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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Murders that demand a radical shift in attitudes

Bring back hanging! I've heard it many times in the last week, following the convictions of three men for the murders of eight young women. On Tuesday, Levi Bellfield was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, the same sentence that Steve Wright was given at the end of last week. Mark Dixie will serve a minimum of 34 years after a trial in which, amazingly, he denied murder but admitted necrophilia.

In each case, the details which emerged in court were horrific, and phone-in shows resound with demands for capital punishment. Alternatively, because of the role played by DNA in identifying Dixie and Wright, there have been suggestions that the entire population should be on a DNA database.

The first impulse stems from a desire for revenge, the second from a feeling that "something must be done". Both should be resisted, and the fact that they are being made at all is evidence of a state of collective denial. Leaving aside the overwhelming moral case against the death penalty, the judicial murder of a few notorious offenders will not stop violence against women, and risks distorting public perceptions about the subject even further.

What is striking about Wright and Bellfield is that so many people were aware that they abused women but nobody felt able to do anything about it. In a society where domestic violence is commonplace and rape goes unpunished, what is someone to do when they suspect that a man is abusing girls and women?

I am not arguing that all men treat women badly. But a substantial minority do, and we refuse to read the signals or condemn their behaviour unequivocally. Bellfield had a reputation for picking up under-age girls and having sex with them in the back of his van, even offering to prostitute his 16-year-old "girlfriend" and her 14-year-old sister to an employee; a former partner recalled finding magazines in which he slashed photographs of blonde women, with whom he had a lethal obsession.

Wright had a series of violent relationships, attacking partners and abusing them as "slags" and "whores". The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, told a drinking friend he had attacked a woman with a stone hidden in a sock, but it took five years for the man to inform the police; while he was thinking about it, 13 women were murdered and half a dozen others attacked.

There is no need to put the entire country, including women and children, on a DNA database to discover the identity of men who pose a threat to women. Despite all the calls I've had from journalists over the past few days, asking me what motivates men like Wright, Dixie and Bellfield, there is no great mystery about it.

Men do not commit such crimes out of the blue; most of them don't even bother to hide their hatred of women. There is usually a childhood history of domestic violence, which means that they grow up in an atmosphere of physical fear and contempt for women, whom they regard both as victims and the cause of their fathers' violence.

I've heard a great deal about the role of absent mothers in the psychopathology of men who kill women, but cause and effect are being confused here; a misogynist culture inevitably overlooks the father's role and blames the mother, even when her reason for leaving the family is to escape violence.

When boys from such homes become men, they provide plenty of warnings in the form of abusive behaviour to wives and girlfriends and histories of sexual violence. Dixie had a lengthy criminal record, including five convictions for sexual offences, but served only brief prison sentences. With only one in 20 rapes reported to the police ending in a conviction, most rapists get away with their crimes; the Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, was accused of rape on five occasions but none of the cases got to court, leaving him free to kill two 10-year girls.

If we're serious about preventing more horrific murders, social attitudes have to change dramatically. That means reversing the popular assumption that most rapes aren't really rapes at all because the victim had been drinking or knew her attacker. The other thing that's needed is an acknowledgement of the inextricable link between prostitution and sexual violence.

It isn't a lack of licensed brothels that makes selling sex dangerous; it's the kind of men who buy it. Women who work as prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the rest of us, for the simple reason that their "clients" include a high proportion of men who enjoy humiliating and hurting women. That's the group whose DNA detectives need to get their hands on; if we changed the law to allow the police to arrest men who try to buy sex, they could clear up a huge number of unsolved sexual attacks.