This morning, I appeared on Woman's Hour, discussing the depiction of male violence against women in popular culture - notably Big Littles Lies, in which we are confronted with a complex and nuanced portrayal of an abusive relationship.
But for centuries, I argued, we have been eroticising male violence against women - and this is still the case today. Against that backdrop, the way women reporting abuse are treated, and the way real-life abuse against women is reported, easily slips into patterns of blame, objectification and minimisation. Crucially, powerful stereotypes that reinforce the apparent inevitability of men's violence and women's victimisation also impact on a woman's own understanding of what constitutes abuse. This is deeply, deeply dangerous.
Yesterday, Trimaan Dhillon was given a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Alice Ruggles. Alice was just 24-years-old when he broke into her home, and slashed her throat.
The thing is, this attack was not unpredictable - and it is a potent reminder of why, when a woman reports abuse, she must always be taken seriously as the expert in the perpetrator and his dangerousness. Even if the incident she is reporting seems innocuous, she knows that it is something worth reporting - and that means it is. The police have said that they do not think Alice understood the threat Dhillon posed. Yet she told her sister that she feared she would not be taken seriously by the police until he stabbed her. She knew exactly what he was capable of. She knew exactly, and tragically, what she was talking about.
So yet again, here we are, saying that the lessons must be learned. In fact, this is part of the reason that the Femicide Census was born. We must challenge a culture that conflates obsessive and controlling behaviour with romance. Dhillon contacted Alice's new boyfriend on Facebook, saying 'She is playing us, she is still in love with me'. He hacked her social media accounts and her Whatsapp. He drove down from Scotland to stalk her, leaving flowers and chocolates on her windowsill. This was not a romantic gesture from an old love, but coercive control - a symbol of his continued abuse and harassment. His actions should have been looked at as a whole: a deliberate pattern intended to intimidate, control and frighten his victim. He continued to harass her, sending her a parcel with pictures of them both, after he had been warned not to by police. That breach should have had immediate consequences for him. Instead, Alice was made to feel like a burden.
I took part in a panel talk about the opera Carmen last year. Carmen is stabbed to death by Jose, the man who professes to love her. A man in the audience described this murder as a 'crime of passion', and this enduring, damaging idea still has considerable power today. In fact, some of the reporting on the murder of Alice has alluded to this notion. Alice's relationship with Dhillon has been described as a 'fatal attraction' that 'cruelly cut short' her life.
It is despicable to imply that Alice had any power over what happened to her, as though it was her attraction to Dhillon that led to her murder. And this inherent victim-blaming is also evident in a police statement that said Alice did not want him to be arrested, and she 'paid the price for that with her life'.
How many more women must die before we learn the lessons? Dhillon made a choice to kill Alice. Two women a week, on average, are killed by a current or former intimate partner in England and Wales. It's not a crime of passion. It's not a fatal attraction, or a man driven mad by love, or a woman who secretly or subconsciously wants to be harmed. Men kill women because they can. And they can, not because women let them - but because our society, our culture lets them.
Alice Ruggles' mother, Sue, is running the Great North Run for Women's Aid in Alice's memory. Donate here.Suggest a correction