Isolated incidents

If you read the news regularly, you may have noticed that a lot of women die in ‘isolated incidents’. Between 22 May and June 19, for instance, Melissa Belshaw suffered fatal injuries in an isolated incident in Wigan (a man was later charged with her murder); in Stockport a woman’s body was found in a park following another isolated incident (a man was arrested shortly afterwards); and in a further isolated incident outside Norwich, Gemma Cowey was stabbed to death while walking in the grounds of a disused psychiatric hospital (the police arrested a man who has since been identified as her husband).  

The cases I’ve just mentioned are only the first three I found when I searched recent news coverage for the phrase ‘isolated incident’. There have been others: in Britain these ‘isolated’ incidents occur at a rate of 2-3 a week. ‘Isolated incident’ is police-speak, and it’s meant to reassure: ‘don’t worry, this killer isn’t a danger to the public. He only had it in for the woman he killed’. But it’s also shorthand for a larger narrative which frames each killing as a unique personal tragedy–a relationship gone wrong, a man who couldn’t cope, an act of violence that, supposedly, no one saw coming (though it will usually turn out that the victim saw it coming, and not uncommonly that her warnings went unheeded). The existence of a pattern, suggesting a social rather than purely personal problem, is effectively denied.   

Feminists have long argued that the narratives a culture constructs around male violence against women are very much part of the problem. This blog has also made that argument several times before–about rape, sexual harassment, domestic homicide and mass killings perpetrated by self-proclaimed ‘incels’. Stories are powerful, especially when they’re constantly repeated. But what I want to ask in this post is, why do the media go on repeating them?  

It’s not because no one ever complains. Every so often, the reporting of a case will prompt an outcry. In February, protesters in Mexico targeted the offices of La Prensa after it reported on the Valentine’s Day murder of Ingrid Escamilla under the headline ‘It was Cupid’s fault’. Last year there was anger about the media’s coverage of the trial in New Zealand of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering the British tourist Grace Millane. More recently, the Sun newspaper’s decision to run a front page story headlined ‘I slapped JK and I’m not sorry’ (‘I’ being JK Rowling’s first husband, whose abusive behaviour during their marriage she had written about on her website) prompted over 500 complaints to the press regulator IPSO.  But the effect, if any, is usually short-lived. Even if the media have been forced to apologise for one story, the same narratives invariably reappear the next time around. 

The piece I’ve just linked to about the Millane trial offers one explanation:

Sadly, profit is and always has been the solitary pursuit of any given news outlet, and cultural appetites for stories featuring details of violence against women are seemingly insatiable. 

But while I don’t dispute the importance of the profit-motive, I think we also need to pay attention to the way news stories are produced, and the way certain narratives get entrenched and normalised through the routine reporting of ‘ordinary’ cases. 

To explain what I mean, I’m going to focus on an example I came across back in February. More exactly, I saw the headline which had appeared in the Independent: ‘Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty’. The case was in the news because the trial had just ended, and the defendant, 19-year old Yusef Ali, had been found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to the 18-year old woman he pushed over a balcony (she fell four storeys to the ground, sustaining serious injuries to her back and neck). I decided to look more closely at the way this story had been reported across a range of media outlets.

I chose this example because it was ordinary: a bread-and-butter Crown Court case which was not seen as newsworthy enough to merit blanket media coverage (but for a single ‘spectacular’ detail–the balcony–it might only have been covered in the local press). The sample of reports I managed to compile included items from two national newspapers (the ‘quality’ Independent and the tabloid Sun), two free papers aimed at commuters (the Metro and the Standard) and one local paper (Southwark News), plus the website of one national TV news channel (Sky) and–as an example of non-mainstream coverage–the Christian webzine Joy 105.com. 

I also found two other important texts: the statements issued at the end of the trial by the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. They’re important because it was clear they had served as the main if not the only sources for the news reports in my sample. Pressure to minimise costs (which also means staff) has made the news media increasingly reliant on official statements and press releases. Unless a trial is a major news event, they’re unlikely to send a reporter to observe the proceedings directly. That’s one reason why the reports are all so similar: their writers are working from the same sources, reproducing the same information (complete with the same gaps) and not uncommonly recycling large chunks of the text, right down to individual words and phrases.

Before I look more closely at some of those words and phrases, let me outline the facts of this case. In August 2019 Yusef Ali and a friend hired a fourth-floor flat in a building in Bermondsey where they planned to host an all-night party. Word of this event spread, and the young woman who became Ali’s victim was among a number of people who turned up on spec. According to witnesses Ali immediately began harassing her: he grabbed her neck, pulled her hair and slid his hand through a slit in her jeans to touch her thigh, telling her ‘this is what I do in bed’. Witnesses described her as becoming agitated, but they also said she made no direct response. Later Ali got into a fight with a group of men; as it escalated he took a knife from the kitchen and started lashing out indiscriminately. Other guests began to flee, including the woman he had harassed. But as she waited for the lift, he ran at her and pushed her over an internal balcony. He then tried to leave the building, but the police had been alerted and were waiting to arrest him. 

When the case came to trial the court heard that the young woman had been lucky to survive. Six months on, she was no longer in a wheelchair, but she was still unable to work or study. Clearly she had suffered a very serious, unprovoked assault. Yet that wasn’t quite how the media told the story. The way they told it reflects some troubling assumptions about men and women, sex and violence.  

For the purposes of this post I’m going to concentrate on the headlines. Research has shown that headlines are important (they’re also one thing news outlets don’t generally copy from press releases). It’s not just that for many readers (those who scroll through without clicking) the headline effectively is the story;  even for those who do read on, it’s been shown experimentally that headlines prime us to read what follows in particular ways, and that the presence of clarifying details in the story doesn’t always dispel assumptions based on the initial reading of the headline. With that in mind, let’s look at the headlines in my sample. 

  • Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty (Independent)
  • EVIL REJECT: Teenager pushed girl, 18, off luxury flat’s 40ft balcony after she spurned his advances at a party (Sun)
  • Man found guilty of pushing teen who rejected his advances off fourth-floor balcony in south London (Standard)
  • Party host pushed girl off balcony after she rejected his advances (Metro)
  • Man pushed woman from fourth-floor balcony in SE1’s Long Lane after making inappropriate advances to her at a party (Southwark News)
  • A man has been convicted after pushing an 18-year-old woman off a fourth-floor balcony after she rejected his advances and stabbing two people at a party he was hosting (Sky News)
  • This 19 year old boy was flirting with this 18 year old girl: she declined and he pushed her off a balcony (Joy 105)

These headlines show some variation, but there are also some striking similarities. Most strikingly, four out of seven include the formula ‘rejected his advances’, while a fifth, the Sun’s, offers ‘spurned his advances’. Southwark News has ‘inappropriate advances’. Only Joy 105’s headline avoids the term ‘advances’ (though the word does appear in the story, along with ‘spurned’): instead it describes Ali’s behaviour as ‘flirting’ and tells us that the victim ‘declined’.

The fact that so many reports converged on the same or very similar formulas suggests that the writers were working from the same template–the CPS statement, which contains both ‘rejected his advances’ and ‘inappropriate advances’. It doesn’t have ‘spurned’, but it does describe Ali as ‘scorned’ (‘a scorned man who pushed a girl off a balcony after she rejected his advances’). It also describes him as behaving ‘disrespectfully’ towards the victim, and that word too appears in several reports.

The first objectionable thing about this is the mismatch between the language and the acts it describes. In what universe does grabbing someone you’ve never met or spoken to by the neck, pulling her hair and sliding your hand underneath her clothing constitute an ‘advance’, or ‘flirting’? Those terms belong to the lexicon of courtship: they denote ways of signalling sexual interest using words, gaze, posture and perhaps innocuous forms of touching, as part of an initial negotiation that may (or may not) lead to more intimate physical contact. What Ali did was far more aggressive: ‘inappropriate‘ and ‘disrespectful’ don’t begin to cover it. 

The second objectionable thing is the use of ‘rejected’, ‘spurned’ and ‘scorned’ to describe the woman’s response to Ali. Even the more neutral ‘declined’ suggests a level of engagement that’s at odds with witness testimony that the woman’s resistance was entirely passive. It’s a stretch to equate her non-response with actively ‘rejecting’, let alone ‘spurning’ or ‘scorning’ her assailant (verbs which imply that she set out to humiliate him). And that equation is significant, because it’s the basis for a narrative in which his later attack on her was payback for the earlier ‘rejection’.

I don’t think this is deliberate victim-blaming. All the reports are unsympathetic to Ali: the story ‘he pushed her over a balcony because she rejected his advances’ is told to explain his behaviour, not excuse it. But that’s still a problem, because it depends on an assumption that does get used to blame victims, and more generally puts the onus on women to prevent or contain male violence. It assumes that men will ‘naturally’ feel aggrieved when women don’t reciprocate their sexual interest. That’s one of the axioms of rape culture: it’s something every girl is taught she must manage. She must learn how to ‘let him down lightly’, in case he treats her lack of interest as a provocation. Men’s inability to tolerate rejection is also a common trope in reports on domestic homicide, where perpetrators are often said to have ‘snapped’ after a woman ended a relationship.

Can these narratives be changed? Feminists have tried: in 2018, for instance, the campaign group Level Up produced new guidelines for the British media on the reporting of domestic homicide, and in 2019 they succeeded in getting them endorsed by the press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS. Though newspapers are not obliged to follow them, the regulators’ endorsement does establish them as recommendations for ‘best practice’, and in theory that should strengthen the hand of anyone who complains about a breach. 

But complaining isn’t always a solution. It’s probably most effective in a case like the Sun’s ‘I slapped JK’ story, when the issue is a single newspaper overstepping the mark on a particular occasion. It’s not so useful when whatever you’re complaining about appears in every paper’s version of the same events.

Formulas like ‘isolated incident’ and ‘rejected/spurned his advances’ are not unusual or sensational: rather they are normalised and taken for granted. You can’t complain that they ‘overstep the mark’, because they are the mark; they’re clichés writers reach for (or copy and paste from other sources) because they’re seen as the obvious way to tell a certain kind of story. Of course it’s important to keep trying to raise awareness; but when even the CPS, the institution responsible for prosecuting crime, talks about ‘scorned men’ and ‘inappropriate advances’, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.

 

 

 

Whose women?

This week in Yorkshire, a local man named Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox on the street outside a public library. He shot her, stabbed her and kicked her as she lay bleeding on the ground, and witnesses report that he shouted ‘Britain first!’  ‘Britain First’ is the name of a far-right political organization; Mair, it turned out, had a history of involvement with racist and white supremacist groups. Jo Cox, on the other hand, was a vocal campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees. The police have confirmed that she was deliberately targeted—Mair didn’t just go on a rampage and shoot whoever got in his way. Yet people who knew him described him as a quiet, non-violent man, considerate of his neighbours and devoted to his mother.

Almost exactly a year earlier, on June 17, 2015, another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, had entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine Black worshippers dead. As he opened fire, he reportedly shouted: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. And you have to go’.

In Charleston, two thirds of the dead were women. But they were not who Dylann Roof was talking about when he used the words ‘our women’.

As many people commented at the time, ‘you rape our women’ was the cry of the white lynch mob during the era of racial segregation in the US. And coded versions of it now function as dog-whistles for Europe’s increasingly popular anti-immigrant parties. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, recently warned that if Britain stayed in the EU there would be an influx of Turkish migrants: ‘the time bomb this time’, he said, ‘would be about Cologne’. He was alluding to the organized attacks on women that took place in the German city last New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by men who were described as being ‘of North African appearance’. Farage is too canny a politician to utter the actual words ‘they’re coming to rape our women’, but everyone knew that was the implication.

Writing in the wake of the Charleston shootings, the sociologist Lisa Wade characterised these references to ‘our women’ as ‘benevolent sexism’—treating women as precious but fragile creatures who depend on men to protect them. I’m familiar with this concept, but I’ve never been keen on the term. When men say ‘our women’ they are staking a claim to ownership, treating women not merely as men’s property, but as the exclusive property of men from a particular racial, ethnic or national group. This is not an act of benevolence towards women. It is a move in a contest between men. Men who are jealous of their prerogatives, and outraged by the idea that other men might try to usurp what is rightfully theirs. That’s also one of the reasons why mass rape is used as a weapon of war: men humiliate their enemies by raping ‘their’ women.

Writing from Bosnia in 1998, the human rights lawyer Sarah Maguire remarked on the way local politicians and officials used the phrase ‘our women’. They used it frequently when praising Bosnia’s many rape survivors for the dignity and resilience that allegedly explained their reluctance to testify against their rapists. ‘You know’, said one politician,

it’s amazing about our women. You can beat them and beat them and the only thing that happens is your arm gets tired. Women don’t break.

What Maguire saw was not unbroken women choosing to keep a dignified silence, it was women who felt exposed and unsupported. They feared that their testimony would provoke reprisals against their families, and they did not believe the authorities would protect them.

But it isn’t just ‘the enemy’s women’ who are targets of male sexual aggression. Here’s a comment someone posted in an online military forum on a thread reminiscing about the Falklands War:

I remember…when the ships came back and all the lads are [sic] lining the decks, flags and banners draped over the side with one that read “Lock up your daughters the Bootnecks are back”.

I also remember that banner vividly: I found this comment while looking for evidence that my memory wasn’t deceiving me. And yes, there it was: ‘Lock up your daughters’. Another stock phrase containing a possessive pronoun; another contest between men about who is entitled to possess women’s bodies. Presumably the banner was intended to be humorous rather than threatening. But what was it saying, if not ‘we’re coming to rape your women’?

In Three Guineas, a meditation on, among other things, women’s relationship to war and to the nation-states that wage it, Virginia Woolf famously wrote:

if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. For, the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world’.

Not only did Woolf reject men’s claims to be protecting ‘our women’, she also questioned whether women either were or should want to be included in the national ‘we’. Only recently admitted to citizenship, on terms which were grudging at best, women, she suggested, had little to gain from patriotism or nationalism.

But the idea of women as instinctive internationalists is not borne out by the historical record. Women have been actively involved in nationalist projects (and sometimes in the violence that went with them); many white women supported, and benefited from, British colonialism and imperialism. When Woolf wrote Three Guineas there were women who championed the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini; today there are women campaigning on behalf of other racist demagogues with slogans like ‘let’s take back control’ and ‘make America great again!’ These women clearly think they have a country. Jo Cox, whose politics really were internationalist, also had a country: she served it as an MP, and she died because someone decided she had betrayed it (when he appeared before the magistrates, her killer gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’).

In her book Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that when women embrace ultra-conservatism, racism and religious bigotry, this is a strategy for survival in a dangerous world:

From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.

The reasoning behind this is that men will protect the women they regard as ‘theirs’ from the men they regard as Other. But this strategy gives women no protection from the violence of their supposed protectors—the fathers and brothers and husbands and sons who actually pose the greatest risk to women’s safety.

The men responsible for headline-grabbing acts of public violence are not a totally different population from the men who abuse women and children at home. On the contrary, in the US since 2009, most of the mass killings classified as hate crimes or acts of terrorism have also involved the killing of a partner, ex-partner or other family member. Omar Mateen, the man who shot 50 people dead (and injured many more) in a gay club in Orlando earlier this month, had a history of serious domestic abuse. In these cases, as the journalist Soraya Chemaly has argued, it is unhelpful to talk as if there were no connection between ‘intimate’ or domestic violence and the killing of strangers in public places. What links them is that both are expressions of what Chemaly calls ‘aggrieved male entitlement’.

It is good to see feminists joining these dots, and insisting that the maleness of the perpetrators is not just an incidental feature of hate crimes like Omar Mateen’s or Thomas Mair’s or Dylann Roof’s. But making the connections is only the first step. We need a strategy to deal with the aggrieved male entitlement which is at the root of so much public and private violence. In education, in the criminal justice system and in the culture at large, this needs to be seen for what it is—one of the most dangerous forces at work in the world today.

Challenging aggrieved male entitlement also means challenging, whenever and wherever we encounter it, the habit of talking about women as possessions, things which men are entitled to own and control. I know it may seem like a small point, but to me the phrase ‘our women’ , whether it’s uttered by white supremacists, national politicians or minority ‘community leaders’, is demeaning and dehumanizing. We are not ‘your women’. We belong to ourselves.

The illustration shows floral tributes to Jo Cox MP in Birstall, West Yorkshire.