THESE are confusing times to be a wronged woman. On the one hand, society tells you to remain restrained, rational, dignified, and never to give in to the rage that engulfs you; on the other hand, women such as Lorena Bobbitt who chopped off her husband's penis, or Diane Sladek who inflicted grievous bodily harm on her husband by pouring molten wax on his genitals as he slept, become mythical figures.

On the day of the attack, Mrs Sladek had received a pair of his boxer shorts in the post, with a mocking letter from another woman. She was saved from a jail sentence after her husband begged for leniency on her behalf.

Support for these women is motivated partly by a twisted kind of feminism, but mainly, I suspect, because many men believe they symbolise how terrifyingly demented most women really are.

Men like Mr Porter, our voluble builder with an Open University degree in sociology. 'No wonder he went off her,' he shouted, scraping the kitchen wall with excessive force as he watched me reading about the Sladek case. 'Women like that deserve to be taken in hand. And that fool, he stands up for her in court. She'll burn off another one next. All these bloody feminists. That's why I got myself a Filipino. They know how to treat a man.'

Both these responses seem destructive to me. In different ways, the long-suffering, all-forgiving saint and the fiery castrating avenger help to justify the continuing degradation of women. Look at the highly publicised cases of adultery we have had in recent years.

The wives of Messrs Parkinson, Mellor, Ashdown, Norris and Yeo have obviously imbibed the message that the only admirable way to act in this situation is to smile and stand by your man. Never mind the internal turmoil or the way your self-esteem is shattered as his betrayal explodes in your face over the cornflakes. The humiliation of these women, first by the actions of their husbands, then by the pressure to hide their pain, has been hard to watch.

And it is a thoroughly English thing. One of the few times this unwritten code has been broken was when the Italian wife of the Tory MP David Ashby raised a fuss over his sharing a bed with another man.

Among the ordinary middle classes, there is equally strong pressure on abandoned or mistreated women not to vent their feelings, to behave in an 'adult' and 'modern' way and not to burden or embarrass their friends by asking them to take sides.

In many other societies, people in emotional pain are given the space and sympathy to express their feelings, and there is none of the pretended neutrality that is simply an excuse to remain detached and indifferent.

It is only when women gain the right to express their outrage in those situations without being ostracised that they will win back some of the humanity that is being denied them in our present social landscape.

When that happens, perhaps there will be no need for the gruesome acts of brutality against men that we have seen recently.

This is not an argument against women who for years have faced appalling violence, and been forced to take action to protect their own lives and those of their children; thankfully, the courts are taking a broader view of what constitutes provocation and premeditation in such cases. It is not at all the same thing when well targeted violence is directed at a man because of his sexual behaviour.

The world will not change for the better if all that happens are increasing acts of savagery. But nor will the world change if male adulterers become heroes - as David Mellor has - or women collude in their own destruction by being good little girls and remaining silent.

What we need is a society in which acts of male disloyalty and duplicity are properly discussed and genuinely condemned, and where the women victims are respected and made to feel entirely right in despising the behaviour of the men who cause them such distress - but not to the extent of cutting off or burning their penises.