Joan Smith: Murders that demand a radical shift in attitudes

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: International Trade Advisors - Hertfordshire or Essex

£30000 - £35379 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is based in Welwyn ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Controller - Response Centre

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Voices in Danger: With the drug cartels in control, a Mexican editor has been forced to flee for his life

Anne Mortensen

Here’s why I’m so full of (coffee) beans

Jane Merrick
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn