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20 July 2018

No, “fundamentally decent men” don’t kill their wives – stop excusing domestic violence

Sympathy for the former Ukip councillor who murdered his wife is an example of how we normalise violence.

By Sian Norris

“I’ve just killed my wife […] bit different for you tonight I expect. Happy New Year.”

These were the words of former Ukip-councillor Stephen Searle during a 999 call. Searle, 64, was this week found guilty of killing his wife, Anne. She was 62 years old. 

He then quipped: “Bit of a bizarre situation but you know, never mind.”

The joke is even less funny when you realise that domestic abuse and fatal male violence are anything but bizarre in the UK.

Across the country, just under two women a week are murdered by their former or current partner. The National Crime Survey recorded that, in England and Wales, there are 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse every year. The vast majority (89 per cent) of victims who endure sustained abuse (four or more incidents) are women. And the Counting Dead Woman project has so far estimated that 73 women have been killed by men in 2018 (this includes non-domestic violence related killings).

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During the call, Searle went on to reassure the phone operative that it was safe for officers to enter his house, as “I’m not violent.”

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His statement reflects a dangerous and persistent idea that violence, when committed against an intimate partner, isn’t as severe or dangerous as violence committed against a stranger.

This reflects a historic dismissal of domestic violence as being “just a domestic”. It’s seen as an isolated incident, and the perpetrator is not regarded as a danger to the wider public.

It’s precisely this attitude that led to men like serial killer Theodore Johnson being able to kill so many for so long, despite being convicted of manslaughter for pushing his wife off a balcony. After all, he was only a danger to his wife.

Searle’s defence that he “isn’t violent” was supported by his Ukip colleague, Bill Mountford. Following Searle’s conviction, Mountford described his friend to the BBC as a “fundamentally decent man.” He went on to say: “I’m well aware that domestic disputes can get out of control and I feel equally sorry for both Steve and his now deceased wife.”

But “fundamentally decent men” don’t kill their wives.

Fatal male violence isn’t a dispute that gets out of control. It’s a great myth that domestic abusers have no control over their behaviour. The very fact that women are most vulnerable at the point of leaving shows that it is losing control that abusers most fear. Murdering your partner is the ultimate act of control — not a loss of it.

The attitudes Mountford voiced could be dismissed as a friend in shock. But they have a huge impact. The idea that abusers are decent men in need of our sympathy risks blocking a family’s access to justice.

Take the famous 2010 case, when a man beat his wife to death with a frying pan, only to be given an 18 month sentence. The judge ruled he was “a man of hitherto good character who has led a respectable and successful life.”

Why should killing his wife disrupt that?

The Stanford and Steubenville rape cases in the USA were further examples of where men’s sentences were shockingly low, because of concerns of how their violent crimes would impact on them. When Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, he received an outpouring of support as people fretted about how the case would affect his career. His initial sentence, you’ll remember, was six years.

I myself have spoken to domestic abuse survivors who have described police officers expressing sympathy for their abusers, only for the abuser never to be convicted.

When we start from a position that men who kill or abuse their partners are “fundamentally decent” and in need of our sympathy, we normalise and reduce the impact of their crime. We start to make excuses for their behaviour.

Whether it’s the rapist lured by short skirts or a killer’s “nagging wife”, all too often we place the blame on the victim and seek to excuse the perpetrator. In those excuses, we become complicit in minimising the hurt, pain and violence they have committed.

Searle’s 999 call where he calls himself a “naughty boy”. Mountford expressing concern for his “friend” because, after all “these things happen.”

One voice we haven’t heard from is that of Searle’s deceased wife, Anne.

In a Facebook post she wrote not long before she was killed, she said: “Happy Christmas… I hope I will still be here in 2018. We will see.”

She didn’t live to see 2018.

Instead, Anne Searle became the 139th woman to be killed by fatal male violence last year.