Blaming Dead Women
When men kill women, there still seems to be a desire to pin the blame on her, writes Sian Norris
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The murders of women by men are so common, so horribly common, that the vast majority do not make it into the headlines, at least not beyond the local paper.
If it wasn’t for the courage and commitment of projects like Counting Dead Women and the subsequent Femicide Census, and We Can’t Consent To This, the names of killed women would only be known by their grieving loved ones, and the police investigating their murders.
But, occasionally, an incident of a man murdering a woman does hit the wider public consciousness. It may be because the circumstances of her death are unusual – a stranger killing, as opposed to a partner or ex partner. Or it may be because, as in the horrific murder of Epsom College headteacher Emma Pattison and her seven-year-old daughter, the killing was an act of family annihilation.
When events like this happen, the media cycle begins. There is the initial report of the crime; the facts of the case.
When Pattison and her daughter were killed, the press was rightly cautious – while those of us with some level of expertise in men’s violence against women and girls privately hazarded a guess as to what had happened, it was right to wait until it was confirmed that the killer was the husband and father.
Once the facts are explained, the analysis begins. Despite years of campaigns, years of awareness-raising, years of projects such as We Level Up demanding better media coverage of men’s violence against women and girls, that analysis becomes a flurry of hand-wringing victim-blaming.
The most obvious and shocking example of this came in an editorial published in the Daily Mail. The headline read: ‘Did Living in the Shadow of his High Achieving Wife Lead To Unthinkable Tragedy?’ The article discussed how the couple had experienced marital problems, with one of the issues being “Emma’s high-profile and very demanding job”. It talks about his failed business, and how she was outgoing and he was quiet.
Not to be outdone, the Telegraph ran a piece promising to “explore the family secrets that led to the tragic shooting”, writing that “outwardly, Emma and George Pattison appeared to have a perfect marriage. But behind closed doors, the couple shared a history of violence and secrecy”.
These framings are problematic in a number of ways.
First, it is wrong to call what happened an “unthinkable tragedy” when a woman is murdered by a man every three days in England and Wales. Women being murdered by men is not unthinkable, it is desperately, horribly, normal.
The second reason is the way in which it tries to explain the fatal violence committed by a man against a woman and girl by focusing on her behaviour, on her actions, turning the focus away from his agency. To do so is to dangerously ignore the drivers of men’s violence against women and girls, fatal or otherwise.
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The so-called ‘nagging and shagging defence’ or ‘provocation defence’ used by men to justify fatal violence against their partners may have been banned in 2010, but the message has rarely filtered down to some parts of the press – which consistently puts a victim’s behaviour in the spotlight when reporting domestic homicides, including ‘nagging’, alleged adultery or moving on to a new partner.
Take a headline in the Mirror, changed after complaints, which framed the murder of a woman as taking place after she “ended fling”. Or an MSN headline that quoted the killer of a woman who said he was provoked by her “nagging”. Another example in the Manchester Evening News referred to a domestic abuse incident whereby the man justified his actions by saying he was “sick of her nagging”.
During the early days of the pandemic, men used lockdowns as an excuse for murder – and headline writers obliged by repeating their claims.
‘Coronavirus Murder‘ read one article in the Sun, as if the disease itself wielded the weapon. The Sun also reported on a man who “stabbed his wife to death then killed himself as he worried about coping with Coronavirus lockdown” – his version of events is quoted without question, all while pinning fatal male violence on an external force.
Such framings privilege the killer’s narrative over the victim’s. She’s dead, she can’t speak. But he still has a voice – the voice that says she made me do it, she was a nag, she was a cheat, she hurt me, she consented to the sex game gone wrong.
These narratives also block women’s access to justice. Men who kill women tend to get shorter sentences than when women kill men, and men who claim it was her fault or the fault of lockdown or the fault of financial stress or the fault of anything-and-anyone-but-him get lower sentences still.
But it’s all so much easier, isn’t it? To try and minimise men’s violence and amplify the victim’s ‘responsibility’. Because otherwise we would have to confront the reality of what it means when a woman is killed by a man every three days and the woman is blamed for it.
It means we live in a male supremacist society where men benefit from women’s oppression, and where some men seek to abuse, harm and kill women.
It means a society where men all too often close ranks, defending and diminishing the harassment, the abuse, the violence – because after all, he’s a good guy right? She bears some responsibility, right?
It means a society where men feel entitled to women’s bodies, time and space – and that entitlement can lead to harassment, abuse, violence, even murder.
Not all men. But sometimes all men. And, sadly for us, yes, all women.