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Archive for the ‘criminality’ Category

I usually put bit of considered thought and time into these blogposts (believe it or not) but today I need to say something quickly, and something so stupefyingly obvious and easy that it doesn’t require much preparation.  I want to say this quickly because thanks to the Metro and the BBC, I sense a swelling wave of comments and blogs across the internet saying “OMGZ, in Britain you can be convicted of rape even if you have consent!”   So let’s get this out there quickly just on the vague chance it might make someone think twice.

First, the facts. The High Court has ruled in a case where a woman consented to limited sexual contact. To be explicit, she agreed to sex on the specific condition that her partner didn’t ejaculate inside her. The court heard that shortly after penetration – and without giving the woman any chance to object – the man had said he would be “coming inside her” and added “I’ll do it if I want”. The CPS prosecutors had decided not to charge him as it would be “impossible to prove” that the man’s decision was not “spontaneous” and “made at the point of ejaculation”. The woman challenged this ruling and won. The ruling says:

“She believed that he intended and agreed to withdraw before ejaculation. (He) knew and understood that this was the only basis on which she was prepared to have sexual intercourse with him. In short, there is evidence that he deliberately ignored the basis of her consent to penetration as a manifestation of his control over her.”

(Please note, this is not a criminal trial, we have not heard the man’s defence as yet. These are allegations, not accepted facts.)

The headlines in the Metro: Sex with consent ‘can still be rape’  and BBC Sex consent could still lead to rape charge, judges say are dangerously misleading and potentially highly damaging to public understanding of consent and rape. So for the benefit of anyone who struggles with these concepts, let me offer a full and extensive list of reasonable working definitions of consent.

1. If you do something to someone’s intimate bits (or with your intimate bits) which you know s/he has not consented to or is unable to consent to at that moment, you are committing an act of sexual assault or rape.

There. That’s it. In practice this means that if s/he says “I’ll do this but I won’t do that” it means you have consent to do this but not do that. If s/he says “I’ll put this here but I’m not having it there” then you have consent to put it here but not put it there. If s/he says “I’ll do this but only if you wear that” then you have consent to do this, if and only if you are wearing that. (I’m mostly thinking of condoms here, but I guess the same principle applies to the pirate outfit. Whatever pushes your boat, you’re still the skipper.) If you ignore this very simple principle, and proceed with an act which your partner has not consented to, you are committing an act of sexual assault or rape.  Oh, and if you do ever find yourself uttering words along the lines of “I’ll do it if I want” then – BIG FUCKING CLUE – you’re a rapist.

That’s what I say. That’s what the law says and it’s what any reasonably functioning moral compass says too.

Please note, before the flood arrives, I quite appreciate that, in practice, attaining prosecutions for rape and sexual assault for incidents like this will often be all but impossible. I fully appreciate the fuzzy boundaries that often exist between seduction, persuasion and consent. I’m not saying the man in this particular case is guilty, his case has yet to be considered and he is innocent until proven otherwise.

I am saying that for all the tortuous debates around the legalities of rape and consent, the principles are really bloody simple. The High Court today has provided welcome confirmation that the principles are really bloody simple. The headlines today gave precisely the opposite impression, and that is hugely irresponsible and very worrying.

(Note to commenters. As usual, I’ll trust you to comment and discuss matters with civility and respect for those who may be personally affected by these issues. But I’ll warn you, I feel strongly about this shit and if you are planning on disagreeing to any great extent about the main points here, be prepared for the proverbial ton of bricks. Thanks)  

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There’s a Gordian knot of a conundrum that I’ve been trying to unpick for a long time. I think I may have finally untangled it and reached what I hope you will agree is an unarguable conclusion: The single most effective preventative measure to protect society from sexual and domestic abuse is a picture of a kitten.

You may be sceptical, but let me explain. Over the past couple of decades, access to the internet and other digital communication technologies has increased exponentially to become the most important and influential portal to information, entertainment and media since the invention of television. More than two thirds of Europeans use the internet once a week or more, and we’re still behind the Americans. This, I hope, is uncontroversial.

This revolution has blessed the world with communication and knowledge, but principally it has brought a limitless stash of pornography directly into the living rooms and bedrooms of the developed world.  Much of the human race is now just a couple of clicks away from any manner of nudity, erotica, hardcore fuck films, sadomasochism, bondage, cock and ball torture and enough depravity to make de Sade say sacre bleu!  Whatever individual tastes and fantasies one might have, there is a porn site somewhere that’s just for you. All the evidence is that large proportions of the population, including or especially younger people, have, to some extent, availed themselves occasionally or regularly of the opportunities on offer. I’d furnish you with statistics, but that would require me to Google the word “pornography” and I‘d never get this blog finished. Again, all of this is uncontroversial and so I hope you can take it on trust.

Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to establish whether exposure to pornography is harmful. Actually cancel that, it is not true. Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to prove that pornography is or is not harmful, in accordance with their prior assumptions. Pretty much every study that has ever set out to demonstrate harm has demonstrated harm, while virtually every study that has set out to demonstrate that there is no harm has demonstrated that there is no harm. Funny that.

There are genuine grounds for concern about the effects of pornography on the individual and their relationships, in terms of habitual and addictive behaviour, skewed perspectives on human sexuality, blisters on the palms of the hands and so on. But socially and politically, by far the most important question is whether exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that someone will commit violent and sexual crime, most obviously against women and girls. The role of porn, and more broadly a heavily sexualised culture, is cited constantly as a major factor in discussions of sexual and partner violence. In a speech to a meeting this Monday, Jon Cruddas MP placed the issue at the heart of the campaign to prevent violence against women and girls. The NSPCC did the same in relation to sexual abuse of children. A couple of years ago the last government ran a major consultation on domestic violence, and the only causative factor on which they invited comment was pornography and sexualisation.

What such claims ignore is that we are currently in the midst of a humungous real world experiment. If it is true that exposure to pornography is a significant cause of sexual violence and domestic abuse, we would surely expect to see the rates of such crimes rise in keeping with the prevalence of porn. What has happened? Here is a handy graph from the US National Victimization Survey – not reported crimes, but the world’s largest and most authoritative survey on actual trends in attacks over time. I’ve marked the point at which Tim Berners-Lee announced the development of the Hypertext Protocol for the World Wide Web – generally agreed to be the point where this internet stuff began in earnest.

rapedecline_graph

Perhaps there is something unique to the USA there, so let’s look at some different data, the British Crime Survey’s estimates of domestic abuse – again, a large and authoritative victim survey. This time I’ve mapped it against some stats for internet use. I realise they are global, not just UK, but they were the only ones I could find and it would stretch credibility to imagine the British trend has been notably different.DVdecline_graph

It is, as I said at the beginning, a conundrum. For decades we have been told authoritatively that exposure to pornography and the sexualisation of society causes people (or more commonly, men) to become rapists and abusers. And yet at a time when access to and consumption of pornography has increased exponentially, rates of sexual and interpersonal violence, including that against children have been plummeting according to pretty much every available measure.

For a long time, the mainstream feminist and political consensus has assured us that pornography leads to violence and abuse, and they can’t have been lying to us. Something else must be going on. Something has been happening, simultaneous to the pornographic revolution, which has had a powerful enough effect to not only cancel out the harms of porn, but push the overall rates of violence in precisely the opposite direction. So what is it? I propose to you that the answer is kittens. Yes, kittens.

It has been often observed that no matter what random words you type into Google image search, within the first few dozen results there will be a pornographic snap. What must be noted is that the precise same thing is true of pictures of kittens. Try it. What’s more, at least Google has a safe search option which significantly reduces your chances of encountering accidental porn, but there is no kitten filter. Once upon a time kittens were personal things, they lived in a cardboard box under our beds and if we took photos of them we would only rarely show them to special friends. If you wanted to buy a photo of a kitten you had to go to a specialist shop with a name like Athena. Now people are flashing them all over the internet without shame, even setting up webcams so complete strangers all over the world can coo over their kitties. They are ubiquitous, inescapable, and they have undoubtedly saved us from the horrors of Pornogeddon.

Is this credible? It must be. The only other explanation for the available data would be that actually the true causes of violent and sexual crime have little or nothing to do with exposure to erotic (or for that matter violent) media materials, and is much more to do with early socialisation, exposure to and experience of real world violence, emotional neglect, abuse and maltreatment within the family home. That theory would also be in keeping with the available data. Unfortunately it makes for less snappy and sexy soundbites. It’s just so much easier to blame the porn.

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Like many a fresh-faced psychology student, I drifted into my first modules on forensic psychology and criminology wanting an answer to the question: why do people commit crimes?

The first lesson I learned has stuck with me ever since. In order to understand why people commit crimes, we first need to try to understand why most people don’t. Of course different schools of thought have different answers. Freud attributed it to the superego (famously described as that part of the personality which is soluble in alcohol.) Behaviourists, and their successors in cognitive theory and social learning, have constructed increasingly complex conditioning models of rewards and punishments. More recently evolutionary psychologists have pointed to a pro-social tribal instinct as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Whichever terms we prefer, the common theme is that we have, as a species, a powerful pull towards doing the right thing.

One of the strongest pulls in the human brain is conformity. For whatever reasons, human behaviour imitates and conforms with perceived social expectations, for better or worse. The experiments of Milgram, Sherif and Asch have crossed into popular consciousness, and in widely ranging contexts, from riots to totalitarian states, go a long way to explaining why apparently good people can do bad things.

One more recent adaption of this is social norms theory, which holds in part that behaviour is affected by estimations of its prevalence – the “hey, everyone is doing it” thought process. Heavy drinkers believe heavy drinking is more common than it actually is and the same goes for problem gamblers, domestic abusers and sexual offenders. The theory holds that if you can change the perceptions of social norms, you can alter behaviour.

The theory is very much a work in progress, and many academics (not to mention this blogger) remain dubious about the more ambitious claims of its proponents, but the evidence base is growing all the time and we can see the principles coming into action in various rape prevention schemes, which differ from traditional risk-reduction campaigns, in that they are squarely aimed at potential offenders rather than victims. Examples can be seen in the growing, overdue and very welcome move towards ‘Don’t be that guy’ style campaigns rather than the ‘Don’t be that girl’ campaigns of tradition.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Good Men Project has run a series of articles about men who have not felt sufficient pull towards the right thing. To be precise, they have raped. It began with Alyssa Royse’s now notorious piece entitled Nice Guys Commit Rape Too. I strongly criticised the piece here, as others did here and here, and in the face of criticism, and presumably in the hope it will act as a trump card in the argument, the GMP editors have made the extraordinary, offensive and entirely irresponsible decision to publish a piece by a self-confessed unconvicted rapist.  

I believe that one of the most grievous errors of the original Royse piece was to imply that acts like that committed by her friend the rapist are so common as to be mundane. She confirmed this in the comments to my previous blog, when she suggested  “it cannot be as simple as saying “he’s bad.” Because to say so would mean that at least 50% of the men out there are bad.”

Royse would have us believe that “at least 50%” would do what her friend did. I’m unclear whether she means that  at least half of all men would rape a sleeping woman given the chance; or that at least half have in some way victimised a woman in a drunken muddle or fumble. I’m not sure which is worse. The former is wildly detached from any credible evidence of the prevalence of rape and normalizes the cruel act. The latter implies that what her friend did was not really any different to a clumsy drunken pass or an ill-timed arse-grab, and so minimizes it.

Bad and damaging though the Royse piece and comments may have been, the new article is unforgivable. From the headline to the conclusion, it is pretty much nothing but an object lesson in minimization and normalization. The title is “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying” and it is soon clear that the anonymous author is not really referring to his risk of being raped (although that is alluded to later), he is actually saying that he’s raped at least once and he’d rather risk raping someone else than quit partying. Gee, that’s big of you.

His point, such as it is, would appear to be that he moves in social circles where he and his friends regularly get wasted and have intoxicated sex, with varying degrees of inappropriateness, sobriety and clarity of consent. The argument is muddled in too many ways to list (I’m sure other blogs will fill in), but what I find most disturbing is that there is an absolute absence of remorse, shame or empathy for his victim. Even though his victim phoned him up, in the midst of a recovery programme (one can speculate how she ended up needing it) and told him outright he had raped her, he still didsn’t believe it. He says he only really feels like a rapist when he is “severely depressed.”

I’m guessing the editors at the Good Men Project thought that his story would illustrate the point that Royse was trying to make, even prove her right. What it actually did was instantly validate her critics. Here is a man who pushed a woman up against the wall and sexually abused her while his buddies cheered him on, and who still doesn’t think of himself as a rapist. Then along comes a respected, liberal gender politics website telling him hey, don’t worry, you’re not a bad guy, you were just confused. Nice guys commit rape too, you know.

I believe there is a moral imperative on anyone writing or speaking about rape (or any similar crime, for that matter) to consider how their words will be heard, read and interpreted by different parts of the audience. One part may be those with a professional, academic or political interest. Another is those who have been directly or indirectly affected, most importantly survivors of the crime.  But another is no less important – those who have actually committed the crime, who may do so again in the future or, perhaps most importantly, those who may be at risk of doing so for the first time. With a vague knowledge of psychological principles, it should be easy to understand why responsible writing on sexual abuse should never demonize or dehumanize rape victims – phrases like Royse’s “if it walks like a fuck and talks like a fuck” spring to mind. It should be easy to understand why we must always stress and never forget the human cost, physical harm and emotional trauma caused by rape – something both the GMP articles do to a great extent. And we should never portray rapists as being just like every other guy when they are not, in one significant respect – they rape people. Not by accident, not out of drunken confusion, not as a result of ‘mixed-signals.’ They do it because they choose to force sex without consent.  The Good Men Project have clumsily trampled over all of that.

A few months ago I wrote about the Reddit thread in which rapists admitted to and described their crimes. I was torn at the time as to the relative benefits and risks, but finally swayed by a post from my blogging friend gherkinette, who described how the thread had finally allowed her to realise that the attacks were not about her. “I came away finally seeing that it wasn’t something we victims had done. It wasn’t our hemlines or our flirtatiousness or taking a cab or having another chardonnay. It was because a certain type of man wants to rape.”  

In thinking about the Royse piece, and now the anonymous follow-up, I’ve returned to the question raised then. How would the victims of rapists feel when they read the pieces? Would it help to make sense of what happened to them, in any way make them feel better about what had happened? And then imagine how rapists feel after reading the piece (and by any measure of probabilities, that is almost a certainty). Ashamed? Belittled? Determined to change their attitudes and behaviour? Or justified and excused?

I’m reluctant to suggest that the GMPs articles have actually made some future rapes more likely, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks. I would be much more confident in saying that rapists reading the piece or contributing to the site will feel assuaged, a little more at peace with their consciences, and a little bit better about themselves. Nice guys commit rape too, you know, and rape isn’t such a big deal. It’s not something important like giving up partying, now is it?

 

UPDATES

The Independent asked to republish this, but I ended up writing yet another piece, making a few more points, rather more concisely! 

Also worth reading are blogs by RopesToInfinity and Roger Canaff

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It would be deeply foolish to pretend to know exactly what is going through someone’s mind when they make a choice to commit sexual assault. No two attackers are the same, no two attacks are the same.

Even if you had the opportunity to talk honestly to a close friend who you knew had committed rape, and you could ask him why he did it, could you trust the answers? Even if he was trying to be completely honest and truthful with you, how could you know he was being entirely honest and truthful with himself? One of the most basic lessons of psychology is that people can go to enormous cognitive lengths to justify or explain our own behaviour to our own consciences.

Last week on the Good Men Project (and since reposted at xojane), Alyssa Royse wrote at length about her friend, who had raped a woman as she slept. The man was obviously very dear to the author, she talks repeatedly (and without ironic capitalization) about what a nice guy he is. Understandably, she is searching for an answer to the question, why did he do it?

I have no problem with that question being asked. Indeed at an individual, political and psychological level, it is a question I’d like to see asked a lot more. My problem is with the answer she gives.

In this particular case, I had watched the woman in question flirt aggressively with my friend for weeks. I had watched her sit on his lap, dance with him, twirl his hair in her fingers. I had seen her at parties discussing the various kinds of sex work she had done, and the pleasure with which she explored her own very fluid sexuality, all while looking my friend straight in the eye.

Only she knows what signals she intended to send out. But many of us can guess the signals he received.

Royse goes to enormous efforts to insist she is not attempting to excuse or justify the rape, but to “understand.” Unfortunately the understanding she comes to is deeply, deeply flawed.

This is not a “some girls, they rape so easy” story. I promise. This is a “some signals, they read so wrong” story. And the fault is not hers, it’s ours — all of ours — for not explaining what these signals DON’T mean, even if we don’t know exactly what they DO mean.

No, it isn’t. The fault is not ‘all of ours’ it is his, and squarely his. In trying to understand her friend’s behaviour, Royse suggests repeatedly that he did not know that what he was doing was rape.  She goes on to say:

There are two simple truths here:

1. She had every right to do everything she was doing and fully expect to be safe from rape. (She was right.)

2. He believed that everything she was doing was an invitation to have sex. (He was wrong.)

The problem is not that she’s a “slut.” The implications of that word make my brain shrivel when sprinkled with the salty insinuations that so often accompany it: that a woman who exhibits a fondness for her own sexuality is somehow inviting anyone who sees her to have sex with her.

The problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist.

The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing. And no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood.

I’d suggest that the second of her two “simple truths” is, almost certainly, not true at all. I simply cannot accept that any reasonably intelligent and informed man (and by the description I’m assuming this man is both) doesn’t know full well that just because a woman wanted to have sex with you earlier in the evening, or last week, or last month, does not mean she necessarily wants to have sex with you right now. People have the right to change their mind, to develop a headache, or to lose a mood – not to mention fall asleep.

In other words, he might not have been wrong to think her behaviour was an invitation to have sex. Even if it was an invitation to have sex, it was not an open-ended invitation to have sex at any time with no comebacks. The implication of Simple Truth Number 2 is that if someone has wanted sex with you at any point in the past, you can assume you have their consent to sex at any time thereafter. This is profoundly wrong and a deeply damaging suggestion to make.

Speaking as a man, and as a man who in younger years has done his share of getting wasted and falling into bed with people, I never needed to be told that sex without explicit (and immediate) consent is rape. When I am told that other men get confused by mixed messages and honestly imagine consent is there when it has not been given, I simply do not believe it. In a nutshell I don’t think many if any men are that stupid.

What was going through this man’s mind at the time he raped his victim? Of course I don’t know, but I can easily imagine several possible thought processes. One is that he knew he didn’t have consent but at that moment didn’t care enough to let that prevent him. Another, and I suspect this is the most likely,  is that he knew he didn’t have consent but took a guess that if or when the woman woke up, she would consent, since she’d obviously wanted sex earlier. Perhaps he thought he could get away without her waking up at all, or that she would have no memory of it the next day.

Any of those (or perhaps a combination of those and other thoughts) would seem entirely credible to me. The only explanation on offer which I find laughable is that he honestly believed he had her consent to penetrate her while she was asleep – or in other words that he didn’t know he was raping her.

Royse’s article is titled “Nice guys do commit rape.” Though not the most objectionable component to this mess, this is the most prominent problem. Nice guys do not commit rape, but guys we thought were nice undoubtedly do. Coming to terms with the truth that a dear and close friend is a rapist cannot be easy for anyone, least of all a sex educator and Slutwalk activist. Nonetheless that is the truth here. The one simple truth is that her friend is a rapist and no amount of tortuous doublethink can shift responsibility onto cultural attitudes, mixed messages or accidental confusion. He became a rapist at the moment he decided to rape. Whatever we mean by ‘nice guy’, whoever a nice guy is, he is not someone who knowingly rapes.

In attempting to understand, in attempting to explain, Alyssa Royse has produced one of the most convoluted, extended exercises in rape apologism I have ever read.

[slight edit, original version stated that Alyssa identifies as a feminist, now corrected. See comments]

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There is a very real likelihood that economic conditions are combining with devastating cuts to services and legal aid to create heightened risk for victims of domestic violence.  It’s something that’s been worrying me and I suspect everyone else with an interest in the topic for several years now. So I’ve had my eyes open for evidence as to the impacts. The official figures for the year 2011/12 are due in January.

But a couple of weeks ago a few agency-based news sites appeared to be presenting some hard evidence.

From www.politics.co.uk

The recession is making domestic violence worse, statistics show.

The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) claimed to have found a statistical link between the economic downturn and an increase in domestic violence.

Domestic violence has increased by 17% over the period of the recession.

[snip]

In 2011, 2,174 assaults were reported each day in England and Wales – or three every two minutes.

The same statistics appeared this morning in Suzanne Moore’s column in the Guardian.

I wasn’t aware of any new releases from the ONS that could have informed these claims, so I did a bit of digging.

A helpful person at NCDV explained that the statistics had not come from them. They had released figures that their own caseload had increased by 19.6% during 2011, which is in its own right a worrying glimpse of the demands now placed on remaining services, but it offers no clue to the overall extent of domestic violence. (Most obviously, when some services are cut back or closed down, those that remain are likely to see a vastly increased demand.  Alternatively, more effective marketing or raised media profile can lead to an increase in calls and referrals for any one charity or service.)

So where does the claim of a 17% rise, equivalent to 2174 cases a day, come from? I searched on the figures and they appear to be drawn from a Daily Mirror report in July 2011, which quoted the precise same statistics in exactly the same terms. That piece was reporting a parliamentary answer given in Hansard the week before. In response to a question from Gloria de Piero MP, minister Lynne Featherstone released the most recent police reported crime figures. They cover four years, 06/07 – 09/10.

06/07                     07/08                     08/09                     09/10
671,374                 674,756                 766,047                 793,526

 

Although there was a slight rise between the first and second column, and between the third and fourth, the great proportion of the 17% jump happened in one year, between 07/08 and 08/09.

There are several things to note here. The first is that the figures stop in June 2010. So any suggestion that this is new research based on new data is clearly bogus. The second point is that while the global recession began in September 2008, most of the impacts upon the general public did not begin to be felt for months or even years after that. So while it is possible that the rise in domestic violence reports can be attributed to economic conditions, it would seem improbable.

The austerity programme of the current government, of course, did not begin until May 2010, so it has to be entirely irrelevant to these data.

Another point that will be of interest to many of those commenting on Suzanne Moore’s strictly female-focussed piece is that these numbers are total reports, not just women. (Typically police reports are about 10% male victims reporting female abusers.)

It is important to note that according to BCS, which is considered to be a much more reliable (though still far from perfect) guide to the actual incidence of violent crime, there was no rise in self-reported domestic violence in the year to 08/09.  The estimate of physical partner abuse victims (non-sexual) fell from 1,456,000 to 1,137,000 and partner sexual abuse from 541,000 to 466,000. These are big falls, not rises (in keeping with the trend of the past 15 years or so.)

You can always expect some disparity between the BCS trend and the reported crime figures, but the vast disparity in that year suggests to me that whatever was happening, it was unlikely to be a straightforward rise in the number of violent incidents. Could it have been an increased awareness? Was there some very effective public education campaign that year, or a particularly compelling soap storyline? That’s possible. Rather more likely is that there may have been changes in how police recorded their reports. Was there a change in policy as to what kinds of calls would be ‘no-crimed’? Were there any new guidelines introduced for police as to what should be classified as a domestic violence incident? I honestly do not know, but if any readers have theories, I’d be delighted to hear them.

As for the more immediate issue, I believe I can quite confidently state that there is no evidence that there has been a rise in domestic violence as a direct result of the current economic situation and austerity measures. That’s not to say such a rise hasn’t happened, in all honesty I still expect to be confronted with a grim reversal, and we may know much more in January.

In the meantime I’m not convinced it serves anyone well to propagate outdated and misleading statistical claims.

 

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A couple of people have sent me links to a petition that has just gone up on the government e-Petition site.

I’m happy to point you towards it, and make your own mind up as to whether you want to sign or not. I’ve decided I won’t, and I’ll explain why.

Here’s the text:

With statistics revealing 21 men and 94 women are murdered by a partner, ex-partner or lover in 2010 – more than 2 a week, it is time to ask HM Government to raise awareness of this ‘invisible’ crime in a “Prevention is better than Cure” approach with a greater public awareness of what Domestic Violence is.

Let us, collectively as a proud and just nation, lobby the Government to adopt a minimum one year duration UK nationwide campaign – national press, media, advertising, PR, events etc – to inform ALL in our Society as to what exactly Domestic Violence is so that we can all identify what this abhorrent crime is and so, safeguarding ourselves and those we know.

Let’s equip everyone with the information as to what Domestic Violence is, it’s characteristics, it’s negative impact on all effected by it so that we can help ourselves, help others when needed.

Knowledge is Power – and we might just save someone’s life.

I think I understand what the petitioners are saying and wholeheartedly agree with it. It  echoes strongly with a piece I wrote about Justin Lee Collins for the Independent last week, in which I argued that domestic violence can take many different forms and we’ll never properly get to grips with the problems until our institutions and systems wake up to this.

The reality is that the phrase “domestic violence” masks a diverse and complex range of phenomena and behaviours. When we quote figures that, say, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be a victim of partner violence, such statistics can be objectively true and yet disguise more than they reveal.

The article concluded like this.

Until we can develop a more nuanced, evidence-based understanding of the true nature of domestic abuse, the arguments are destined to continue and both victims and perpetrators who sit outside the expected pattern will be denied the interventions they need.

Unfortunately on the same day, Sandra Horley, CEO of Refuge, had a piece on Comment is Free that was an almost perfect illustration of the point I was making. She gave a precise and narrow definition of domestic violence as follows:

Let me be clear: domestic violence involves the repeated, habitual and random use of intimidation, whether by physical or verbal aggression, to force a woman to submit to her partner’s demands. Domestic violence is systematic, purposeful and patterned behaviour designed to gain control of a woman.

I’ll trust regular readers will immediately spot the biggest problem with this – victims of domestic violence are not exclusively female, and perpetrators are not exclusively male.  There’s a more subtle problem, however, which is that the coercive-controlling violence she describes does not describe a large proportion of domestic violence, which can be situational, mutual, occasional, reactive or seemingly random. As I said in the Indy piece:

“Although charities such as Women’s Aid still hold coercive-controlling violence to be the archetype of domestic abuse, and it is indeed often the most devastating form, it is far from the most common. In his influential work the Typology of Domestic Violence, criminologist Michael P.Johnson reported that in survey studies, only 11% of male abusers matched the profile of an ‘intimate terrorist’; fewer than half of men appearing in court did so, and even in women’s shelters, where one would expect to find victims of the most severe and sustained abuse, the abusers of more than a third of women did not match the description.

While it was long assumed that, unlike situational and mutual violence, coercive controlling abuse was an overwhelmingly patriarchal and male-perpetrated offence, recent studies by researchers like Nicola Graham-Kevan has suggested that female abusers can also display similar characteristics“.

As the two quotes illustrate, there is massive argument and debate about what exactly we mean by domestic violence, among academics, frontline professionals and interested observers like me. I don’t know (and I don’t think anyone else can know) whose definitions are being referred to in the petition. I acknowledge that the petition includes mention of male victims, which is immensely encouraging, but that is not the whole issue.

I will not be signing the new petition because, sadly, I’m almost convinced that if it were to become policy it would be used by the likes of Refuge to  duplicate much of the downright false information about domestic violence that has circulated for 40 years or more.  When there is a  call to create campaigns that are drawn from the full range of academic research and clinical experience, and which reflect the complex nature of domestic violence perpetration and victimisation, and the full range of circumstances, environments and psychological triggers from which abusive behaviour can arise, then I’ll willingly sign and shout it from the rooftops.

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Back in July, I wrote a blog entitled “A dangerous domestic violence myth is born,” which queried the claim made by journalists Alan Travis and Nick Cohen, and criminologist David Wilson, that the ongoing fall in the British homicide rate could be attributed to the simultaneous decline in the prevalence of domestic violence.

The piece was widely shared and republished elsewhere, and remains my most visited page on this blog. I also sent the link to the Travis, Cohen and Wilson, inviting them to respond. None of them did, but I had hoped that the false claim might have been nipped in the bud. I should have known better.

This week David Wilson returned to Comment is Free with his views on the horrific disappearance of April Jones. Before I go further, let me stress that I entirely agree with the meat of Wilson’s argument, which was that abduction-murder of children by strangers is exceptionally rare and should not distract us from the more immediate challenge of addressing violence and murder in the home, where the vast majority of child murders occur.

That said, there were claims made in the middle of his article which I found bafflingly detached from reality. Here’s the relevant section:

On average since the early 1970s, only six children per year have been abducted and murdered by strangers, and while that is still six children too many, this sad statistic is put into perspective when we remember that two children a week are murdered within the home.

But, here’s the good news – the numbers of murders are falling, and they are falling for one specific reason. Partly in response to pressure from campaigners, the police now treat domestic violence much more seriously than they once did. And if a man is hitting his female partner, it is probable that he will be physically, emotionally or sexually abusing his children too. So by insisting that the authorities take domestic violence seriously, we are protecting not only women, but children too.

Wilson uses the figure “only six children per year” abducted and murdered by strangers as a reassuringly low number. It struck me as quite astonishingly high. A check on Home Office crime figures reveals that over the past ten years, an average (mean) of eight children under the age of 16 have been murdered by strangers per year. The vast majority of those were not “abducted and murdered”, they  were victims of stabbings or beatings in parks or playgrounds, drive-by-shootings, deadly robberies and so on. It turns out there are no official statistics on kidnap-murders of the type we are discussing here, so we are dependant upon press reports. A quick (and very unscientific) trawl of Google news reports suggests to me that a more accurate estimate might be six per decade, not six per year.

As for the next statistic, that two children a week are murdered within the home, this turns out to be no more credible. On this we do have home office statistics.   Over the past decade, the number of children killed by a parent, carer or acquaintance averages 49, or fewer than one per week. It looks to me that, in trying to dispel myths, Wilson has vastly over-reported the risks of a child being murdered either by a sadistic kidnapper or by a family member.

I asked David Wilson for his source for these statistics over the magic of Twitter. He told me that his figures come from his own book, Innocence Betrayed, first published in 2002. I will take it on trust that the figures he quotes were once true, but I do find it disturbing that an article which purports to be about current trends depends upon data which turn out to be more than a decade old.

And then we come to my own personal bugbear, the claim that the numbers of murders are falling, and they are falling for one specific reason… the police now treat domestic violence much more seriously than they once did. And if a man is hitting his female partner, it is probable that he will be physically, emotionally or sexually abusing his children too.

There are so many flaws in this claim that it beggars belief. First, lets look at the implication that child homicides are committed by abusive men. The first factual problem here is that, unlike most violent crime, women do kill their children. Around a third of child homicides are committed by mothers (where it is an infant who dies, more than half the perpetrators are female). That alone blows a huge hole in Wilson’s hypothesis. Secondly, I’m unable to find any research that places child homicide typically in a wider pattern of domestic abuse. On the contrary, one of the distinguishing features of one subset of child killers, ‘family annihilators’  – men (usually) who kill their kids before committing suicide – is said to be that they rarely have a history of criminality and the families often appear to be stable and happy before the incident. Of course there are some cases of men who murder their children as part of a wider pattern of violence and abuse, but to attribute the child homicide rate to their behaviour alone is positively fanciful.

There is one final reason to be suspicious of a causative link between declining domestic abuse and the homicide rate of either children or intimate partners. The statistics simply don’t match the pattern.

I have graphed the total homicide rate over the past decade against the rates of both intimate partner deaths and child homicides.

Homicide rates 2001-2011

Homicide rates 2001-2011

Series 1 (blue) is the total murder rate since 2001. Series 2 (red) is the child homicide rate and Series 3 (green) shows intimate partner homicides (both male and female).  It does indeed show a significant decline in the homicide rate (if you’re wondering about the spike in 2002/3, it is explained by the 172 victims of Harold Shipman all being recorded that year). However the overall trend for both intimate partner  and child deaths remains stubbornly flat.

For illustration, I can map on the trend for domestic violence incidents, as recorded by the British Crime Survey. These are in thousands, but fit conveniently onto the same graph.

Homicide rates + domestic violence rates

Homicide rates + domestic violence rates

(Domestic violence incidents  in 000s in purple.) What this shows is that the domestic violence rate and the homicide rate follow a very similar pattern, but as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. I won’t bore you with stats and graphs, but the rates for interpersonal assault and other violent crimes follow a similar pattern. It would be reasonable to conclude that we,  as a society, and men in particular, are becoming less violent in all sorts of ways. This must not make us lose track of the fact that the great majority of victims of violent crime are nether women nor children, but adult males. The risk of violent death in the home for children and adults alike is not the outcome of this trend, on the contrary, it is a troubling exception.

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