Two crimes, 300 miles apart. Last week, police investigating the disappearance of Sian Blake and her sons found three bodies in the garden of the family home in Erith, south-east London. Arthur Simpson-Kent, the partner of the ex-EastEnders actress, has since been tracked down in Ghana and arrested on suspicion of their murder. In Germany, meanwhile, the outcry has been growing about the spate of attacks on New Year’s Eve, when scores of women were groped and robbed by gangs of men, in a seemingly orchestrated mass assault. At least two women have reported they were raped.
What links the two, beyond the shudder that they provoke? Both seem to fit an all-too-familiar narrative about violence: of male malefactors and female victims. Often, news reports about the very worst form of these crimes – a murder – declare: “The police are treating this as an isolated incident.” It’s intended to reassure. Don’t worry, ladies! He’s not after you, too! He’s done with the killing for now! But what part of it, exactly, is "isolated"?
According to the site Counting Dead Women – run by the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith – at least 124 women are known, or suspected, to have been killed by men last year. That’s a rate of one death every 2.94 days. When I’ve written about this in the past, someone (OK, a man – it’s always a man) will reply: “But more men are murdered each year.” Which is true. But they're murdered mostly by other men. This is a problem of male violence.
Whether you’re in cosmopolitan Cologne or suburban Erith, misogyny is woven into the fabric of society. Every fresh news report about these crimes is another alarm signalling to women that we still don’t have equality.
The streets should belong to both sexes, but Cologne shows how quickly they can turn hostile for women. It is like the Sahara: you think all’s calm, that there’s no cause for fear, and then, seconds later, you realise you’re in the midst of a sandstorm. Our rights – to walk the streets without being hassled, to wear what we like without being ogled, to stand in a crowd without hands trespassing – are trampled over by a minority of men. They think that our bodies have somehow transferred over to public ownership when we leave our homes.
We don't all get to own ourselves even in private, though. Domestic violence is a brutal expression of entitlement – someone can treat you as that proverbial punchbag or puppet
The idea women are complicit in their abuse is a common thread in gendered violence. Why didn’t she leave him? Why didn’t she fight him off? Why was she there on her own, at night, scantily dressed? But only one person is at fault here: the perpetrator
There’s a second parallel in these two cases, too: the bungling of the authorities. Scotland Yard has already referred its investigation of Blake’s case to the police complaints watchdog after admitting making errors. It took almost three weeks from Blake and her sons being declared “missing” for police to find their bodies. Officers had been to the property, but had failed to carry out a full search. The murder squad was only called in when her car was found. By then, Simpson-Kent had fled Britain for Ghana.
With Cologne, the failures look systemic. Police didn't protect the women on the streets. Then, there was an attempt at a cover-up. After that, the mayor of Cologne – Henriette Reker – weighed in, declaring that women should abide by a “code of conduct” to avoid being assaulted: keeping men at an arm’s length; not going out alone. Yes, this armchair sage put the onus on women to prevent their own assault – no wonder the perpetrators thought they would get away with it. When feminist campaigners talk about “rape culture” – the way male sexual violence is trivialised and victims are blamed – they need only point to Cologne.
The idea women are complicit in their abuse is a common thread in gendered violence. Why didn’t she leave him? Why didn’t she fight him off? Why was she there on her own, at night, scantily dressed? But only one person is at fault here: the perpetrator. No one is ever "asking for it", "needing a slap", or getting "her just desserts". We need to get this message across early to boys and girls – it should be ringing out in schools.
I’ve always wondered if we buy into these myths because we want to believe it couldn’t happen to us or those we love. Jump through the right hoops and you’ll stay safe! There are two problems with that. The first is practical: nothing in Reker's advice would have helped the women in Cologne; they were just desperately unlucky to be there at that time. The second is its failure to tackle the root causes of the problem: predatory, controlling, brutish men, and a culture that enables them, that treats male violence as inevitable, almost normal.
When someone commits a racially aggravated assault, it is considered "a hate crime" under law and the perpetrator will face a tougher sentence. Why does the same not apply to misogynistically motivated crimes? For what is Cologne or Erith an expression of, but a hatred of women?