Wendy, 52, lived with her son, Steven, 16. She had been in an ‘on-off’ relationship with Brian, 54, for about two years. Just before 5pm on a Friday, Wendy’s neighbour observed Wendy standing in her kitchen covered in red and banging on the window. The neighbour ran to Wendy and found her now lying on the kitchen floor. Wendy was able to speak briefly and alerted her neighbour to her injured son in the lounge, indicating that Brian had attacked them both. Wendy had received more than 40 stab wounds and died at the scene. Steven had been hit repeatedly over the head with a heavy blunt instrument; he survived but with life changing injuries. Police enquiries revealed that a few days prior to the attack, Wendy found out that she had a sexually transmitted infection, which she thought she had caught from Brian. However, Brian was suspicious that Wendy had been unfaithful and two days prior to the attack, sent a text message to his daughter stating that if he caught the sexually transmitted infection from Wendy he would ‘slit her throat’.
Later that day, Brian went to Wendy’s house and attacked her son Steven who was alone. He then waited for Wendy to return and stabbed and slashed her repeatedly to her neck, head, chest and back. The police believed that the murder was premeditated and motivated by Brian’s controlling nature and his suspicion that Wendy may have been involved with another man. It was proven that Wendy did not transfer a sexual infection to Brian.
A total of 87,000 women were killed intentionally across the globe in the same year that Wendy was murdered (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, 2019a: 9). More than half of these women (50,000) were killed by intimate partners or other family members and more than a third (30,000) were killed by their current or former intimate partner (intimate femicide). Approximately 82% of all victims of intimate partner homicide (IPH) across the world are female.
Turning our attention to England and Wales, (i) femicide, (the killing of women by men) comprise approximately 30% of homicides each year (Homicide Index, HI, 2008-19). (ii) Almost two-thirds of all women aged 16 years or older who were murdered in England and Wales in the 11-year period ending 2019 were killed by a current or former husband, partner or lover and just 7% were killed by a stranger.
Whilst the precipitating triggers to femicide are diverse (for example, some offenders have consumed alcohol and/or drugs, others have mental health problems, some of the murders are carefully planned and others appear to arise spontaneously), it has long been noted that a substantial proportion of intimate femicide is connected to separation, possessiveness, jealousy and control (Radford and Russell, 1992).
Fiona Brookman is Professor of Criminology at the University of South Wales, UK. She obtained her PhD from Cardiff University in 2000 and has, since then, researched and published mainly in the fields of homicide, violence and policing. Using qualitative research methods, her research focuses on the causes of homicide and violence, narratives of violence and the investigation and prevention of homicide.
The second edition of her book, Understanding Homicide, will be published on 24th December 2021. In it, she draws upon several decades of her own research on homicide and violence, including ethnographic research on homicide investigation in Great Britain and the United States, and interviews with violent offenders, to unravel key aspects and causes of homicide, how police and forensic scientists investigate it and how it might be prevented.
Daly and Wilson (1988) were amongst the first homicide researchers to highlight the important role of possessiveness and jealousy in male-perpetrated intimate partner homicide, noting; ‘we find it highly significant that men the world around think and talk about women and marriage in proprietary terms’ (p.189). This concept of entitlement is often referred to as ‘sexual proprietariness’ and refers to the tendency of men to believe they own women, particularly their sexuality and reproductive abilities. Daly and Wilson suggest that sexual proprietariness has a genetic origin - the evolutionary need of males to control female reproduction and improve the probability that a man’s apparent offspring is indeed his own (Johnson and Dawson, 2011). They cite evidence, from diverse regions of the world, of laws and cultural norms explicitly denouncing female infidelity.
Feminist researchers, by contrast, focus less on our evolutionary past and more upon social structure. Feminist theory is founded on the belief that patriarchy and, in turn, oppression and gender inequality, are embedded in the fabric of most societies (Taylor and Jasinksi, 2011). Feminist scholars are interested in how violence against women arises as a result of views which condone the oppression of women, views which are structurally situated and culturally endorsed or sanctioned. They explore patriarchal systems of control, domination and power.
Evidence of the cultural endorsement of patriarchy can be found in the way that men talk about and excuse their acts of violence towards women. For example, Anderson and Umberson (2014) conducted in-depth interviews with 33 men who had beaten their female partners and revealed how these men presented themselves as ‘competent masculine actors’, whose violence was rational, effective and explosive, whilst presenting women’s violence as trivial, hysterical and ineffective (p.143-44). The men also gendered violence by suggesting that their female partners were to blame for the violence within the relationship. Most typically, men reported that their female partners were controlling, demanding or dominating and some men spoke of feeling emasculated (p.148). As Connell (2002: 94) notes; ‘research with batterers and rapists indeed detects remorse and shame … but also detects feelings of entitlement, justifications and the intention to establish control’.
How men talk about and rationalise their violence, has important implications for future behaviour. This is exemplified in recent research by narrative criminologists who suggest that narratives allow people to explain past behaviour when questioned (e.g., as retrospective excuses and justifications) but, crucially, they can also encourage or constrain specific behaviours (Presser & Sandberg, 2015). For narrative criminologists, stories of the past can shape, motivate, and encourage future action (see also Copes et al, 2022).
What can we take from this body of research that might contribute towards preventing femicide and violence against women and girls? As a criminologist with a particular interest in offenders’ accounts of violence, I see potential to explore new ways to unpick and question men’s narratives of violence. For example, to showcase to men how they, or other men, neutralize, justify, rationalize, excuse and condone violence. To reveal the impacts that such narratives have on victims. And to explore how such narratives serve to perpetuate further violence. This could be achieved in many different ways including through group discussion and debate, through art, drama, podcasts, blogs and vlogs. It could involve programmes of work in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace. Whatever the forum and medium, it is time for all of us to come together to challenge narratives of harm.
Brookman, F. (2022) Understanding Homicide. 2nd Edition. London: Sage.
Brookman, F. (2015) ‘The Shifting Narratives of Violent Offenders’ in L. Presser., and S. Sandberg (Eds.), Narrative Criminology. New York: New York University Press.
Copes, H., Brookman, F., Beaton, B., & Raglan, J. (forthcoming) “Sex, Drugs and Coercive Control: Gendered Narratives of Methamphetamine Use, Relationships and Violence”, Criminology.
i. The term ‘femicide’ is taken here to refer to the killing of women by men. Some commentators use this term more broadly to refer to the killing of women regardless of the gender of the perpetrator (see Mouzos, 1999b) whilst others have defined femicide more narrowly as the ‘misogynist killing of women by men’ (Radford and Russell, 1992: xi).
ii. Calculation based on the killing of a female aged 16 years or older by a male principal suspect aged 16 years or older as a proportion of the total number of homicides where the gender of both victims and suspects is known.