I’ve never studied criminology, psychology or sociology (or any -ology, for that matter) but I do read the papers. I read about murder every single day. I read about women and children being raped and murdered in war zones. I read about schoolchildren being murdered in their classrooms. I read that two women per week are murdered in the UK in so-called ‘domestic’ incidents. In just the past couple of weeks the news has been filled with the murders of April Jones, of Tia Sharp, of Georgia Williams, of Lee Rigby. In the next couple of weeks more people will be murdered and their names will appear in the papers. The name of Reeva Steenkamp is back in the news as the trial of the man accused of her murder approaches. I am not a criminologist, a psychologist or a sociologist but I have been reading the news for near enough 30 years and this informs me that the perpetrators of murder are overwhelming men.
As a pacifist I am obviously of the opinion that male violence is something which needs to be addressed and eradicated. If the overwhelming majority of people responsible for murder (not to mention other violent crimes) are men, then it stands to reason that if we can stop those men from committing such crimes then we can be mainly free of such crimes. A very idealistic concept, perhaps, but one which it pleases me to entertain. As to why men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence, I have heard it argued that this is due to them having greater levels of testosterone than women. This argument, in my humble opinion, is rot. If testosterone was to blame, all men would be killers and they are clearly not. It is akin to the argument that men rape because they have uncontrollable sex drives, and it deserves the same amount of derision. Rather, male privilege and entitlement, along with pornography, the importance placed upon the male orgasm, and a misogynistic society, play a huge role in the prevalence of some men to commit violent acts, including murder.
The Guardian columnist Deborah Orr raises a different argument. She opines that ‘[d]espite a general feeling to the contrary, murder and violence is not a men v women thing‘, that ‘[t]he problem isn’t men, it’s alienation’ and, arguably most problematically, that ‘lack of mental health, not gender, is the defining motivation of all violence‘.
Let’s deal with each of these points in turn. First, the strangely naive assertion that men are not, statistically, much more likely to commit murder and violence but, rather, this is merely ‘a general feeling’ – a misapprehension, if you will. A ‘general feeling’? No, it is actual fact. There is no ‘general feeling’ about it. Gavin de Becker in his superb book The Gift of Fear presents us with this startling fact:
[I]f a jumbo jet crashed into a mountain killing everyone on board, and if that happened every month, month in and month out, the number of people killed still wouldn’t equal the number of women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year.
This doesn’t even take into account all the women murdered by men other than their husbands and boyfriends, nor the children and other men also murdered by men. Can you imagine if jumbo jets started crashing into mountains on a monthly basis? Wouldn’t ‘society’ be up in arms about it? Wouldn’t governments be obliged to do something about it? Why no similar uprising of the masses that so many men are allowed to commit so much violent crime? The obvious answer provides a clue to the reason why women become radical feminists: it is in patriarchy’s interest to maintain the status quo. The reasons for that would take more than one blog post for me to address, so I’m not going to do that here. The point is that to assert that murder and violence is not ‘a men v women thing’ betrays either a wilful neglect of the facts or a frankly astonishing naivete.
Deborah Orr’s next argument – ‘[t]he problem isn’t men, it’s alienation‘ – carries with it the implication that only men suffer alienation (this is quite apart from the fact that ‘alienation’, which is subjective anyway, is no excuse for violence). If the problem of murder and other violence is caused by alienation, why don’t women commit violent crime in the same numbers? Where are all the women who are abducting and murdering children, gunning down classrooms full of children, murdering their husbands and boyfriends? Is alienation only experienced by men? If that is what Deborah Orr is alleging, she provides no evidence to back this up. If you are going to be given a platform – and that of a national newspaper no less – then you need to do your research before making such assertions. Which brings us onto the next point, that ‘lack of mental health, not gender, is the defining motivation of all violence‘.
It is not clear whether Deborah Orr is conflating ‘alienation’ with ‘lack of mental health’. If she is, this is a flawed – and unsubstantiated – generalisation. Either way, the conclusion remains: a lack of mental health is responsible for violent behaviour. This is a highly dangerous conclusion. Any criminologist will tell you that people with mental health difficulties are far more likely to be the victim of crime than the perpetrator. Time To Change, which challenges mental health stigma, reports that ‘95 per cent of homicides are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with a mental health problem’. The conclusion that mental health difficulties are ‘the defining motivation of all violence’, therefore, is not corroborated by fact.
Why is this important? As stated above, Deborah Orr is writing in a national newspaper. Her words will be read by many, far more than this blog or any other will be. As a woman, it is crucial for me that other women at least acknowledge the reality and the sheer pervasiveness of male violence, even if they’ve been lucky enough not to be personally affected by it. As a person with a mental health diagnosis, it is very important to me that people who are not in the best of mental health are not (erroneously) considered violent by other members of society. As a feminist, it is of the utmost importance to me that the real cause of violence, the real perpetrators of violence, are named. Only by naming the cause can we begin to remedy it. If we start demonising all those in mental ill health, we are going off on the wrong track entirely and we allow the murderers to carry on murdering. The common denominator in all violent crime – whether committed against woman, child or man – is men and until we recognise this, accept this and deal with this, then the news in our daily papers will not change.