Deborah Orr: Sexual abuse: a warning we mustn't ignore

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing. But it is still striking that even though Steven Wright does not appear ever to have even been arrested for violent behaviour, prior to his spree of murder in Ipswich just over a year ago, there now seem to have been plenty of witnesses to his attacks on women, and copious awareness of his fetishistic reliance on prostitutes. None of it – not the habitual kerb-crawling, nor the physically abusive relationships – ever did get him into trouble with the law, though.

The same cannot be said of Mark Dixie, who was yesterday found guilty of murdering Sally Anne Bowman, and who, it turns out, had a string of other convictions for sexual assault and rape. None of this appears to have offered sufficient warning that this man was a huge danger to women. It seems you have to kill a woman, and smear her with your DNA, before your violent and compulsive misogyny is treated with any seriousness.

In the case of Dixie, questions will justifiably be asked about how a man with his history of violence was allowed to carry on walking the streets. Yet even Wright's less obvious proclivities could and should have stopped him in his tracks years ago. There has already been some criticism of the Suffolk constabulary, who twice stopped Wright, then let him go about his murderous business unhindered. There has also been much speculation about other murder victims who have now been connected to Wright, with Suzy Lamplugh's name the most instantly recognisable among the dead.

Most vocal of the retrospectively wise heads is one of Wright's ex-wives, Diana Cole, who catalogues a litany of abuse corroborated by another witness, who in turn tells of her own husband having to intervene and pull Wright off his young wife. Yet this case is by no means the first to illustrate that the tendency to consider what is still cosily referred to as "domestic violence" to be a private affair is deeply mistaken and places other women in peril. Even now, after the seriousness of violence against partners is supposed to have been understood, the police seem unable to protect a worrying proportion of the women who seek their intervention.

Yet since it is well documented that sexually motivated violence tends to escalate, it is clear that the victims of violent men should understand how important it is to come forward, and should also be able to feel confident that their bravery will be rewarded rather than squandered. The Dixie case demonstrates graphically that it is the latter that occurs all too often in the criminal justice system.

Wright's assaults of 20 years ago, unlike Dixie's, went entirely unrecorded, so there was nothing at all to connect Wright to the murder of three women in the red-light district of Norwich, one of whom was a regular at a bar he ran. Again though, it turns out that Wright was notorious among the local prostitutes, one of whom now says he was a notably strange and frightening character. Then as now, however, vulnerable street women, too addicted to work in a massage parlour any more than they could a bank, have no incentive to alert the police to customers they believe to be dangerous. This hugely salient fact is barely addressed in the flurry of debate around the legal status of prostitution that has erupted since the Ipswich murders.

Whether Wright had anything to do with these further murders or not, it is clear now that his possible involvement needs to be investigated. It is worth remembering that he would not, by 2006 or even by 1988, have been considered such a "boring" guy if people did not persist in the savage belief that it is within the ambit of "boring" guys to attack or frighten either their wives, or women selling sex on the streets. As for Dixie, the fact that he was able to travel the world attacking entirely random women, passing it all off as part of his "party lifestyle", is nothing but a terrible indictment of how far away we are from really grasping what an unassailably accurate predictor of future crimes all assaults on women really are.

The ultimate invasion of privacy

It's a truism that simple ideas can work tremendously well, and so it was with Sue Bourne's film, My Street. By entering the homes of her neighbours, with whom she'd lived side-by-side for 14 years without knowing any of them, she made reality television for people who think they are above all that, and invited voyeuristic Channel 4 viewers like me to have a literal peer through the net curtains into all sorts of grand, affecting, shocking, but everyday dramas.

I dare say that if Bourne had known her neighbours better, she might have been less cavalier about invading their privacy, for again and again the people interviewed in the film said things that they probably shouldn't have been sharing with millions of people. This feeling that too much was being revealed became very strong towards the end of the film, when we witnessed Adam, an articulate and lonely 25-year-old Tourettic and obsessive-compulsive, suffering a flamboyant and meticulously-recorded breakdown, for which he was hospitalised.

It was perfectly clear that in his awful situation Adam was in no fit state to sign a release form authorising broadcast. Since he had already said how little contact he had with other people, and how much he missed the mother and father he rarely saw, it was obvious too that he had no one close to him to offer good, protective, advice. So there was clearly a major ethical issue with how this footage came to be on television.

The explanation was simple and shocking. Adam had been found dead in his home three weeks after filming, so no agreement to screen those last months was needed, as its subject no longer existed. Adam's tragedy made a literally awesome end to this fly-on-the-wall film, of course, and one that proved its point about modern urban existence. But it's a strange world indeed when a young man can live and die without knowing his neighbours, except for the one who made the movie of his demise.

[See Sue Bourne's reply.]

* Sanity is gradually returning to the Orr household, now that we have had our puppy for three whole months. We took the nipper for its first visit to its mother in the country at the weekend, where Mr Orr, who has been labouring under the delusion for some while now that he is the pup's "daddy", began to show signs of recovery. Previously he had totally ignored Cyril, who being a dog does not care that she has a boy's name. Now that she has gifted him with his adored furry bundle though, he wanted to firm up his acquaintance with her. "Hello Cyril," he said, "I'm like... oh, I suppose I'm like.... er... your husband." Back off, Cyril. He's taken.

* Cate Blanchett is up for two Oscars tomorrow, one as best supporting actress for playing a man, and one as best actress for playing a woman. I didn't see her portrayal of the Tudor queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, so I'll have to take the word of the pundits – which is that she has no chance. But I did see her as "Jude" in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's multiple-personality portrait of Bob Dylan, and I have to say she came across more authentically than Bob ever quite manages himself.

The film's great moment of wisdom came when Jude explains to a journalist why he stopped writing protest songs. He realised, he says, that the songs were counter-productive, a means whereby people could pat themselves on the back, then dissociate themselves from the political problem pinpointed in the lyrics. I'm no idea if this is an accurate reproduction of anything Dylan ever claimed himself. But the argument is spot on.

The degree to which people now seem to believe they can go to the concert, buy the record or the T-shirt, and thereby be "part of a movement for change' is striking. Lots of people think Dylan has "sold out" because he has appeared in a Victoria's Secret advert and sold his records through evil Starbucks. But he won't really have sold out until he does something self-deluding, like signing up as a UN Ambassador to do "look-I-care-about-suffering" self-promotion.