When it comes to the issue of gender equality, there was really only one story last week: the story of Natalie Connolly. Natalie was a 26-year-old woman who was left to bleed to death by her partner, John Broadhurst. Broadhurst inflicted multiple injuries and poured bleach over her face during violent sex. The following morning, when he finally got around to phoning 999, he described her as “dead as a doughnut”.
Broadhurst also did something so terrible some newspapers haven’t carried it. But it’s important, so here goes. At some point, he thrust a plastic trigger spray bottle of carpet cleaner into Natalie’s vagina and, while trying to get it back out, caused an arterial laceration and internal bleeding.
Broadhurst, a property tycoon, had originally been charged with murder. The jury heard he might have been angry over topless photos of Natalie he found on her phone; it heard she was five times over the drink-drive limit and had 0.74mg of cocaine per litre in her bloodstream, which would surely have impaired her capacity to consent to anything.
But Broadhurst claimed Natalie liked it rough; Broadhurst claimed she asked for more; Broadhurst effectively claimed she was gagging to be taken to the brink of death. And Natalie wasn’t there to give her side of the story.
No, Natalie wasn’t there; and juries are unpredictable things. So – having told the court that “whatever may have started willingly there is no way that Natalie either consented to or was able to consent to what John Broadhurst did to her after that” – the Crown Prosecution Service took fright and, mid-trial, reduced the murder charge to manslaughter. Unable to believe his luck, no doubt, Broadhurst pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years and eight months, which means he will probably be out in two.
If you want to understand the contempt in which society in general, and the justice system in particular, often holds women, you need look no further than this case. It wasn’t enough for Natalie to be beaten and die, suffering a fractured eye socket in the process; her reputation had to be publicly trashed so a man could be let off lightly. Plus ça change. As Harriet Harman has pointed out, women have always been asking for it. Once upon a time, their carping and/or their infidelities could be used to justify violence - the so-called “nagging and shagging defence” abolished in 2009 (though provocation by sexual infidelity still exists as a defence in Scotland). Now, apparently, it’s their insatiable demand for BDSM. And what’s to stop other men using this defence in the future?
The Broadhurst story was so shocking, it made the front page of every newspaper, and radio chat shows devoted hours to analysing its consequences. Oh no, wait: that was a different story. The one about the Labour leader, who may or may not have said “stupid woman” after Theresa May performed a pantomime routine at his expense in the House of Commons.
Whether Jeremy Corbyn did or didn’t say it, commentators were queuing up to brand him a misogynist. So good of everyone to call him out on his gendered language.
Except something about the wall-to-wall coverage smelled iffy. Though long-term feminists, including Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, were amongst his critics – and fair enough, they’ve earned the right – many of those shouting the loudest had their own baggage.
Indeed some of them were Conservatives who – let’s face it – have presided over austerity policies that have disproportionately damaged women. There was Brandon Lewis – the same Brandon Lewis who reneged on a pairing deal with Jo Swinson while she was on maternity leave – and Andrea Leadsom – the same Andrea Leadsom who used Theresa May’s childlessness against her. Frankly, I’ve no desire to have either of them in my corner. It was obvious to lots of people, I think, that the issue at stake here was not really Corbyn’s sexism. Rather it was about distracting attention from the most important issue of the day: the publication of the Immigration White Paper which – if it becomes law – will end of freedom of movement post-Brexit.
It was also a useful weapon with which to attack the Labour leader, though you’d think his failure to put up an effective fight against Brexit and the Tories would be enough. His alleged retort – though sexist – is fairly innocuous when compared with Nicholas Soames woofing at Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, or Boris Johnson calling Emily Thornberry “Lady Nugee”.
Even so, it was the talk of steamie for days. The footage was slowed down. Lip readers gave contradictory verdicts. The Call Kaye show considered the question: “Is it ever OK to say ‘Stupid woman’?”, with callers making such thought-provoking contributions as “Why shouldn’t we call her a woman? She is a woman.” I don’t know what exactly this debate is, other than a waste of airtime, but it sure ain’t my kind of feminism.
As all this was going on, where were all the outraged mainstream voices on the Natalie Connolly case? Nowhere. I mean, obviously, those women who consistently campaign on violence against women were as vocal as ever. But it wasn’t splashed across the front pages or being analysed in any depth.
You could accuse me of whataboutery, I guess. Or suggest that it is possible to hold more than one story in your head at the same time. You could also argue that sexism exists on a continuum and challenging it at any point on that continuum is a legitimate exercise.
Yet it seems to me this co-opting of women’s issues, predominantly by men, to further their own agendas is becoming a regular and pernicious phenomenon. I have, for example, had the feminist position on transgender activism mansplained to me, even though five minutes on Twitter would be enough to demonstrate that there is no feminist consensus.
And then there is the rape clause – an issue few male commentators in Scotland wrote about until Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard started insisting the SNP should mitigate against it, at which point they came out in force.
While political point-scorers engage in woke posturing, those who devote their lives to fighting violence against women, and addressing the inequalities in the judicial system, have been marshalling their resources. Some, including @thatmidwife, have written to the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, asking for the case to be referred to the Court of Appeal in the hopes that a murder charge can be brought. Harman has also raised questions about the validity of a “consensual rough sex” – or Fifty Shades Of Grey – defence. “She was asking for it cannot be a defence for murder,” she says.
This is what feminism in action ought to look like; not quibbling over semantics while the country burns, but effecting real change. Just as the campaigners who successfully challenged the Parole Board over the release of serial rapist John Worboys did.
It would be great if more newspapers and broadcasters could follow their lead. Next time round perhaps they will ignore the squirrel and focus their attention and power on those things that really matter.