What the Lavinia Woodward case tells us about race, gender and justice

The role reversal shows just how justice fails women.

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There is nothing more newsworthy in today's media economy than an attractive young woman who has committed a violent crime, except possibly an attractive young woman who is deemed to have gotten away with it.

Imagine the expression on the faces of the nation's editors when news broke that Lavinia Woodward, an exceptionally gifted medical student at Oxford University, had been spared jail for stabbing her boyfriend in a violent rage last September. Imagine being faced with a hundred dispiriting Getty images of Donald Trump's orange face, and then learning that not only has a pretty young blonde with a name like an Agatha Christie character gone stab-happy at an Oxford college, she’s also got an Instagram feed and a taste for very short shorts.

This story has everything. It even has an ethical dilemma for feminists everywhere: if it’s wrong for a violent young man to be excused prison because he has a bright future ahead of him, as violent young men often are if they are also white and posh, is it not just as wrong for a violent young woman to be shown the same leniency?

Ms Woodward is not getting off scot-free, although you’d hardly know that from the news reports. Even as she is spared a jail sentence, her conviction for a violent crime will follow her for life. Still, her case could not be more different from those of less privileged women across the world who have been jailed for acting in self defence – consider Marissa Alexander, the African-American mother of three who was imprisoned in 2012 for firing warning shots at her abusive husband and released only after a nationwide campaign and a three-year legal battle. 

Mercy is often shown to "promising" young people who do stupid, violent things, but race and class still determine who is and is not considered promising. In Britain, white people are less likely to receive jail sentences after conviction than defendants of colour. White people are more likely to have their mitigating factors, like Woodward’s alleged history of being in an abusive relationship, taken into account. White violence is interpreted, including by the legal system, as out of character. Black violence is understood to be as inevitable as it is undeserving of compassion. None of this means that Woodward ought to be in jail – it means that many more women ought to be out of it.

Another reason Woodward's story seems unusual is because this sort of violent behavior is not how posh, precocious white women are supposed to fall apart. Troubled young women of all backgrounds are expected to take their rage out on their own bodies, silently and in secret, cutting and drugging and starving themselves. It's young men who are expected to act out violently, and when they do, it is rarely considered news, even when judges let them off with a slap on the wrist. Boys, after all, will be boys.

A great many people are blowing off steam online by venting their rage at Woodward, insisting that she benefited from the so-called "pussy pass" – an alt-right myth whereby, against all evidence to the contrary, it is women, not men, who get away with bad behaviour because of their gender.

Rather more pertinently, others are asking whether you’d trust her to perform heart surgery on you. As far as I'm concerned, the answer to that one is a resounding yes. Ms Woodward didn't just stab her then-boyfriend in the leg, you see – she threw a laptop at him. That’s the detail I keep coming back to. People in their twenties don't just throw a laptop, in the same way that people in their thirties don't just throw a baby, not even in self-defence. To do that you have to have the sort of pathological, goal-focused single-mindedness that leaves you unfit for all but a few professions, one of which happens to be surgery. I would absolutely allow Ms Woodward to operate on my heart. I just wouldn’t want her to marry my brother.

The question nobody can bring themselves to ask, however, is whether or not Woodward’s boyfriend deserved it. Had he been cruel or threatened her? Did he provoke her? Did he abuse her trust, steal her money, cop off with her best friend? Was he simply looking particularly stabbable that day? The reason that nobody is asking those questions is that they are disgusting, ridiculous, and entirely beside the point. When it comes down to it, you really shouldn’t stab people, and I think that’s something we can all get behind. That, in fact, is why we have laws about this sort of thing.

But these are exactly the questions routinely asked when men attack and abuse women and girls. If there were truly gender equality in this case, the boyfriend would have be asked if he’d been drinking that night, if he had provoked his partner by displaying his taut and slashable thighs, and why, if he didn’t want to be stabbed, he had gone back to a young lady’s room without stab-proof trousers on. Girls will be girls, after all.

He was probably making it all up for attention, or revenge, or both. Young men can’t be trusted. Best let her off with a slap on the wrist. Time and again, we are encouraged to empathise with those who perpetrate rape and domestic violence, and to mistrust victims. Only when the perpetrator is female and the victim male does the depravity of this approach become come clear.

We are accustomed, by now, to hearing this story with the genders of the key characters reversed. When young men attack young women, we are used to hearing them endlessly exculpated, defended as “brilliant” individuals with their whole lives ahead of them who should not have their futures ruined because of one boorish lunge in an alley. We are used to hearing their victims dismissed as sluts and liars, because society places a higher value on men’s reputation than on women’s safety and autonomy, even in the courts. We live in a world that openly tolerates a certain amount of male violence against women, and which is prepared to excuse a good deal more if the men in question are excellent athletes, or gifted academics, or famous comedians, or simply white and wealthy.

This causes problems for those feminists, like myself, who are keen to see justice done and to challenge patterns of structural violence but uncomfortable with relying on the courts and the prison industrial complex for those ends. I'm no advocate of incarceration. There are very few circumstances where locking someone in a cage is either ethically appropriate or a good use of public funds. I’d just like to see the benefit of the doubt applied far more fairly – across the divides of gender and class.

Almost everyone deserves a second chance, whatever their circumstances – mercy, like justice, should not be the preserve of a privileged few with "promising" futures.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.