The Dead Girls
My father often said two things guaranteed to outrage and terrify ordinary members of the public were “a dead girl and a live boy.” For most dramatic effect, the dead girl needed to have been abducted and murdered. The live boy, meanwhile, needed to have been molested by an authority figure, perhaps a scoutmaster or priest. Both, he maintained, touched a nerve that has been raw since man first walked on two legs.
“Live boy” stories are recalled by the public deracination that swirled around figures like Michael Jackson, and the ongoing, rolling car-crash of priestly sex abuse scandals in various countries. In the last month or so, however, two “dead girl” stories have convulsed the UK and Australia: those of Sarah Everard in London and a woman named only as “Kate” in Sydney.
At around 9 pm on March 3, 2021, 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard disappeared in South London. She went missing after leaving a friend’s house near Clapham Common to walk home to Brixton Hill. The country became familiar with a CCTV image of Everard walking out of a supermarket in a mask and green rain jacket, telephone to her ear. It emerged she had spoken to her boyfriend for about 15 minutes, arranging to meet him the next day. He reported her absence the following morning.
On 9 March, Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer with the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection unit, was arrested in Deal, Kent, firstly on suspicion of Everard’s kidnapping and later on suspicion of her murder. On 10 March, her remains were discovered in woodland near Ashford, Kent. Couzens was charged with kidnapping and murder two days later. His trial is scheduled for October.
On February 26, the ABC (Australia’s state-funded BBC-equivalent) published a story alleging that a senior cabinet minister had raped a fellow student at a 1988 debating competition, long before he entered politics, when he was 17, she 16. The woman had spoken to friends, gone to police, commenced drafting a formal statement, and appeared set to press charges when, abruptly, she contacted New South Wales police and withdrew her complaint. She suicided the next day, June 24, 2020. She was 49.
At her family’s request, she was not named in the initial news story, and at time of writing has still not been named. Nor was the alleged perpetrator. However, a confluence of circumstances meant that both he and she were readily identifiable. On March 3rd—a little before Sarah Everard commenced her doomed walk home across Clapham Common—Attorney-General Christian Porter outed himself as the alleged perpetrator. His press conference sought to deny—with broken but extreme vehemence—the allegation.
What followed in both cases was an immense outpouring of public anger, such that it soon became difficult to disentangle facts from the fog of news.
In Britain, fury coalesced around Couzens’s status as a serving member of the Met, and an “authorised firearms officer” to boot. Most British police officers do not carry firearms; AFOs are carefully selected and intensively trained. The skill and speed with which they extirpated the Borough Market Islamists in 2017—eight minutes after the first call to emergency services, all the terrorists were dead—is indicative of what they can do.
This was compounded by astonishingly poor policing at a public vigil held on Clapham Common in Everard’s memory. The Great British Public woke on Sunday March 14th to the front page of every newspaper in the land carrying images of a slight young woman pinned to the ground by several burly male coppers. The vigil turned into a protest, its organisers were landed with £10,000 fixed penalty notices, and fisticuffs broke out.
Even worse, this was in sharp contrast to the Met’s limp response to Black Lives Matter at the height of the pandemic last year. It was as though the powers that be were telling the country, “BLM okay; anti-lockdown and women’s safety; not okay.” Treating protesters differently on the basis of their politics or race deeply offends the British sense of fair play, and that sense of fair play proceeded to explode all over the Met.
In Sydney, the 1988 rape allegation stirred longstanding public disquiet about the booze-addled and aggressive workplace culture at Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra. Before Kate and her story took centre-stage, the government had been rocked by a rape alleged to have taken place in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds during a parliamentary sitting week.
Kate’s story was construed as a part of a wider pattern of behaviour among powerful and influential men, while exposing something Australians don’t like to admit afflicts their prosperous, orderly, socially-mobile country. It, too, has a class system, albeit an odd one.
A significant part of my career as a writer of non-fiction has been—at editorial request—explicating my two nationalities to each other, and then both to Americans. In treating with both of these cases, this professional habit was complicated by the fact that I knew Kate.
For some people, schooldays were best days: “the days of their lives” to paraphrase Queen in their 1991 single, its clip fronted by an AIDS-ravaged Freddie Mercury and recorded the year of his death. That pitch of school-age perfection, combining beauty, intellect, and grace, was certainly true of Kate.
I knew Kate for two years as she lived her best life, cutting a swathe through young Australia’s cultural and intellectual milieu, laying down a marker for future achievement that was never fulfilled. Kate, Christian Porter, many of Kate’s friends so broken by her death, and I participated in events organised such that one kept encountering the same clutch of high achievers from the same group of posh schools around the country over, usually, the last two years of high school. Unusually, Kate started young, in year ten, and so had a three-year run at the top. The activities in question formed part of an entire ecosystem of debating, public speaking, and academic competitions fought out among elite Australian high school students during the relevant period.
This meant, when a former colleague wrote to me that “it has become evident who the potential rapist is,” followed by a copy of Kate’s death notice in the paper, I felt like I’d been poleaxed.
In 1987-88, Kate was spoken of as a future prime minister. Those friends who knew her post-high school and who suggested as much to the media are not dissembling. As years passed, I wondered what had become of her. After the Internet became a thing, I would periodically search her name, drawing mostly blanks. She did not excel after high school the way most of us expected. People who are used to winning in the game of life notice when someone among their number trips and falls. One reason for the current distress is Kate seemed destined to be a winner in life’s lottery, a card-carrying member of the Great and the Good.
Kate’s membership of that elite group is why the ABC didn’t have to name her or her alleged victimiser, and why Porter, in the defamation claim he’s brought against the ABC, speaks of the ease with which both his own identity and hers were discovered. The grisly circumstances surrounding the allegations aside, her suicide and Porter’s press conference also exposed the training and composition of Australia’s “betters” to the wider public, and it’s fair to say the Great Australian Electorate—enlivened by an intense culture of egalitarianism as much as Britons are nourished by their sense of fair play—has not been hugely impressed.
All the Best People, Australians learnt, knew each other. And they (we) came together to complain when one among their (our) number did not get her just desserts. I’m temperamentally conservative and don’t have a problem with hierarchies, but as my email in-tray and messaging apps filled with gossip and I was prevailed upon to provide commentary, I learnt my limits. I had a couple of roaring private fights while arguing publicly it doesn’t matter that Kate had immense promise and could (or even should) have gone on to achieve the equivalent of what others of us in her cohort achieved. “Bricklayers and carers matter too,” I told someone in the middle of a spat.
“We are looking at asking a question on whether there needs to be more protection offered in the daily lives of women,” the first media inquiry began, “including in law, legislation, and policing to keep them safe.” There are “suggestions of expanding hate crime categories to include misogyny,” ran another. “Do longer gaol terms stop crime or not?” asked a third. I dodged the BBC, pleading a clash with my first coronavirus jab, but responded to various others with the criminology I spent a year studying at Oxford, coupled with experience at the Bar.
No, all men are not potential rapists. Rapists are rare in the population but among the worst recidivists, committing an average of six rapes in their criminal careers and not typically being apprehended until the third.
Yes, long sentences do stop crime, but not because they deter. A greater likelihood of being caught is what deters, regardless of the punishment meted out. Instead, long sentences incapacitate, the criminologist’s term of art for “protect,” although rapists also have a nasty habit of committing one or two of their allotted six in gaol.
…if you’re going to take away all the subjective aspects of an offence, then it becomes unreasonable to have the risk of prosecution hanging over someone’s head for decades after an encounter.
No, behaviour from men that women dislike and fear (backside-pinching on the tube, wolf-whistles, leering) isn’t perpetrated, as a general rule, by the same men who commit rape and murder. Dame Cressida Dick, the Met Police Commissioner, is right to point out that kidnap and murder is “very rare.”
Yes, when women say they can’t tell the difference between a cat-caller and a rapist, they’re engaging in accurate stereotyping. Men are, on average, nine times more violent than women, and commit nearly all sex offences. However, if you grant women that bit of stereotype accuracy, you have to grant it to people who can’t tell the difference between a conservative Muslim and a terrorist, or between a black man wearing a tea cosy beanie in Jamaican colours and a drug dealer. The same stereotype accuracy obtains in both.
No, murder is rare in the UK. You are less likely to be murdered there than almost any other human in history. The Crime Survey for England and Wales puts the UK’s homicide rate at 1.1 per 100,000. For comparison, according to the UN, the USA has something like 5 per 100,000; Brazil, about 27.
Yes, in the UK, violent crime rates have been dropping since 1995. Going further back, there was a crime surge in the later years of the 20th century, but on a longer timescale the trend is clear. In America, there are approximately half as many violent crimes per person per year as there were in the early 1990s.
Yes, if you are a woman, you are less likely to be murdered. Of the 695 people murdered in England and Wales in the year to March 2020, 506 of them were men. And for the specific issue of murders on the street, by strangers—the fear we’re confronting—the disparity is greater still: 154 men were murdered by strangers, and only 23 women.
No, increasing conviction rates in rape cases is difficult, although Roman law countries in Western Europe have higher conviction rates than the UK or Australia. In France, the complainant in sexual offences has her own representation in court, in addition to the state prosecutor. She is cross-examined directly by the judge instead of counsel for the accused. Both the accused and complainant are anonymous, by court order, until a final verdict has been reached at first instance. Juries are used less often, with more sex offences tried summarily.
More importantly, all French law requires is that (a) an intentional sexual act took place and (b) there was no free agreement by the complainant. There is no subjective test, as there is in England, for the accused not to have reasonably believed there was consent. Free agreement is assessed by an objective test based on behaviour. Doing this takes out the subjective element of the crime altogether, while also requiring the courts to prove only one negative instead of two. It becomes significantly easier to secure a conviction.
A warning: importing bits of civilian law into a common law system risks upsetting the delicate checks and balances designed to protect the accused. If you’re going to use juries less often, then you need to compensate for that with strict rules of evidence. Scotland, for example, requires corroboration—two different pieces of independent evidence before a defendant can be convicted of a crime.
Similarly, if you’re going to take away all the subjective aspects of an offence, then it becomes unreasonable to have the risk of prosecution hanging over someone’s head for decades after an encounter. In France, sexual offences are subject to a statute of limitations. Even if she were alive, Kate would have no case against Christian Porter. 33 years is too long.
Safety and Fear
Having said all this in various outlets, I knew thanks to my membership of Kate’s friendship group that none of it addresses women’s fear or their desire to be safe. It’s not just getting murdered that women fear. They fear being raped. Men make them feel uncomfortable. Men yell at women as they drive past, or follow them as they walk home, catcalling, whistling, yahooing.
In one interview, I fell back on research done by evolutionary biologists and psychiatrists indicating that women as a class are at the sharp end of a wider problem. That is, a significant minority of men (as many as a third of young men, remembering peak criminality occurs between the ages of 15 and 30) engage in overt behaviour falling short of the criminal threshold that is nonetheless intended to establish dominance over those with whom they interact, particularly in public places.
It’s directed against people who are perceived as weaker, so many men and a majority of women. It’s a form of behaviour that was nearly universal and was also once adaptive. It’s a reminder that we’re still the same homo sapiens we were 100,000 years ago and we’ll be waiting a long time before things change. In the modern world, it’s maladaptive for society in general, women in particular, and arguably the men themselves: masculinity of that type and the behaviour that goes with it is essentially useless. In developed countries, those men are landed with criminal records or otherwise shoved back in their box, often in the form of lifelong unemployment and welfare dependency.
Meanwhile, women are afraid, because they cannot tell which cases will escalate, even if intellectually they know actual violence is rare. Facts may not care about your feelings, but feelings have better lobbyists. And, now, they (we) have two dead girls to which we (they) can point, two graves ringed round not only by quotidian fears, but with rocks, and stones, and trees.