The reporting of India Chipchase’s murder shows the true extent of Britain’s rape culture

What did the media see in her that made her the perfect victim? The grotesque answer is, the same things as the man who murdered her did.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Why India Chipchase? For the Sun, it must have been the booze: “Woman ‘drank six Jagerbombs in ten minutes on the night she was raped and murdered” went the tweet, for which the newspaper was rightly damned. India Chipchase is not dead because she had one boozy night. She’s dead because a man, Edward Tenniswood, picked her up outside a club when she was intoxicated and unresisting; because he took her to his home to rape her; and because having raped her, he choked her to death.

Still, why India Chipchase? Why, when we know (thanks to the diligent recording of the Counting Dead Women project) that a woman is killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK, did this woman become the face on the front pages? Why did this trial, of all the trials of men who kill women, get so much coverage? Her murder was unusual because her murderer was a stranger to her – 68 per cent of female murder victims are killed by someone they know – but still, not that unusual. It happens about once every ten days, yet we don’t see 30-odd cases a year reported as extensively as India Chipchase’s.

So why her? What did the media see in her that made her the perfect victim? The grotesque answer is, the same things as the man who murdered her did. Tenniswood recognised her as two things: desirable, and physically incapable of evading his intended use. For the media, she’s just as beautiful, with details like “doctor’s daughter”, “WAG” (her boyfriend is a professional rugby union player) and “former private schoolgirl” to make her even more desirable. And dead is as good as drunk when it comes to being able to turn a woman to your own purposes.

When Tenniswood stood in the dock and narrated his fabricated version of the night he killed Chipchase, the press repeated it in headlines like “India Chipchase murder accused was ‘overeager in bed’” (the BBC) and “India Chipchase murder accused ‘killed barmaid’ during ‘kinky sex session’” (the Mirror). They didn’t have to do this. They could have reported his defence in the body of the article, making it clear that these were the words of a man accused of rape and murder. Instead, journalists put his version unchallenged at the top of the page, holding it in the delicate pincer-grip of quote marks.

Tenniswood’s fantasy of a masochistic, submissive woman who invited him to choke her is shared in these headlines. Because – however implausible it is that this middle-aged man living in a plastic-wrapped apartment could be the object of a young woman’s annihilating ultimate sexual desire – the fantasy that women have this fantasy is a widely shared one. Passivity is the ultimate feminine trait, and nothing could be more passive than inviting someone to kill you. If women are nothing – Freudian voids waiting to be filled up with male ideas, male flesh – what could be a more appropriate erotic object for us than the perfect nothing of death?

All those gorgeous corpses in beautifully-produced crime dramas. All those sexily lifeless women in fashion shoots. Wouldn’t it be exciting to have found a real-world woman with a death wish? Just the suggestion that a woman might really, deep-down, have wanted a man to hurt her is enough to get readers’ blood up. For Tenniswood, abducting, raping and killing Chipchase was a turn-on. During his trial, he got to retell that night – a confection of unlikely attraction and a woman’s desperate, self-obliterating lust that was summoned entirely from his own head but that could have been the plot of a gonzo porno or an arthouse movie. And the reporting colluded with his fantasies by echoing them for wider gratification.

Nothing will bring Chipchase back. No amount of feminist rage will resurrect her. But for journalists to have run with these shabby echoes of a rapist’s self-justification is an insult to a woman who should still be alive, and to every woman who is harmed by men’s sexual violence. Every time these stories are told – that women really want to be hurt, that men are only helping us to get what we’re asking for when they hurt us – the world is made more dangerous for women. Did everyone who saw Chipchase on the night she was killed, being incoherently ushered about by a man clearly not her equal, think that this was what she wanted? Think that she was safe?

Or did they not think about her at all? The ultimate male fantasy version of women is that we should be hot, available and disposable. Any desires of our own are an inconvenience at best. Mass-market pornography tells us that that, inasmuch as women are entitled to claim desires, they should be masochistic ones: the desire to be used, the desire to be humiliated, the desire to hurt. The desire to say no, the desire to determine our own pleasure, the desire to get home safely from a night out – no one’s ever going to make erotica about that, because sex in common parlance is still the act of male domination and female subjugation. It’s the rapist’s version of intercourse. And in a rape culture, that’s the version that was written into the headlines about India Chipchase. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.