New Statesman: “I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.” Why elderly men kill their wives

“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag. I loved her too much for that.” Those are the words of 89-year-old Philip Williamson, who last week received a suspended two-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of his 83-year-old wife Josephine.

A retired teacher, Josephine was suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly dependent on her husband, who had terminal cancer. Philip claims to have been following his wife downstairs when “something took over me and I pushed her”. Once she had reached the bottom, he also strangled her. The judge presiding over the case, Joanna Cutts QC, accepted that in killing Josephine Philip “felt this was the only way to limit or prevent her suffering”.

Philip Williamson is not the first husband to make such a decision on behalf of an elderly wife suffering from dementia. In December last year Ronald King, 87, shot dead his wife Rita, 81, at the care home where she lived. King told staff that his wife “had suffered enough”. He was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, in what the investigating police officer described as “a particularly sad and tragic case”. Other cases, such as that of Angus Mayer and his late wife Margaret, who had Alzheimer’s, have yet to come to court.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: What does it mean when major football tournaments increase incidents of domestic violence?

On Monday evening my sons went to bed in tears. While my seven year old had been taking the fall of the pound surprisingly well, and eight year old had responded calmly to growing anxieties over the UK’s leadership vacuum, the England football team’s defeat by Iceland finally sent them over the edge.

Obviously I tried to tell them it wasn’t all bad. If anything, the sheer ridiculousness of this defeat added a degree of comedy to the national crisis and besides, if incompetence was to be our new speciality, couldn’t it be argued that actually, we were the real winners here? They were not buying this. “Football,” they told me, “isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.” (Okay, so they didn’t. But they did cry, a lot.)

Elsewhere in England, fans big and small were absorbing the news that their team had been vanquished by a nation with no professional football league. There will have been disappointment and there will have been anger, not just at players and coaches, but also at fellow supporters and loved ones. It has long been suspected, and more recently been proven, that incidents of domestic violence increase during major football tournaments. According to one chief constable, “many people drink, there is the emotional stress of the game, and there is a whole issue around competitiveness and testosterone levels. Most people will watch the game and will never do anything violent but a small minority will become deeply aggressive.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Ellie Butler murder: Are the female partners of abusive men responsible for their crimes?

On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.

Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks’ old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s father protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.

Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Defending “the worst”: why no women is a just target for sexism

UK’s vilest women to move to the same town.” This is how the Sunday People announces the news that Maxine Carr, Karen Matthews and Tracy Connelly – “three of Britain’s most notorious female criminals” – are apparently “enjoying life” in the same “seaside resort”. I see a headline like this and I’m not sure how to respond. I have no wish to defend these women’s crimes (even though it appears that our ability to distinguish between them and the crimes committed by the men in their lives has vanished). Nonetheless it seems to me that the headline is sexist in a burn the witches! way.  So we now have a chart for the “UK’s vilest women”? Who else is on it? Since there are, arguably, worse crimes committed by women in the UK, what are the real criteria being used here? Is the Daily Mail’s take on it – Monsters By The Sea – really in line with how the paper would describe men who had not been convicted of any violent crime themselves? And when the Mirror discusses “warped mum Karen Matthews” and speculates on each woman’s weight, is this not gendered in any way?

Perhaps I shouldn’t even go here. When women who are beyond the pale are subjected to sexism, the most sensible thing for any feminist to do is back away. We have a hard enough PR job on our hands without running the risk of seeming to sympathise with criminals “just because they’re women”. The same applies when we’re dealing with right-wing politicians. You can predict in advance what the response will be: if you’re so bothered about someone like Margaret Thatcher or Julia Gillard being a victim of misogyny, you can’t be all that concerned about the victims of her policies. It’s not a logical argument (you condemn both the misogyny and the policies) but the assumption will be that if you are capable of seeing any shred of humanity in such women – without which they would not be capable of experiencing dehumanisation – then you can’t possibly believe they’re all that bad. Continue reading

What’s a dead woman, anyway? Reeva Steenkamp and the stories of men

To be a woman is to be penetrable, there to take whatever men wish to ram inside you. It can be anything, from words to ideas to body parts, just as long as there is no reciprocity. Nothing of your own reality – your words, your ideas, your body – can make an impression on anyone else. You raise your voice but you might as well still be gagged. You say the same words, again and again, but until they’ve been uttered by someone male, they might as well not have been said at all.

At times this is a joke, as in this Fast Show sketch. Ha! Men! They never listen to women! At other times, our penetrability, set against men’s refusal to absorb in return, can be lethal. Reeva Steenkamp took what Oscar Pistorius chose to force inside her: bullets. Now what remains are his words, his ideas, his living, breathing body. As women we’re meant to suck it up because what’s the alternative? His story is the only one on offer; if we tried to tell another, who would listen? Continue reading

Is feminism sexist?

Is feminism sexist? It’s a question men’s rights activists have been posing for decades, to which the response from feminists has tended to be “no, it bloody isn’t. You’re sexist, mate”. For most of us, the sheer ridiculousness of this question is obvious. Of course feminism focusses on differences in the social and economic status of men and women. Of course feminism claims women experience forms of discrimination that men do not. Of course feminism identifies a power imbalance that is reinforced via gender. But feminism does none of these things in order to reinforce oppression; it does so in an effort to eradicate it. “I see no gender hierarchy,” pleasant as this is for the person not seeing, is of no use to those still stuck at the bottom of the (apparently invisible) pile.

And yet the “is feminism sexist?” question persists, even amongst feminists themselves, even if the latter don’t use quite the same words. Take Catherine Bennett’s current Observer piece, which seeks to inform us that “the idea that violence is gender-based is widely held, but sadly female pacifism is just another myth”. It’s a curious non-sequitur to start with – women don’t have to be actively pacifist for male violence to be a significant problem – but it gets worse as the article goes on. Bennett, ordinarily sharp on women’s issues, genuinely seems to believe there is something horribly sexist in stating the obvious: women simply aren’t as violent as men. Continue reading

The #takehomeselfie rules

There is universal acceptance that women are constantly under threat of attack. It is in the air we breathe. Don’t go there, don’t do this, don’t wear that, remember I’m only telling you this because it’s common sense. We live our lives exposed, vulnerable and never able to forget it.

I think it is rare for a woman to walk anywhere alone without weighing up the risk, not just of being assaulted but also of being held responsible for any potential assault. I do this as a matter of course. It doesn’t stop me moving from place to place – I barely acknowledge that it’s happening – but it does mean I’m constantly feeling “I shouldn’t be here”. As a woman, wherever you are – at home, the workplace, somewhere in between – you know that this isn’t really your space. Men know it, too. Women are penetrable, weak, raw meat on show; there’s no way of redeeming them, so the only thing to do is keep them in the background as much as possible.

So we talk about what women can do to minimise the risk as they make their way through this foreign territory known as the entire world. The risk comes not from men, of course, but from women themselves; it’s our very being that is the problem. Talking about male violence – as something men do to women because they are raised to believe it is their right – is considered not only pointless, but offensive. Because #notallmen, right? Because what does “male” mean anyhow? Because aren’t you just putting women at greater risk by telling them there’s an alternative to this hunter-prey relationship? Because actually, isn’t it essentialist and conservative to talk about male violence (but not at all essentialist and conservative to tell women to simply suck up the fact that this unnameable thing is all around them)? Because aren’t there always “bad people” out there (ignoring what it is that over 90% of said “bad people” have in common)? Because, because, because. Continue reading

Why feminists need fear

To be a feminist is to be brave, but it is also to be fearful. How could you not feel fear, given the power structure with which you’ve chosen to engage? This fear is not an irrational phobia, some deep-rooted disgust in response to sex or naked flesh or cultural transgression. It’s a perfectly rational fear: the fear of male violence. It justified and it is logical.

It is logical to be afraid of sexual assault, rape, beating, harassment and murder. It is logical to fear those who might do these things to you, and to fear those who keep the power structures which enable them in place.

It is not a question of reinforcing #notallmen. You know that not all men will do these things, but you also know that some might. You are reminded of this every day, by newspaper headlines, TV plots, nudges on street corners, gropes on public transport, words called out as you walk down the street pretending to be impermeable while your cheeks burn. You are always moments away from the next message that will whisper in your ear you are not safe, not in that body, not in these times. If you thought about it long and hard – really, really dwelt on it – perhaps you’d never step foot outside your front door (oh, but even there you’re not safe, you know that too, two women per week killed by intimate partner violence). There is no safe space in which to be a woman, other than in your own head, providing you’re lying to yourself about how bad things are. Continue reading

Through the looking glass: women, words and violence

Over the past year I have seen far too many feminists – brilliant feminists, who put their heart and soul into fighting for women – denounced as “violent TERFs”. There have been articles demanding that others shun them. Men demanding that other feminists do not support them (and said other feminists complying). Misogynist diatribes speculating on these women’s sex lives on the basis that this is the least they deserve. Bullshit articles holding these women responsible for the deaths of 50,000. And I haven’t said very much. What little I have said has been enough to get me classed as a “violent TERF” too.

There’s a problem with saying anything, of course. If someone says “you’re an X”, there’s the risk that in saying “I’m not an X”, all you’ve done is validate the concept of X-ness and associate yourself with it. So it is with TERF-dom. A TERF would say she wasn’t a TERF, therefore any denial is, witch trial-style, evidence of guilt. And a TERF just would say TERF is a slur when it’s actually a purely descriptive term used to denote a political position: the political position of some stupid bigoted bitch who deserves to die in a fire. So what can you do? Say nothing, or join in with the kicking, just so you can tell yourself it won’t ever happen to you.

And yet it still might, since it’s hard to keep denying that sex class analysis matters in feminism. If you can’t think why, study some de Beauvoir or some Firestone. Go out into the world and look at what is happening to women and girls. Read some Crenshaw and think about how difference matters – and what a difference being female makes. Ask whether you really believe an oppressor class’s external perception of what women are, no matter how “fluid”, gives the oppressed enough of a voice. If after all that you still believe there is some band of devil women who experience membership of a marginalised group as belonging to an exclusive club, then knock yourself out, but don’t kid yourself you’re a feminist. Allowing an oppressed class the right to their own self-definition and boundaries is Feminism 101.

Anyhow, today I am angry. I am angry because a violent male has been sentenced to four days – just four days – in prison for a sustained sexual assault on a female victim. We are required to refer to the perpetrator as a “she”. We are asked to call the rape of a woman, using a penis, a “lesbian” assault. We are expected not to call this male violence, for that would make us “violent TERFs”. But it is male violence. It is.

If there is a problem with terminology here – if the right to self-define clashes with the right to call violence by its proper name – then that problem is not caused by feminists. It’s caused by males who rape women and all those who refuse to identify them as such. It’s caused by a gender hierarchy which non-feminists both defend and refuse to acknowledge. Feminists don’t owe anyone a solution to the linguistic contradictions emerging from this mess. It’s not for us to tiptoe around with language so that no one feels “erased” by the description of a male penis violating female flesh. It’s not our fault. We didn’t create this gender hierarchy. We challenge it. If you prefer to micro-manage it, making tweaks here and there while those at the bottom of the pile continue to suffer, go ahead. But again you are not a feminist.

I know what the standard narrative for this particular news item will be. All “violent TERFs” do. Just as every act of male violence against women and girls is wickedly “exploited” by feminists who wish to name the problem (making feminists, not murderous men, the baddies), a trans woman committing rape will be “exploited” by TERFs to put the vulnerable trans community at risk. Because those written off as the penetrable class are not vulnerable themselves. Because naming male violence within a community makes you responsible for male violence inflicted on that community. Because you can vilify a whole group (feminists) for violent acts that have not been committed by a single one of them. Because extrapolating that there are issues with language and categorisation which put women at risk is an act of violence in itself, deserving of a lifetime’s denigration and exclusion. Rape? We’ll give that four days. Four days and no one speak a word, because you know the rules for male violence: isolated incidents. Always remember that and never forget that you’re only words away from being denounced, forever, as a violent TERF.

Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius: Not a question of fact, but perspective

When women are killed, we remain just as dead as any man in similar circumstances. It cannot be argued that we have not really died, that the bullet that went through our skull didn’t really hurt us. Our death is an objective truth. It’s just the years leading up to it – all those experiences, thoughts and feelings – that can never quite be verified. For how does one know whether a life has validity unless it was lived by a man?

A man’s story belongs to him. He is more than “just the women”. As Judge Thokozile Masipa said of Oscar Pistorius, not guilty of murder despite firing four shots through a locked bathroom door, “the accused is the only person who can say what his state of mind was at the time he fired the shots that killed the deceased”. His experiences are inviolable. And as for those of the deceased? Alas, she has but one experience: that of being dead, and before then, her experience was that of being the other half; the complement, the accessory, the essential blonde girlfriend in the Blade Runner Story. Oscar Pistorius Charged With The Murder Of Model Lover. What experiences would a model lover have, anyway? None, were it not for the man who magics her into existence. Look! There she is, on his arm! How clever of him to find one like that! Continue reading

Joining the dots: From fairy tales to Elliot Rodger

When we bought my youngest son a set of Ladybird stories to satisfy his love of fairy tales, it took me a while to notice that these were the same stories I’d read as a child. The pictures had changed but gradually it became clear that the words remained the same. I remembered the rhythms and metaphors, almost hearing my mother’s intonation as she’d once read them out to me.

At first I thought “oh, how cute! A blast from the past!” Then I read on and the feeling morphed into “bloody hell! No wonder I’ve always had a love-hate Stockholm Syndrome relationship with heteronormative patriarchy! It started right here!” Continue reading