of women, is that they all engaged in acts of violence against their female partners.
Wright and Dixie were initially reported by the media as being ‘deviants’ and ‘monsters’. But photographs of these men do not show them with horns or frothing at the mouth; instead they appear to be normal, indistinguishable men. Very quickly the media began to apportion blame, but of course these men alone must not be held responsible for their actions. Oh no, women have to be partially held responsible for causing these men to commit femicide.
The most common excuse or justification for men’s sexual violence against women is that a man’s female partner was frigid and, yes, this was used by Wright. He was supposedly driven to buy prostituted women because his female partner would not satisfy his sexual needs. Another common excuse for men’s sexual violence against women is that their mothers were responsible, either because they abandoned the man when he was a boy or were simply ‘bad mothers’. These excuses are used to neatly deflect accountability away from the men who choose to commit violence against women, and instead society holds women partially or totally responsible for men’s sexual and physical violence towards them.
In the case of Bellfield, it was not the media which first claimed these myths but a police officer. Detective Inspector Sutton made a public statement wherein he was reported as saying: “Bellfield a psychology PhD waiting to happen, was very close to his mother. His father died when he was young. He has a massive ego to feed, he thinks he is God’s gift to everyone.” But Bellfield’s “massive ego” was not directed towards everyone: it was directed towards to women, not men.
Sutton’s words serve as either justification for Bellfield, since he is mad, or place the blame Bellfield’s mother – there was no male role model in order to show Bellfield how to become a ‘man’.
No need to raise the fact Bellfield’s relationships with women were ones typical of a violent man who rigidly adheres to the masculine script which defines ‘real manhood’ as one wherein men are expected to dominate and control women generally. Sexual relationships are ones wherein a man owns the woman and her sexuality is always for his sexual pleasure. If she deviates from this role, he is entitled to rape and sexually abuse her, as evidenced by Bellfield’s ex-partner Becky Wilkinson’s disclosures.
Evidence of how men lie not only to themselves but others concerning their contempt and dismissal of women as dehumanised beings is rife in this BBC report on Johns who regularly buy women’s bodies in order to rape and sexually abuse them.
Yet again, women are being blamed for men’s sexual violence against women and already the media is once again attempting to focus attention away from men culpability for their own violent actions. Because it is men who are the real victims of women’s lies and duplicitousness. Irrespective that less than 5% of men charged with raping and committing sexual violence against women are convicted, the BBC news website has featured an article on the numbers of men falsely accused of raping women. No need to highlight the fact only around 3% of rape claims against men are false, in line with other cases of false reporting such as fraudulent insurance claims, great attention is being paid to the very small number of men falsely charged.
Male sexual violence against women in the UK is endemic and the truth is we live in a rape culture. Misogyny is rampant and continues to be denied; women are now routinely depicted by the media as men’s sexualised objects or toys. Pornography has now become mainstream and one only has to enter any random high street newsagent and immediately be met with graphic images of naked women bodies splayed and in poses which systematically dehumanise women as holes to be penetrated by men. Women are routinely depicted as dehumanised, sexualised commodities who can be bought and male sexual violence/coercion against women is depicted as an important aspect of the normal male heterosexual script.
Another case which has received only minor media attention is the one wherein a number of arrogant teenage boys filmed themselves group raping a young woman as she lay unconscious in her own home. This video was put on YouTube’s website and was viewed by over 600 individuals. Not until local London newspaper, The South London Press raised this issue with YouTube was the video withdrawn. Yet another example of how male sexual violence against women goes unnoticed unless it is a particularly high profile case.
Sadly, the media has already returned to selective amnesia, because these three cases of men deliberately murdering women because they are women, plus the added sensationalism of sex, murder and violence, are not common. The more mundane everyday cases of men raping, murdering and using physical violence against women and children will continue to pass unnoticed. Only when at least three or more prostituted women are murdered in a short time frame, or if a particular case is considered to be ‘newsworthy’ will the everyday male violence against women be reported.
Instead, the media is perpetuating the myth that only deviant male monsters commit rape and sexualised murder against women.
Patrizia Romito, a feminist professor of social and community psychology at the University of Trieste, Italy, has just published a book called A Deafening Silence: Hidden Violence Against Women and Children. Romito delineates the various ways male sexual and physical violence against women and children continues to be hidden. The various mechanisms used to hide men’s accountability and how women continue to be blamed for men’s sexual and physical violence against women.