You can always spot a wife beater by the charm offensive

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Let's talk stereotypes. I've a friend who is very attractive, blonde, slim and intelligent. "Poor thing," you are probably thinking. But in some ways she has a cross to bear which is the mirror-image of the one that not-so-attractive women stagger around with (apart from breaking the mirror when we look in it, of course). People think that, owing to her comely features, this friend of mine must be particularly thick, and that, if she was presented with a simple piece of arithmetic, it would result in a period of excessive pouting and giggling and then her pretty little head would explode.

Let's talk stereotypes. I've a friend who is very attractive, blonde, slim and intelligent. "Poor thing," you are probably thinking. But in some ways she has a cross to bear which is the mirror-image of the one that not-so-attractive women stagger around with (apart from breaking the mirror when we look in it, of course). People think that, owing to her comely features, this friend of mine must be particularly thick, and that, if she was presented with a simple piece of arithmetic, it would result in a period of excessive pouting and giggling and then her pretty little head would explode.

The assumption that she ain't too bright doesn't, of course, stop a testosterone onslaught. Men slime up to her frequently, pinch her, rub up against her on the Underground, murmur things about her frontage, make suggestions about sex to her. Need I go on? Let's just say she very rarely gets asked by strangers what the correct pressure for the front tyres on a Bedford Rascal should be, or the equation for converting Fahrenheit into centigrade. I'd rather have a load of abuse, myself (just as well), than win rosettes from the sort of men who believe their approving eyes are essential contributions to the lives of women.

Male stereotypes aren't much different. Recent footage of English football fans on television would also lead us to believe that they are uniquely chubby, balding and working class. We know this image is not accurate because plenty of football hooligans are educated, middle-class bankers or professionals of one sort or another, whose comfortable, rather dull lifestyles are supplemented by the occasional long weekend putting into practice, "Teach Yourself Street Brain Surgery" or "The Projectile Vomiter's Guide To Europe".

But today's news cameramen are still being instructed by their editors only to film tattooed, beer-gutted, tonsured barbarians head-butting Belgians or pulverising the Portugese. This just adds to our perception that all the middle-class fans must be round the corner visiting a museum or tutting at the trouble over a cappuccino. So beware of looking like Danny Baker with alopecia, you don't know what you'll be accused of.

It seems we perceive wife beaters in the same way, assuming they are rough, uneducated and a class apart from other men. Supply a shaved head with a squashed nose in builders' overalls, swaggering towards you in the street, and within seconds you can visualise him giving the missus a back-hander on a Saturday night, in between mouthfuls of kebab and rottweiler puppies. Panel beater to wife beater: it's a short step in the stereotype catalogue.

This is a naïve view, though, and the book The Charm Syndrome, which is re-released this week to raise money for Refuge, the charity that supports abused women, makes the point that wife beaters are not all neanderthals whose grunting often requires the services of an interpreter. Shock horror! They can be educated, handsome and charming, too.

But surely women aren't that stupid? Surely they can smell a WB at 20 paces? You'd think so, given the millions of trees that are destroyed in the name of women's magazines. There must have been a questionnaire at some point in Cosmo called, "How To Spot An Aggressive Bastard And Deactivate Him Before He Does Too Much Damage" or an article in Woman's Own by Denise from This Morning entitled, "Husband Hit You? Aah, You Poor Thing, Have A Cuppa". But many women still seem chained to abusive partners, paralysed by an apathy that leaves them powerless to change their lives. The increasing power of some women has not been matched by improvement in their domestic lives.

And it seems to me that one result of the divide-and-rule campaign that men have waged against women is that some women genuinely are less supportive of each other than they used to be. See Gail Porter laughing along with the best of the geezers on Dot Comedy at the oh-so-sophisticated targets of saggy breasts and naked old women. "We couldn't beat 'em, so we joined 'em" appears etched behind that somewhat desperate smile.

So it is refreshing to discover The Charm Syndrome, a book that offers support to women in this day and age, when the tabloid Valkyries are queuing up to slag each other off and blame women for all the problems in their relationships with men. But women in relationships do seem to be far too trusting. There is an increasing number of cases on the internet of women fooled into meeting up with Prince Charming only to discover that the handsome 30-year-old husband fodder they expected turns out to be a dribbling 77-year-old paedophile with an eye on their children.

Are we women really that gullible? Certainly, the sorry queues of downtrodden women on daytime television would seem to support that idea. Is it the relentless gnawing away at our egos that starts from the moment we pop out of the womb? It's a wonder that girl babies don't immediately get straight up, cut their own cord and make a cup of tea, or at the very least start apologising for making such a fuss. Or is it the dedicated lifelong pandering of many mothers to the male ego, even enshrined in the law of some cultures, which happens as soon as men make an appearance?

Maybe realistic, down-to-earth, hard-hitting education is the answer. A few classes in school to teach adolescent girls the realities of relationships and bringing up children, well before they find themselves in the kitchen with a sulky screaming baby banging its fists on its high chair and a sulky screaming husband banging his fists on them. There are just too many marriage ceremonies in which the officiator should be saying, "Do you, you big-fisted bully take this bruised woman, to go on grinding down until you half kill her or she escapes to a refuge?"

Middle-class educated women should not dismiss the problem of abuse either. It is as likely to happen to them. Bridget Jones' Diary could just as easily read, "Weight: eight and a half stone. Cigarettes: two. Broken arms: one."

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