BOOK REVIEW / More shots in the sex war: 'Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing' - Ed Jill Radford & Diana Russell: Open University Press, 10.99 pounds: Helen Birch on why men murder women, and get away with it

WHEN Rachel Nickell was found murdered on Wimbledon common last July the media expressed outrage in terms which stressed her beauty and sexual purity. The awful thing was not just that another woman had been killed at the hands of a man, but that this victim was 'happily married', 'the kind of young woman whose looks and sweet nature lit up the day' (Sunday Times). At the same time, women were exhorted to watch out for their safety, not to stray too far from the sanctity of home. 'Traverse too deeply along (the common's) paths,' one woman journalist warned, 'and it is easy to become lost, alone in a cool green world where every rustle could be a rapist' (Today). Women in London caught much the same wind of fear as that which had chilled women in Yorkshire during Peter Sutcliffe's reign of terror in the early Eighties.

Notwithstanding such cases, and the apparent increase in serial killings (mainly of women) in the United States, official figures, both there and in Britain, show that a woman is statistically more likely to be killed by her husband, lover or former partner than by a stranger. Contrary to its symbolic place as the centre of civilised values, the family home can be a dangerous place for women.

The editors of this volume of essays argue that little has changed since thousands of women were condemned to death as witches during the 16th and 17th centuries. 'Femicide', defined as 'the misogynist killing of women by men', accounts, they say, for most murders of women. It is 'a form of capital punishment', fundamental to patriarchial societies, which are 'rooted in violence' and whose continued existence depends on controlling women. Femicide can be exacerbated by racism, incited by pornography and is frequently condoned by a judiciary which holds similar prejudices about women as do the men in the dock.

The idea that the killing of women by men is the extreme end of a continuum of violence and domination into which boys are inculcated at an early age has been one of feminism's basic tenets since the Seventies. However, the editors claim, while other aspects of male violence, such as sexual harassment, rape and battery, have hit the mainstream, its most brutal manifestation, femicide, remains hidden. This is untrue. Feminists have written extensively on the subject of murder, attempting to correct the popular belief that men who kill are 'monsters', and nothing to do with ordinary men. The book's claim to new territory is thwarted in its first few pages.

The best essays are the few which sustain careful arguments based an original research. One of these, written by Sue Lees, deals with the way in which the defence of provocation is used successfully by men to reinforce stereotypes of acceptable female behaviour and to obtain more lenient sentences. For a plea of provocation to be successful, the defendant must prove that he or she behaved according to the standards of a 'reasonable man', while experiencing a 'sudden and temporary loss of control'. Particularly since Sara Thornton, convicted in 1990 for the murder of her abusive, alcoholic husband, went on hunger strike in response to the two-year suspended sentence meted out to Joseph McGrail for beating his 'nagging' common-law wife to death, debates have raged about how the defence of provocation is interpreted.

Reviewing the evidence at a number of murder trials where a plea of provocation was entered, Lees concludes that there is clear evidence of gender bias. 'In most cases where provocation is alleged by men,' she argues, 'the reputation (of the female victim), particularly her sexual reputation, is regarded as crucial to the questions of 'the defendant's' guilt. If infidelity is alleged, let alone proved, provocation is usually allowed.'

That there are qualitative differences between a woman who 'nags' her partner, or leaves him, or refuses sex, and a man who regularly beats his wife, threatens to kill her and / or her children and pursues her when she tries to leave, is still contested by the courts. Lees' research provides the empirical tools that lay those differences bare.

But this essay is the best of a very poor bunch indeed. Most of the contributions are cursory, flatly written, and simply stitch together a few statistics to make obvious points, which are then drummed home throughout the book. Most men, we are told, feel proprietorial towards their wives or lovers; the murders of prostitutes or poor black women are overlooked by a media which turns the spotlight on 'innocent' victims such as Rachel Nickell.

Sometimes too, the spirit of inquiry gives way to a selective and vague marshalling of facts which seem to fit the theory. Beverly R Singer, for example, states that 'five hundred years of genocide and colonisation has taught Indian men the new-American styles of male aggression and dominance, including femicide'. This is not unthinkable; similar ideas have been proposed by prominent thinkers from Franz Fanon to Edward Said, still, where's the proof? Sloppiness like this only encourages the derision of sceptics.

As does the radical feminist orthodoxy, reiterated here, that 'pornography is the theory, rape is the practice', or to extend the metaphor, that 'action man is the theory, war (on women) is the practice'. According to this idea, pornography encourages men to objectify women, and to feel entitled to enact violence upon them. Various contributors make much of a survey carried out by the FBI on 36 serial killers, which showed that 81 per cent claimed pornography to be their 'primary sexual interest'.

Most of us want simple, all-embracing answers to difficult questions. It is seductive to watch difficult issues of historical, cultural and socio-economic difference ignite with the touchpaper of phrases like 'sexual terrorism'. That women are beaten, silenced, subordinated and killed in such numbers is, of course, terrible. But to understand why requires a more complex and less comforting analysis than most of those supplied here.