Motives and meanings

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 34, Winter 1996/97.

Feminists were mostly silent about the Rose West case in spite of having an analysis of sex crime, because female perpetrators of sex murder seemingly did not fit that analysis. Debbie Cameron argues that we can understand female sex murderers within a feminist framework.

The story so far…

In an earlier piece (T&S 33) I wrote critically about the way mainstream commenta­tors represented Rosemary West using the largely fictional concept of the ‘female serial killer’. Media pundits and their tame experts were seemingly gripped by a liberal desire to believe that everything, including sexual abuse and killing, is now an equal opportunity activity. But beneath this liberal fetish of equality there lurked a less liberal anti-feminism. The real point was to convey a message that when feminists go on and on about male violence they are simply airing political prejudices with no firm basis in fact.

As I argued before, this is nonsense. Women’s contribution to serial killing is so insignificant that Robert Ressler, the former FBI agent who coined the term and is widely considered to be the world’s leading expert on the phenomenon (he is without doubt the world’s most tireless propagandist for it), feels able in his memoir Whoever Fights Monsters to dismiss the whole question in a single para­graph:

I am often asked why I don’t discuss female serial killers. Only one female has been arrested and accused as a serial killer — Aileen Wuornos in Florida. Although there may be others, my extensive research has not come across them. …Do the psychological impairments that characterize the men also describe the personalities of violent women? Frankly, I don’t know; such research remains to be conducted (p.93).

I will return to the FBI’s ‘extensive re­search’ on serial killers and the ‘psychological impairments that characterize the men’. At this point, what I want to draw attention to is this expert’s frank admission that where women do, exceptionally, engage in violent acts similar to those of male serial killers, he and other researchers don’t know what lies behind their behaviour. All serious commentators on the case of Rose West, including feminist ones, found themselves looking into the same explanatory void. That is my starting point for this second piece about the West case: how do we as feminists deal with the issues without resorting to fiction (‘the female serial killer’), to sex stereotyping (‘the murderous mother’) or simply to silence?

Problems and pitfalls

As far as I know, there has been very little published feminist commentary on the West case, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. Talking about it from a feminist perspective (particularly in public, given the climate of mainstream anti-feminism which almost guarantees that what you say will be misinter­preted) is not easy. Any attempt to do so must negotiate a number of potential pitfalls.

One of these is a defensive desire to say nothing about what Rose West actually did, for fear of just reinforcing the crude misogyny of the mainstream. It’s tempting to concentrate on how exceptional her crimes were, and how outra­geously she was scapegoated by the media (‘The Most Depraved Woman On Earth’, as The Sun newspaper trumpeted in November 1995). An observation that recurred in conversations with other feminists was that ‘one abusive woman doesn’t cancel out 999 men: why aren’t they talking about the real culprits?’ The point is a reasonable one, and we should lose no oppor­tunity to make it in public; but it cannot be all we say, for it totally sidesteps the hard questions about Rose West herself.

We also need to resist any assumption that our role as feminists is to find excuses for Rose West, to explain her behaviour away as opposed to just explaining it. I am not saying T&S readers would themselves make this assump­tion, but we need to be aware of how commonly it is made by others about us. During the trial I was amazed how often colleagues and casual acquaintances — not to speak of reporters — just took it for granted that the ‘natural’ tendency for anyone with my political beliefs would be to spring immediately to Rose West’s defence.

More subtly, there’s a danger of normalising Rose West’s behaviour or playing down her own responsibility for it, by saying in effect ‘yes, what she did was awful, but in her position many women might have done it’. This is the kind of argument which has been used — sometimes successfully and sometimes with support from feminists — in trials of what the FBI calls ‘compliant victims’, i.e. severely abused women whose involvement in multiple rapes and/or murders initiated by their male partners occurred under duress. In some ways it parallels the ‘self-preservation’ argument about women who have killed their abusers (in some circumstances a woman may perceive her only choice as ‘kill or be killed’); though I find it much more problematic to extend that argument to the killing (not to mention the rape and torture) of someone other than the abuser.

Still, there have been instances where I think this posed a genuine dilemma for femi­nists. An example is the case of Canadian Karla Homolka, who participated with her husband Paul Bernardo in the abduction, sexual abuse and murder of two teenage girls, as well as the abuse of her own younger sister which resulted in the sister’s death from the drugs they gave her to stop her resisting. Karla Homolka got a deal in exchange for testifying against Bernardo, and in consideration of her plea that she was horrifically abused by him and feared for her own life if she did not participate in the killings as he directed. I have often asked myself where I would have stood on the Homolka case if I had been an activist in Canada at the time: the answer is, I don’t know.

Rose West: abuser and victim?

In the West case feminists were spared this dilemma, at least in public, because Rose West’s defence did not try to portray her systematically as a ‘compliant victim’. The issue of her being abused by her partner in crime, Fred West, was only one minor ingredient in a stew of more or less feeble arguments which seemed almost to have been thrown together at random (I often wondered why the defence was so inept; perhaps it was assumed that the verdict was a foregone conclusion).

Privately, however, most of the feminists I talked to during the trial believed that the question warranted more attention than it actually got. To feminists, the evidence strongly suggested that Rose West was not only an abuser but also a victim herself. It seemed obvious, for instance, that she was abused by Fred West. It was also rumoured (and several reporters claiming ‘inside information’ assured me the rumours were true) that the authorities were covering up, or at least refusing to fully investigate, the true extent of the abuse that went on in the ‘house of horror’, in which many people besides the Wests — including police officers — may have been involved. No-one familiar with the workings of organised abuse networks could overlook the possibility that 25 Cromwell Street was at the centre of such a network, and that women in the house, includ­ing Rose West, were more extensively victim­ised than anyone who knew the full details was willing to admit on the record.

It also seemed likely that Rose West had a longer history of sexual abuse going back to childhood. Family sources spoke of her being forced into sex with her father and grandfather; outside the family she was said to have been sexually active at 14, picked up for soliciting at 15 and raped on at least two occasions. If these (depressingly plausible) reports are true then even before she met Fred West, Rose West’s life was a catalogue of exploitation and abuse.

Feminists who made the point about victimisation did not mean it crudely as an excuse for Rose West’s own behaviour towards other women and children. No-one I spoke to questioned Rose West’s guilt. But the issue of her victimisation was certainly assumed to be relevant to the explanation of her actions. Her abuse of others was seen as the consequence of the hideous abuse she had suffered, and perhaps was still suffering, herself. This is the argument I want to examine in detail. While I agree it is relevant to ask whether Rose West was abused, I want to argue that the relationship between what was done to her and what she did to others is not a straightforward matter.

Something that I find particularly troubling in the ‘cause-and-effect’ line of argument is that a similar reasoning underpins the currently orthodox account of why men engage in this kind of abusive behaviour. Experts on ‘serial killing’ like Robert Ressler also locate the genesis of (male) killers in their early experi­ences of abuse. Is something wrong when feminists are echoing the theories of FBI behavioural scientists—theories we are highly critical of in other contexts? How do we make sense of the apparent contradiction?

One way to resolve it would be to invoke the ‘equal opportunities’ discourse in which the gender of an abuser becomes an irrelevance. But this would hardly be acceptable to the feminists who raised the question of Rose West’s own victimisation; and anyway, whether or not she was victimised, it is clear gender was not an irrelevance in the life she shared with Fred West. Sexually ‘unconventional’ the couple may have been (if that term can be stretched to cover ‘sadistic, abusive and homicidal’), but every­thing we know about their ‘lifestyle’ implies a thoroughly traditional view of male-female relations. In many activities which we know they engaged in, their roles were neither interchangeable nor equal — for example, with or without her consent, it was Fred who prostituted Rose and not the other way round. More generally, to live at 25 Cromwell Street was to inhabit a culture which concentrated every conceivable form of sexual violence against women and children: pornography, prostitution, rape and murder. However actively and enthusiastically she participated in it, a woman within such a culture could not be in exactly the same position as a man.

At the same time, I do not want to assume that Rose West shared nothing with her husband, that her role was at all times and in all ways utterly different from his. I do not feel able to assume that, because the evidence is against so simple a view. Before I elaborate on that point, however, it is necessary to digress from the main thread of the argument and consider in more detail what the couple actually did, and why.

Unspeakable acts: the meaning of sex murder

In my earlier piece I suggested that mainstream commentary had failed to get to the root of what Rose and Fred West were doing during their career as abusers and murderers. Most attention was given to the abuse of the children in the West household and the murder of two of them; this was treated as the key to the case, if not the whole story. Conversely, silence was maintained on all kinds of other issues that seemed to me to leap out of the court reports. These issues were, it seemed, ‘unspeakable’: the tabloids alluded to them in prurient ‘shock horror’ terms, but more serious analysts had little or nothing to say about them.

For instance, I read nothing addressing the peculiar significance of race in the sexual lives of the Wests, though the subject cropped up in the evidence repeatedly. Sex with Black men appears to have had a particular meaning for Rose and Fred West, but no-one tried to make anything of this. Serious commentators also shrank from saying anything about the fact that Rose West was a self-identified bisexual. This was either seen as one more sign of her general depravity, or else it was ignored.

If these issues leapt out of the evidence for me, it is because I see a pattern in them, which fits with my theoretical understanding of what sexual murder is about. That understanding, in turn, is based on studying numerous case histories from the last hundred years. The West case exhibits many similarities with the other cases I have looked at, and this leads me to believe that similar motives and meanings are at issue in it. Like other sexual killers, what Rose and Fred West were doing in the course of their criminal career was constructing a form of identity based on sexual transgression and existential transcendence — concepts I will now explain.

Transgression and transcendence

What, one might ask, could possibly connect such activities as having sex with Black men and abducting young white women, or engaging in lesbian sex and spying on your children in the toilet? On the face of it these things are not the same, and we would not want to judge them in the same way: for feminists, obviously there is nothing in principle wrong about interracial or lesbian sex, whereas abduction and voyeurism are inherently repellent. But what matters here is how the Wests connected things in their own mental moral order. In their worldview, which was remote from any feminist one, all their sexual practices — not just the most obviously heinous ones like abduction, murder and child sexual abuse but also sex with Black men, sex for money, S/M, bi- and homosexuality, voyeurism and pornography — represented the forbidden.

This connects to what I am calling ‘trans­gression and transcendence’. Since the late eighteenth century there has been a set of ideas connecting sexual transgression (that is, flouting taboos, being what today’s Queer Theorists romanticise as a sexual ‘outlaw’) with personal freedom and transcendence of the social constraints which restrict more ‘ordinary’ people. Acts and persons which are conven­tionally forbidden are, equally conventionally, erotically charged. The pornography on sale in any sex shop displays in its most banal form the range of transgressions which are culturally coded in this way, from Asian Babes to Snuff. The Wests appear to have embraced virtually all of them.

Murder, of course, is considered in our culture the ultimate forbidden act, the last taboo: that is why, for some, it is also the ultimate turn-on. ‘True’ sex killers do not kill in a panic or in cold blood, to silence someone they have abused in lesser ways, but because they are aroused by the idea of having total control over another person, not just temporarily (as with rape) but forever. In almost every case they begin their criminal careers with less serious transgressions and escalate; at the same time they do not necessarily lose interest in ‘lesser’ crimes. It is not uncommon to find that someone who has committed several murders has also, during the same period, committed a string of quite ‘ordinary’ rapes. In other words, the latter stages of a sex-killer’s career are often charac­terised by involvement in a number of sexually transgressive scenarios. This also seems to have been true of the Wests, and it is another reason why I distrust any account that does not consider the whole range of their activities — that focuses, for instance, on their abuse of their own children to the exclusion of all else.

The idea of eroticised transgression/transcendence can in fact be applied to the sexual abuse of children, and to incest, since intergenerational and intrafamilial sex are conventionally forbidden. Let me emphasise that this is not the only meaning of child sexual abuse — the ‘forbidden fruit’ element is not equally significant for every abuser, there are other motives for eroticising children and other reasons (such as ease of access and control) to choose them as victims — but it is one possible meaning, and in the case of the Wests, who were steeped in a whole culture of sexual transgression, it seems likely that this meaning was relevant.

The point I am trying to emphasise is that the various socially and sexually transgressive activities of Fred and Rose West need to be considered in their totality if we are to make any sense of the case. However diverse these activities seem, and despite the fact that some of them must strike us as much worse than others, together they do add up to a coherent picture which is, in addition, typical of this kind of offender. But the coherence does not lie in any obvious similarity among the various acts themselves; it lies in what they meant to the actors, Fred and Rosemary West.

The idea that what they meant was tran­scendence, freedom and power will be important in my argument about the significance of gender and of victimisation in the explanation of Rose West. Let me return to that now, beginning with the most obvious, and so far unanswered, question: was Rose West, in the sense I have just outlined, a ‘true sexual killer’? Having acknowledged the likelihood that she was herself severely abused, how can I be sure she was not a ‘compliant victim’?

Sexual killer or compliant victim?

The short answer is that I cannot be absolutely sure about this, and it is only fair to say that she does fit some (though not many) elements of the FBI profile for compliant victims. On balance, however, I think Rose West really is a sexual killer, by which I mean a person who kills the (generic) object of their sexual desire, often after sexually abusing and torturing them, and derives sexual gratification from these activities. Furthermore, I believe Rose West is the first and only female sexual killer to become known to the authorities in any part of the world. The other women whose cases I am familiar with, including Myra Hindley and Aileen Wuornos, may have been labelled in the same way, but in my view they are not the same. So the claim I am making about Rose West here is, by my own standards, a pretty momentous one. It begs the question, ‘what makes her so different?’.

In a word, sexuality. It is Rose West’s sexuality (by which I do not mean only her capacity to be sexually aroused by women, though that is relevant; I am talking about the whole range of her sexual desires and practices, so far as these can be known) that distinguishes her from all previous women killers labelled ‘sexual sadists’. Although I readily admit we are dealing with an area of great uncertainty (the sexual desires and feelings of people who have every reason to misrepresent them), it is my view that all the other women who have been placed in the category of ‘sexual killer’ or its cloudier successor ‘serial killer’ have in some way failed to meet the criteria for ‘true’ sexual killing.

It is particularly notable that the gender of these alleged women sex-killers’ victims usually does not match their own avowed sexual preferences — something which is never observed in cases of sex murder committed by men. For example, Aileen Wuornos, the only known case of a woman killer acting alone, is universally acknowledged to be a lesbian, but all her victims were men. This lends credence to the argument that her motive was actually revenge or self-defence. Then there are the ‘compliant victims’: heterosexual women who participate along with a man in the killing of women and children — mainly though not exclusively girls. Their part in murder is coerced, and typically scripted by the man (i.e. he tells them what to do and say). I am not prepared to rule out the possibility that some of these women do derive sexual pleasure from killing, but if they do, they appear to get it not because they are aroused by their victims, or directly by the abuse of those victims, but because they are aroused by the arousal of their male partners. (This would be my preferred explanation for Myra Hindley’s actions. I do not know if she was abused or coerced by Brady, and the account she wrote for The Guardian last year suggests she participated voluntarily. But I suspect that any pleasure she took in what they did came mainly from the fact that it gave Brady such intense pleasure.)

But Rose West seems to be a different case. It looks as if she sometimes acted alone, and there is some evidence that she participated in the scripting of the couple’s torture and murder scenarios rather than simply acting out a script designed by her husband. Furthermore, her avowed bisexuality makes it more plausible that she did not gratify her own desires only by gratifying Fred’s; she could have desired the women victims (and mastery over them) in the same way he did.

It is true that we do not know as much about the couple’s relationship as we might have done had Fred West lived to stand trial: in that case, presumably, each of the two defendants would have tried to place the burden of guilt on the other, and the issue of who did what and why would have been probed in much more depth. As it is, there will always be uncertainty about this. But as much as I might like to think that Rose West was merely compliant, the extremely long duration of her involvement in the abuse and the range of her activities (some of them undertaken independently) make me doubt that this was so — or at least that it was always so. It seems likely that Rose was introduced by various male abusers to a culture of abuse, but it also seems possible that she went on to make that culture her own. It is therefore important to look at what she might have got out of that process, and what — apart from pure coercion — might have impelled her to embark on it. This brings us back to the question of victimi­sation, its relation to abuse and the relation of both to gender.

Gender and abuse: illogical arguments

Earlier I noted that one line of feminist argu­ment — that Rose West’s abusive behaviour might be explained by her own experience of being abused — resembles a currently influen­tial argument about male sexual killers. This argument will be depressingly familiar to feminists from other contexts, for it is a version of our old friend the ‘cycle of abuse’. Its central thesis is that sex murderers (or serial killers as they’re now called) are an extreme manifesta­tion of this alleged cycle, being almost invaria­bly survivors of sexual abuse themselves.

Liz Kelly has noted serious methodological flaws in much of the research which is supposed to ‘prove’ this correlation between abusing and having been abused (see T&S 33). She criticises researchers for lumping together different types of abuse (e.g. emotional, physical, sexual: if a physical abuse survivor goes on to commit sexual abuse, in what sense is this a ‘cycle’?) and also for making no distinction between being flashed at once and being raped every night for years. In the specific case of sex murderers, however, the research evidence available is less vulnerable to such criticisms. While I would never suggest that the methods used by FBI profilers, for instance, are perfect, they do have some virtues — the FBI have the resources to do in-depth interviewing over long periods, privileged access to a sizeable sample of the target group, and a suitably sceptical attitude to what they are told by informants whom they regard as practised liars (a percep­tion which is not always shared by clinicians doing similar research).

Studies conducted by the FBI suggest that around 70% of convicted serial sexual murder­ers (all, of course, men) experienced childhood sexual abuse. Though this is not a sufficient explanation of their subsequent behaviour (and would not be even if the figure were 100%), the percentage is high enough that I do not feel able to dismiss the finding as irrelevant or meaning­less.

Explaining what exactly it does mean is another matter, however. As Liz Kelly points out, ‘cycle of abuse’ accounts have logical as well as methodological flaws, and gender is the rock on which their logic tends to founder. An obvious objection to the theory that abused children become abusive adults has always been, and in spite of Rose West still is, that the most numerous group of abused children — girls — is also the least likely to grow up to abuse others. Abused girls are, sadly, statis­tically common, whereas abusive women are rare: the theory does not add up. No wonder most feminists reject ‘cycle of abuse’ explana­tions of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Fine lines

But where does this leave the feminists I talked about earlier, with their belief that Rose West behaved in the way she did because she had been abused, and was perhaps still being abused, herself? Although I tend to disagree with this idea in the particular case of Rose West, I am aware that no account, including my own, can possibly be definitive when so much vital information is missing or has been suppressed. If new information emerged, the argument might become more plausible — I am not saying I couldn’t be persuaded of its relevance. Yet even if the facts were clearer, I would still be troubled by the inconsistency of feminists decisively rejecting a line of argument about violent men, only to embrace it in the case of a violent woman. A feminist theory which says, in effect, that if men abuse it has nothing to do with their own history of abuse whereas if women abuse it has everything to do with it, is — to my mind anyway — illogical and unten­able.

I am not making a liberal, ‘equal oppor­tunity’ argument here. What bothers me is not the implication that abused girls and women are in a different position from abused boys and men — by and large I agree that they are, and I will come back to this point later. Rather, what bothers me is the implication that being abused has a determining effect on the subsequent behaviour of (some) women which it does not have in the case of (any) men; they abuse because they want to and they can, but if we abuse we must have been driven to it by forces beyond our control.

It may be a fine line between suggesting that in some circumstances women do not have a meaningful choice — e.g. battered women who kill, or some women in ritual abuse networks as discussed by Kate Cook and ‘the A-Team’(T&S 32)—and implying that women as a subordinate group must inevitably lack agency, responsi­bility and will. But I know which side of that line I want to be on. I don’t believe in equal opportunity sex-murder, but nor can I go along with the idea that women who do terrible things should automatically be treated as a special case, as not responsible for their actions.

More than one answer

It seems I am back to the question, what (if anything) is the relationship between being abused and becoming an abuser? Before I try to answer, some general points need to be clar­ified. I will be concerned with the very extreme (and very rare) case of sexual murderers. How far my comments should be taken to apply to any other case is difficult to say. I also want to emphasise that I would never claim all sex murderers are sexual abuse survivors (30% of the FBI’s sample were not); still less would I wish to imply the converse, that all, most or even many survivors go on to abuse other people—let alone to kill them. The argument I want to pursue is much more restricted: it is simply that there is more than one way to answer the question, ‘why do [some] abuse survivors go on to abuse?’ — particularly, to repeat, where this applies to sexual killers.

My own answer aims to avoid two main pitfalls: first, determinism (while I do not suppose we have absolute free will, I do not want to naturalise abusive behaviour in any circumstances); and second, false gender neutrality (that is, I want to explain why the people we are talking about are overwhelmingly men — though without excluding the rare cases in which they are women).

The common sense popular understanding of why abuse leads to more abuse takes two main forms. One depends on the notion that some abuse survivors are so scarred by their early experiences and/or so lacking in models of ‘normal’ relationships, they simply repeat the only patterns they know: abusing is a negative and inadequate response by a damaged and broken personality. An alternative account represents the move from being abused to abusing as a strategy for getting revenge on a world which has hurt and humiliated you: it is the outcome not of simple inadequacy but of rage. In a more expert, clinical context, either of these two accounts can be elaborated in various ways to suit various brands of psychotherapeutic doctrine.

In relation to the murderers I have studied (not by talking to them myself, incidentally, but by examining their own representations and those of ‘experts’ to whom many of them have talked at length), I regard these accounts as misleading. The first one is almost entirely unconvincing, because as Liz Kelly has also pointed out, when an abused individual abuses they are not repeating but reversing their past experience. The second, ‘rage’ account seems more plausible as an explanation of that reversal, but I believe that in the case of sex murder it focuses on something which is secondary, not primary. It’s true that many killers do talk about rage (and their actual crimes suggest a very high degree of it); some use the word revenge when they discuss their motivation. But I would see revenge, which centres on the desire to punish others, as secondary to the fundamental motive, which centres more on the subject, the self: tran­scendence.

Masters of the universe

Many murderers are eager to talk about themselves (a fact which has underpinned the new science of ‘profiling’); some have written at length about their crimes or even made and preserved actual recordings of them. The result is that we have quite a lot of information on how sexual killers understand their own experience.

The most pronounced characteristic of that understanding is solipsism: a conviction that the whole universe revolves around you, that you are its master and that other people exist only to confirm your own supreme importance. Sex killers are living embodiments of a philosophy summarised in George Orwell’s novel 1984, when Winston Smith is being interrogated by his torturer, O’Brien: ‘“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?” Winston thought. “By making him suffer”, he said.’ The purpose of the victim’s suffering is the assertion of the abuser’s power. That assertion culminates in the victim’s destruction, and not uncommonly continues with further abuse after death — which is surely the absolute extreme of solipsism, since the victim is no longer able even to suffer.

This kind of murder is centrally about asserting the power of the person who commits it. Punishment is only the means, not the end. What sex killers do to their victims must certainly feel like punishment, but from the killer’s solipsistic viewpoint what matters is rather mastery. In killers’ accounts and in the representations many make of their crimes, it is made clear that what the killer considers ‘punishment’ is inflicted only in anger when mastery fails. Most commonly this happens when the victim refuses to comply with the killer’s demands, thus implicitly rejecting the status of worthless object or slave. Abuse inflicted when the victim is compliant (terrified or drugged or indeed already dead) is not conceived by the killer as punishment, because it is not about the victim, or a response to the victim’s actions. Rather it is about the killer and his ability to transcend the fundamental social law of intersubjectivity (the assumption that other people’s experience impinges on ours and vice versa) in mastering another person com­pletely, negating that other’s will and thus (as the killer sees it) demonstrating the absolute freedom of his own.

It is this feeling of absolute power and freedom which affords pleasure, including and indeed particularly sexual pleasure. The dependence of pleasure on mastery over another is the link feminist analysts perceive between the extreme behaviour of sexual murderers and ‘normal’ masculinity.

The ‘transcendent’ subject is enraged by what he regards as the obstacles and constraints placed upon his freedom of action by a social order that does not recognise his superiority to other people and his right to dispose of them as he wishes. The classic example in literature is Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (a book Ian Brady preferred to porn), who believes that as a ‘superman’ he has a perfect right to kill, and who murders an old woman in order to demonstrate the validity of that assumption. The fictional Raskolnikov gets his rage against the world, his desire to tran­scend its petty constraints and his beliefs about how this may be achieved from reading what Dostoevski called ‘half-baked philosophy’. But some real-life killers may well get their desire for transcendence from their experience of being abused, of being the object of somebody else’s desire for transcendence.

That desire is always fuelled by the feeling that one has been reduced, unjustly, to a state of worthlessness (to ‘some trembling vermin’ as Raskolnikov puts it); in cases where the desire is harboured by a survivor of abuse, the feeling of worthlessness is grounded in past experience. For such a survivor, the quest for transcendence is not merely an acting out of half-baked philosophy, but may be experienced as a means to psychological survival. It is not that abuse ‘causes’ or leads inevitably to more abuse; it is that people who have been abused have a powerful motive for seeking transcendence; putting it crudely, they have more than most other people to transcend. Transgressive or abusive behaviour is one means to do this — but it is by no means the only one.

Gender and abuse revisited

So why is it (almost) exclusively male survivors who make use of this strategy? I would suggest, because to do it you have to have a huge conviction of your own entitlement and power; you must feel that your individual status as a victim is somehow a temporary accident, an injustice, and you also have to be able to imagine — and to derive gratification from imagining — that you could be a victimiser of other people instead.

Unlike a lot of ‘experts’, I don’t see this process of imagining yourself in a different position as a wholly internal, unconscious psychic drama, unaffected and unconstrained by external factors. On the contrary, I believe the imaginative identifications which are possible for women and men in this situation have a great deal to do with their assessment of what is possible for them in reality. Of course, there is also the question of individuals’ own attitudes: most survivors would be repelled rather than gratified by the idea of abusing somebody else, even assuming they could conceive of being able to. There is undoubtedly a great deal of indivi­dual variation in people’s responses to the experience of abuse. But gender affects the possibilities open to women and men to begin with.

Women and men are not in the same position, even when both are suffering the most hideous abuse; for they live in a world that treats their suffering differently. It is both more important, culturally speaking, for men to transcend it, and more conceivable that they could. Masculinity is by cultural convention incompatible with victim status, whereas femininity is not. Women in patriarchal society are given little or no sense of entitlement and power, and are thus more likely than most men to feel trapped in the victim position.

For this reason, I suspect that any woman who follows in Rose West’s footsteps will act, as she did (and as virtually all other alleged women sexual killers have), in complicity with a man rather than alone. In a world where women are not transcendent subjects, they have to be shown (by example, by encouragement, and often initially by a degree of coercion) that transcendence through transgression is either possible or pleasurable for them. However, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of them will discover it is both of those things.

Cultural logics

It may be a dismal conclusion, but if the most pertinent answer to the question ‘why do so many men abuse?’ is ‘because they can’, at least part of the answer to the corresponding question ‘why do so few women abuse?’ may be, ‘because they usually can’t’. The case of Rose West shows that this isn’t always true: there are circumstances in which a woman can (albeit on conditions which do not apply to men, i.e. women are usually required to play a dual role as both abusers and victims); and there are women who elect to take advantage of those circumstances, who decide there is pleasure in transgression and transcendence.

None of this, however, should be taken to imply that from now on, the maniacs, beasts and monsters that haunt tabloid headlines are as likely to be women as men. We are still far from having equal opportunity sex murder. Nor should we be impressed by the oft-repeated argument according to which equal opportunity sex murder is one logical outcome of feminism — Rose West was merely ahead of her time, a harbinger of Things To Come, and an epidemic of Rose Wests will someday be the price we have to pay for equality. In pessimistic moments I sometimes think it might be the price we have to pay for spurious sexual ‘liberation’, but equality in the sense radical feminists under­stand it would have a wholly different effect.

All the observations I have made regarding murder, sexual abuse, transgression and transcendence, men who rape and kill because they can and women who don’t because they can’t, etc., etc., are valid only in the context of patriarchy, a system in which social hierarchies are constructed and maintained by means of sexual exploitation and sexual terrorism. Prototypically these are hierarchies of gender, but the same means can be used (and often are) to police other hierarchical social relations — the use of rape to enforce pecking orders in men’s prisons is one example. Variations in who actually occupies the social/sexual posi­tions of dominant and subordinate can be accommodated within the system without changing its fundamental structure. And the same point applies to sexual murder: whatever the gender of the murderer (or the victim), the crime follows the cultural logic of patriarchy, and it is only within that logic that it makes any sense at all.

Radical feminism is a critique of patriarchal culture and patriarchal logic; its ultimate political goal is to get rid of patriarchy alto­gether. Meanwhile, it offers a positive alter­native to the model of transcendence through transgression adopted by Rose West. I observed earlier that engaging in abusive behaviour is only one way to transcend the experience of being abused. By politicising their experience, and by engaging in collective struggle against the system which produces that experience, innumerable courageous women have become, not victims or abusers, but survivors and resisters. The best feminist response to Rose West, as I see it, is neither special pleading nor shamed silence. It is to continue to give women the possibility of a different kind of tran­scendence — through feminist consciousness and political action.


Debbie Cameron ‘Wanted: the female serial killer’ T&S 33, Summer 1996.

Kate Cook and ‘the A-Team’ ‘Survivors and supporters’ T&S 32, Winter 1995.

Liz Kelly ‘Weasel Words’ T&S 33, Summer 1996.

Robert K. Ressler and Tom Schactman Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI (St Martin’s Press 1992).

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