By all accounts David Edwards was a kind man, who doted on his wife despite warnings from friends that she was damaging him. He had stood at the aisle with bruises from her punches on the eve of their wedding. An ashtray and a coffee table were among the missiles fired at him over their few months of marriage. On Tuesday 8th March a line was drawn for this tortured soul, when Sharon Edwards was sentenced to 20 years in jail for fatally stabbing him with a kitchen knife. The only thing David had done wrong was to love his wife so much that he tolerated whatever she said or did to him. And this will be familiar to many of the victims of domestic violence, who are often asked ‘why did you stay?’
On the same day that this court case was reaching its conclusion, Labour MP Jess Phillips was speaking in the House of Commons. Her script featured the names of 120 people killed last year in domestic violence. After seven minutes the House of Commons broke into applause, but the list was far from complete. David Edwards, for example, was absent, as were a few dozen others. For the likes of Jess Phillips, the only victims of domestic violence are female, and the only explanation is misogynist oppression, in a world neatly divided into a gendered dichotomy of victims and perpetrators.
The truth of domestic violence is much more complex. Like David Edwards, many female victims would have been repeatedly attacked without provocation, perhaps suffering from years of abuse before the final deed. Others may have fallen to the distinctly female fate of an honour killing. But researchers have shown that there is also a high frequency of reciprocity in inter-partner violence, although this is rarely discussed in criminal justice policy. I observed several ‘six of one and half a dozen of another’ scenarios as a community psychiatric nurse, on one occasion being caught in a cross-fire of crockery.
That some women are violent is no revelation to society. We know this from playground fights at school: the eye-gouging and tufts of hair pulled from the scalp. Perhaps sensing their impunity, female gangs sometimes outdo their male counterparts on their misanthropic missions. A persistent phenomenon in mental health services is the disproportionately high levels of violence on locked female wards. In Viz, that satirical commentary on society, a hospital accident and emergency waiting room is always depicted with numerous men bearing saucepans stuck on their heads.
Men are on average stronger, with potential to do more harm, but their physique should not necessarily be used against them in apportioning blame. Yet as policing procedures have been tuned to the feminist doctrine of domestic violence as an exploitation of male power, a call-out inevitably leads to the arrest, handcuffing and detention of the man, with little latitude for officers’ interpretation of the situation.
What if a man makes the call? All victims of domestic violence find great difficulty in reporting an attack; the consequences for the relationship may be devastating, and the caller may be at risk of reprisal. For men, there are further deterrents. First, there is social dissonance, with humiliation and stigma in admitting to physically bullying by a woman. More importantly, a man may not be taken seriously by police, and he is susceptible to counter-allegation. Should separation be the outcome, he may lose contact with his children, and could become homeless – without the safety net of the refuges provided for women.
Clearly more women are killed by men than vice versa. Figures for recent years average at 190 female deaths, compared to 60 men. Each one of these was someone’s daughter, mother or sister; or a father, brother or son. Undoubtedly Jess Phillips has given good service to the cause of female victims; in Parliament she contributes to a cross-government approach to tackling violence against women and girls.
This is all very well, but it institutionalises gender stereotypes, while some female MPs give the impression that they primarily represent not their constituents but all women (or at least, women who are useful to their agenda). In the wise words of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, dualistic ‘them and us’ attitudes perpetuate a counterproductive narrative, when we should be applying universal values.
All lives count. Our parliamentarians preach on equality, but they ride roughshod over this principle to omit men from the roll of domestic killings. Phillips should return to the floor of the House of Commons with the missing names. Let’s not just be angry about domestic violence, let’s be even.