Why women turn violent

Dr Helen Gavin at Huddersfield University
Dr Helen Gavin at Huddersfield University
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Women are becoming increasingly likely to commit a violent crime. Sheena Hastings meets a Yorkshire academic who is looking at the evidence.

FOR light relief Helen Gavin studies the history of fairytales (Grimm though they can be) and the relationship between music and the brain.

But her bedtime and holiday reading will more than likely take her into the murky realms of an unsparingly graphic Patricia Cornwell crime novel, or the work of one of her other favourite thriller writers.

From the moment her parents left her to make her own choices in the library, she’s been drawn to the darker side of the human psyche: “I’m attracted to the question of what makes a person go one step beyond where the rest of us would go: killing another person.”

Dr Gavin is a psychologist and director of graduate education at the University of Huddersfield, where she also lectures in forensic and criminal psychology. Her decades of expertise have been used to help criminal investigations and to lend authenticity to the work of the odd best-selling crime novelist.

Her lectures tend to be packed to the rafters, and postgraduate students queue up to be supervised in areas of research that include female aggression, gender differences and violence, infanticide and serial killing.

Many of her students are the leading forensic psychologists of the future who will research, analyse or treat those who have taken that “one step beyond”.

In her personal research, the complexities of why and how women kill is a major focus. She says it’s an area of study that’s hampered by multiple factors, including lack of data for profiling purposes and societal attitudes.

While the number of women committing homicide is still very small, violent crime in general is falling in the UK, but the incidence of women committing violent crimes is growing here and across Europe, according to Interpol.

This is one of the themes examined in her latest book Female Aggression, which is co-authored with Connecticut-based clinical psychologist Theresa Porter. Another is the issues around the killing of their newborn or very young babies by mothers.

“The widespread view is that women who kill their children are either monsters or psychotic, or both,” says Dr Gavin. “Historically, women who kill their babies, if discovered, were treated punitively, both by society and the law. In recent years it has been realised that there are many more factors involved in killing your own child than another child or an adult. In the past we have either described these women as mad or bad, but in fact there are shades in between.”

In the authors’ opinion, measures that could possibly prevent child killing include educating gynaecologists, obstetricians and birthing unit staff to spot the warning signs. Also helpful, they say, would be “open conversations with women regarding their and their family’s history of mental illness, which could assist in identifying some women with a predisposition to psychosis.”

Looking at the treatment of female aggression in general and murder in particular, Gavin says the traditional view that women’s behaviour is a “pale imitation” of men’s is not helpful. And when it comes to criminal justice, women are rarely treated equally.

To put it bluntly, a man is seen as a monster; while a woman is viewed as having a screw loose and being in need of help. “There is something known as ‘Chivalric Justice’, which I came across a few years ago, and it’s the idea that women commit the same crimes but get different sentences – usually lesser.

“It’s because judges are often men and they don’t really believe women committed these crimes, even though they’re convicted of them.

“The gender stereotype role for women is the nurturing, maternal one, but there is the assumption that if a woman committed a particular kind of crime she didn’t mean to do it – she was coerced into it by a man.”

She says the judiciary is aware of the disparity in tariffs given to women, and defence lawyers naturally play on it. She adds: “Women killers who are convicted are not found to be any more prone to mental illness than male killers. They are just as likely to be ‘born bad’ or ‘made bad’ as men.”

But, she says, two of the notorious exceptions to the general leniency towards women who kill are Moors Murderer Myra Hindley and Rose West. “The police arrested Ian Brady and left Hindley alone at the house for five days, so God knows what she destroyed in that time. It wasn’t until they found the tapes about Lesley Anne Downey that they realised Hindley was an equal partner in that, and Myra Hindley got a whole life tariff.

“Rose West was an odd character who obviously killed while her husband Fred was already in custody, so he couldn’t have been coercing her into doing it. The fact that he then committed suicide meant that she got done for all of the crimes and got a whole life tariff, one of only two women in UK history to have been given that.

“I think she was the aggressive partner in the relationship. It’s unusual to find a woman who is that overtly ‘bad’, if you like.”

When we meet, Gavin has just presented a paper on domestic homicide by women. She says that women who kill do it largely out of fear, and their methods are often different to men’s. “Men do it with their hands; women usually don’t have the same strength, so they use a weapon – which leads to the act being viewed as premeditated.”

Conventional wisdom states that men express their aggression through physical violence, while women tend to do so in less direct and more nuanced ways such as poisoning.

One of the many strands of Gavin’s busy professional life is her long-term work on a database of murders perpetrated by women, a tool that could be used to build profiles and link crimes with similar characteristics.

“We don’t know how many cases should be pursued as serial killings [i.e. more than three] or which aren’t linked when they should be. Even with their sophisticated databases, in the US the FBI reckon there are 15 serial killers at large across the country at any one time.

“There’s a smaller population in the UK but probably we have a similar thing going on – unsolved cases not being linked because no-one has looked closely enough at the details. Often you have to plumb the data in great depth to find patterns.”

She believes that society’s and the criminal justice system’s unwillingness to see women in general as potential killers means there could be many heinous crimes which will remain either undiscovered or unsolved.

One fact holds good, though: ”All evidence points towards the fact that if you’re murdered it’s likely to be done by the person you share a bed with. My husband checks all the pill bottles very carefully.”

Female Aggression by Helen Gavin and Theresa Porter, published by Wiley-Blackwell, is out now.