How Male Possessiveness Kills Women

We interviewed one of the academics behind the biggest ever study of men who kill women.

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Aug 10 2015, 11:00am

(Photo by Valentina Quintana via)

When you read horror stories in the news about men killing their wives or girlfriends, they might come across as one-off tragedies that could never really be properly explained. But do you ever wonder if there's a pattern to the murders of women by men?

A husband and wife team of professors wanted answers, and have spent their life's work finding them. Professors Rebecca and Russell Dobash, criminologists at The University of Manchester, spent ten years interviewing murderers serving life sentences in British prisons and conducted the biggest ever study of men who kill women.

Their research uncovered several unnerving societal issues. Most importantly, their research showed that many women are murdered by jealous, possessive and controlling men. The ideas of entitlement bound up in masculinity are, in some cases, deadly.

I spoke to Professor Russell Dobash about his and his wife's book on their decade-long study of these types of killings, When Men Murder Women.

VICE: Why was it important to do such an in depth study into why men murder women?
Professor Russell Dobash: Most studies of homicide only involve statistics like the age and gender of the offender and victim. We don't think this tells us much about why people commit murder and wanted to go further.

We got data on men killing men, women and children. Most studies focus on male on male murders, but we wanted to make sure we knew more about women, because in Great Britain 30 percent of the victims are women, and 20 percent in the US.

Can you outline what the study consists of?
We went into seven British prisons and looked at the case files of murderers and identified three main types of murders with female victims. We looked at 105 cases of intimate partner murder – wives, partners, girlfriends. Sexual murders, the killing of an individual woman who was not an intimate partner, but was killed in a sexual murder, looking at 98 cases, four of which were serial killers. And the murder of women over 65, with 40 cases. We also compared 424 cases of male on male murder.

We looked at 866 case files in total, and collected statistical information about the nature of the murders, number of injuries, kinds of weapon used, etc. We also collected information about their life courses, such as their problems in childhood and adulthood, if there were any, and interviewed 200 male and female murderers ourselves.

What were your key findings?
We found that in the vast majority of cases, men kill their partners because of sexual jealousy. Either at the point where the female says "I've had enough of you whacking on me, I'm out of here," – because 65 percent of the men have previously used violence on their partners – or after they'd left. What generally happens is he wants the woman and thinks she's his, so he tries to get her back. Often, he tries cajoling her or, ironically, beating her up. In these cases, eventually they realise she won't come back and change the project to annihilating her.

The intimate partner murders were some of the most intentional killers we saw. Many had problematic childhoods and adulthoods, a lot had alcohol problems and were unemployed. But there were a proportion who didn't have any convictions, or alcohol issues, and were regularly employed. These guys had the same proprietary orientations towards their partner. Whether she's middle or working class, she's left him and she's had it. We also found 62 collateral murders. These involved the killing of her either her children, or "protectors" such as friends, relatives, new boyfriends and husbands, which shows you how important this sense of possessiveness is.

So that's intimate partner murder. What about sexual murder?
Sexual murderers are generally, but not always, [carried out by] sexual predators. In the majority of cases, what happens in sexual murders is he's doing his usual thing, either he jumps on the woman in an isolated area, or he sees her across the road and tries to get sex, and she resists. He then carries out a very vicious assault, often involving strangulation, but also kicking, punching and stomping on her.

Sexual murderers usually have very troubled backgrounds, far more so than intimate partner murderers. They have usually used alcohol and are dependent. About 37 percent of the women were strangers, and the rest knew the perpetrator as their neighbour, relative or friend. Only about 20 percent of the murderers had been convicted of a sexual assault, which is very worrying. Some had been brought to court and the prosecution didn't succeed, or the woman withdrew the complaint because she couldn't go through with it.

There's a belief that drugs are a factor in homicides, which probably comes from the US, and it could be important there, but here in Europe and Great Britain, it's most often alcohol. With sexual murders, often these guys are at the pub, decide they want a woman, stagger out, find a woman walking home from work or the pub and go after her.

And the third category you looked at was the murder of older women.
With the murders of older women, 40 percent of them were strangers who had seen her around and knew she was living on her own. Others were neighbours, friends and relatives. In the main, these guys targeted older women because they were vulnerable. Half of them committed a sexual murder on a woman over 65. Only a couple were sexual murders in care homes. The sexual murders of older women were usually of women over 80. Often the man broke into her house with the intention of robbing or having sex with her, she tried to resist and he became violent. Only a few had the intention of committing an assault, but then they don't think consequentially and batter her to death. The burglars were often substance abusers, unlike the others. Murders of older women only make up around six percent of homicides, but this could grow with the ageing population.

Can you give examples of some case studies?
In one case of intimate partner murder, the woman had left the man seven years ago and was married to a new partner. The ex is possessive about her, thinks she still belongs to him and he kills her.

In another, the couple has separated and she has custody of the kids. The ex-husband has them for the weekend, two boys, and kills them. Not because he hates the kids, but because he's angry at her.

One guy started using violence against women when he was 12, working at an old-people's home and beat up and robbed an old woman there, before going on to kill a woman as an adult.

Were you disturbed by your work on the project?
Doing the interviews was sometimes startling. How they talk about the murder, like "someone was killed," or "a knife came out," or saying "it died," about the woman, was quite disturbing. The men saw themselves as acted upon, and rarely the actor. Remorse was largely absent. We wouldn't be human if we weren't disturbed, but the police, psychologists and probation officers are the ones really on the frontline.

What, if anything, has changed over the decades you've been doing this work?
In the 1980s we used to lecture to the police about intimate partner murders and sexual murders and the pervading attitude was that either the women deserve it because of the way they dress or look, or it wasn't the perpetrators fault and he was led on.

Over the last ten years, the revelations in the media about child abuse in institutions, and survivors talking publicly, made people begin to recognise that this is a real thing. They started to realise this wasn't a figment of the woman or child's imagination. Crime reports indicate there has been a 17 percent rise in the successful prosecution of cases of physical and sexual violence against women. The police are held accountable now, more than they ever have been before. The women's movement – and more specifically movements like Women's Aid, Rape Crisis, and others – should be proud of their positive impact on the police, prosecution and prison services.

What can we do as a society to prevent more of these types of murders?
We need to get hold of these guys who are violent to their partners and/or sexually violent and get them under control and surveillance, and depending on the case, in a programme that forces them to face up to the way they think before they go on to murder someone. They need to understand denial, remorse and empathy, and start working through it. Women's safety is the most important thing when we are talking about this sort of violence and should guide how we deal with it.

Programmes for batterers to go and talk to someone before they murder anyone are highly important. We also need to start teaching young people about relationship breakups and how to deal with them, because generally men deal with breakups worse than women, and a minority become violent. Last year a 15-year-old boy killed his ex-grilfriend and some other kids in a school shooting after she left him.

The real issue is the sense of entitlement in masculine culture which is so prevalent. The idea that men have to be in control. It's present in a lot of pop culture, not only rap, but including it. There are so many examples which are quite scary, and indicative of the wider problem. One example is the lyrics of The Police's Every Breath You Take. The possessive, jealous male is such a present figure in pop culture. But we shouldn't be condoning or encouraging this mindset, because that is what many of these murderers have in spades.

Thanks very much, professor.

@sophiahrahman

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