Johann Hari: Why do we ignore the abuse of women?

Thursday 15 November 2007 01:00 GMT

When is it okay to beat, rape and stab a woman? When it is okay to call these victims "whiny", "money-grabbing" and "bitches"? The obvious answer is never. But that doesn't seem to be the judgement we make, together, as a culture. No. If the wife-beater/rapist/attempted murderer can write novels, kick a ball, create songs or pose as a liberal politician, we treat their misogyny as an irrelevance or, worse, as a laddish affectation imbuing them with the testosteroney tang of authenticity.

You can see this by looking at four men – about as diverse as they come – who have been lauded as heroes: Norman Mailer, George Best, Tupac Shakur, and Bill Clinton.

For the past six days, we have been saturated with tributes to the "greatness" of Norman Mailer. Not just his work but his life. He has been called "brave", "determined to experience life's richness", "compassionate", even "nice". It is noted only briefly that he violently despised women. He said they are "low, sloppy beasts; they should be kept in cages". He campaigned to halt every move to give women control over their lives, including birth control – because he said he wanted to retain the "thrill" of knowing the woman he was having sex with might later die in childbirth. He said feminists wanted to "destroy men" and wrote a bizarre 300-page book – The Prisoner Of Sex – to "prove" it.

He acted on this hate. He beat his young wife, Adele, punching her in the stomach when she was six months pregnant, and coerced her to have group sex with his friends. One night, in the middle of a party, he picked up a knife and stabbed her. He cut through her breast, only just missing her heart. Then he stabbed her in the back. As she lay there, haemorrhaging, one man reached down to help her. He snapped: "Get away from her. Let the bitch die."

Adele never really recovered. She developed pleurisy and started hacking up black phlegm several times a day. She was too scared even to press charges. She became an alcoholic, sank into poverty and could never trust a man again. When, years later, she told her story in the book The Last Party, the reviews slapped her down. They called her "whiny", "a shrill lush", and "nauseating". The subtext was: how dare this uppity bitch complain about Our Icon? Some even seem to believe that stabbing her made him a better writer – as if one woman is worth sacrificing on the altar of "genius", and it is churlish of her to keep speaking.

(Of course, I believe an artist's work should be assessed entirely separately to his personal life. If we discovered tomorrow that Shakespeare was a child molester, King Lear would still be a masterpiece. But Mailer's misogyny infests his work. As the feminist writer Kate Millett pointed out, his 1965 novel An American Dream "is an exercise in how to kill your wife and be happy ever after". It is revealing that his only genuinely brilliant novel – The Naked And The Dead – has no female characters.)

If Norman Mailer had said black people should be kept in cages, if he had said the civil rights movement wanted to "destroy white people", if he had stabbed a black man in a racist fury, the first line of every obituary would have mentioned it. So why is hatred of women taken less seriously?

It is not only novel-writing that gets you off the hook: if you can kick a ball, we don't seem to mind if you kick a woman. George Best first beat his wife Alex on her 25th birthday, when he punched her to the floor and kicked her six times in the chest and face. Then, on Christmas Day 2003, he gave her a bruised lip and swollen face. "So what if she's in hospital? It's the best place for her," he snapped at the press the next day.

When Paul Gascoigne admitted to having hospitalised his wife, Sheryl, "Bestie" leapt to his defence. "We all give the wife a good slap. I know I do," he said. When Alex finally left him, the press swooped – to attack her. One typical columnist said she had "not done badly" out of him, and claimed Best and Gazza's only flaw was that "they are suckers for romance".

I can almost find traces of this impulse to look away in myself, when it comes to people who have done a few things I admire. The rap artist Tupac is now revered as the messiah of the ghetto, "a man who stood up for black people" with tracks that bordered on genius. So everyone wants to forget about a 19-year-old girl called Ayanna Jackson. In 1993, Tupac met her in a club and coaxed her back to his hotel – where he and his friends gang-raped her. At the trial, the judge called it "a brutal attack on a helpless woman". Tupac did not "stand up" for her, he pinned her down and trashed her life. And Bill Clinton? He has indeed been targeted by right-wing hit machines, trying to take him out for his few liberal policies. And yet, and yet ... Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas nurse and supporter of the Democratic Party, told NBC's flagship show Dateline that, in 1978, when she volunteered for his campaign, Clinton lured her into a hotel room, raped her and tore her lip by biting down on it. She has five witnesses who saw her wounds straight after the alleged attack. Broaddrick has never profited from the story, and told it only after she was "outed" by one of the friends who'd heard the tale.

She is only one of several women who have claimed without profit to have been sexually abused by Clinton in strikingly similar ways. As Christopher Hitchens has asked: "What are the chances that three socially and politically respectable women, all political supporters of Mr Clinton and none of them known to each other, would invent almost identical experiences?" (Clinton's spokesman, in effect, claimed these women were liars).

Why do we so carefully turn a blind eye to the bruised bodies of so many abused women? This selective blindness isn't confined to news coverage; it informs our political life. Imagine if in Britain today, hundreds of thousands of men were being pinned down – in hotels, living rooms, and back alleys – and anally raped by their "friends" or acquaintances, and virtually no one was ever punished for it. It would be one of the biggest issues in British politics. Yet it really does happen to women – so it is a third-tier issue, wheeled out once a decade.

This shrugging reaction to the stabbing and raping so enthusiastically carried out by these men is a reminder that millennia of misogyny aren't wiped away in a few decades of progress. Lying dormant beneath the polite feminised surface, there is an atavistic belief that violence against women like Adele Mailer and Alex Best and Ayanna Jackson doesn't quite count. "Let the bitch die," Mailer growled, his hands covered in blood – and still we applaud him to the grave.

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