Female spree-killing, sex, and celebrity: The case of Joanna Dennehy

joanna-dennehy-press-1Knowing that my latest book is about murder and gender – or, more specifically, about a particular narrative of modern identity and individuality that has made possible the figure of the Western “recreational murderer” – lots of people have drawn my attention to the recent case of Joanna Dennehy.

Dennehy is a 32-year-old British woman who enlisted her apparently enthralled male lovers, Gary Stretch and Leslie Layton, to be her accomplices in the murders of three men, Lukasz Slaboszewski, Kevin Lee, and John Chapman. (See here.) Dennehy’s documented taste for sadomasochistic sexual practices (see here) has added to the frenzied media interest in the case, and has led to the production of some dubious psychiatric diagnoses, which I plan to write about elsewhere. Dennehy is both statistically unusual and discursively rare in being described as a female recreational killer whose apparent motives for committing her crimes were sexual sadism and thrill-seeking.

Yet, one Facebook interlocutor recently pointed out to me that cases of women committing multiple killings similar to Dennehy’s – typically “masculine crimes” – seem to be on the rise and are certainly in the public eye at the moment. (The case of the “Craig’s List Killer”, 19-year-old Miranda Barbour, springs immediately to mind.) While two do not a trend make, it is interesting to wonder if the Zeitgeist is in some way enabling the emergence of a new kind of female murderer. My approach to this problem, then, is historically and culturally, rather than psychologically, oriented. (I am not interested in individual psychological motivation, but in the social-historical conditions that produce the figure of the murderer as bizarrely aspirational, and that make it available to certain classes of person, in certain situational contexts.)

In The Subject of Murder I argue that, in modern Western culture, the murderer has the status of exceptional individual. This goes back to the Romantic/ Decadent idea of the “artist-criminal”, in whom creativity and destructivity are two sides of the same coin. Of course this idealized, semi-fictional figure of potency is implicitly white and male (though his sexual identity is often portrayed as fluid, alternating between heterosexual hyper-masculinity and an ambivalent homoeroticism). Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Genet have all waxed lyrical about the genius-murderer and the trope of murder-as-art in literary and aesthetic-philosophical writing.

In our contemporary culture, this grandiose murderous exceptionality takes the form of celebrity, as David Schmid has compellingly argued in his 2005 book, Natural Born Celebrities. “Murderer” is a celebrity identity, as seen in the wealth of press attention that is brought to bear on infamous killers, and the aura that accrues to people, and even to things, close to those killers. The phenomenon of “murderabilia”, objects and artworks created or previously owned by infamous killers that have a highly collectible status, is one manifestation of this. The attention-seeking behaviour of many serial killers reinforces their visibility. Many killers at large have sent taunting letters to the police and press, such as David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, active in the USA in the 1970s. In other cases, such as that of the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe, in the UK), letters have been sent by others pretending to be the murderer, increasing the visibility of the case and speculation around the identity of the killer. And, tellingly, this was a trend popularized by the first “celebrity serial killer” at the historical moment of efflorescence of the popular press – the still-unidentified  Victorian murderer, Jack the Ripper. (That the mass press and the serial killer are products of the same age is far from a coincidence.) Once caught and imprisoned, notorious killers can also keep up a high media profile. “Moors Murderer” Ian Brady’s recent appeal to be transferred from high security mental hospital to prison, his claim that he had revealed the whereabouts of a victim’s body in a letter to his mental health advocate, and his much discussed hunger strike, are good examples of this. (See my post on Brady here.)

It will be noted that all of the names above are male. It is not, of course, the case that there have historically been no female killers, but media and culture have not tended to represent murderesses in the same (ambivalently heroic) terms that they have used to represent men who kill – and that men who kill can then take up as a badge of identity. Prominent female killers of the past century have included Myra Hindley, Rosemary West, and Aileen Wuornos, all of whom killed violently, and (in the cases of the first two at least), for sexual motives. However, the first two names are notable for being one half of celebrity murderous heterosexual couples (Myra and Ian; Rose and Fred), and both women were  vilified in much stronger terms than their male partners, whose sexual violence was, in each case, seen as an aberrant but intelligible extension of socially sanctioned masculinity.  Similarly, Wuornos, as that very rare type of killer, a lesbian lone-wolf, stalking her male victims under the guise of selling sexual services, attracted vitriol and hatred from press and public, and an extremely harsh punishment relative to male perpetrators of similar crimes. (She received multiple death sentences, despite the defense presenting mitigating evidence of childhood sexual abuse, and mental illness.) Some coverage of Joanna Dennehy’s case has discussed the difficulty society has in accepting violent women, and has posited that Dennehy, as a sexually adventurous, hedonistic spree-killer, presents particular problems to the codes of representation that are available for describing women who kill. (See especially Elizabeth Yardley’s intelligent commentary in The Guardian. Avoid the comments if you wish to retain any sort of faith in the critical thinking skills of the reading public.)

Can we really argue, then, that Joanne Dennehy is a representative of a new type of female murderous subject, who employs the same grandiose self-stylization and press attention-seeking tactics as her male counterparts? There is certainly evidence that Dennehy boasted she was seeking to become a “famous serial killer” at least two years before committing the triple murder. (See here.) And, she described herself, while on the run, as “Bonnie” of Bonnie and Clyde, suggesting strong identification with available cultural representations of female criminality. (See here.)  Like the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who conceived their high-school shootings in advance as a media spectacle, and like Stephen Griffiths, the Bradford “Crossbow Cannibal”, who was a criminology student fascinated by the figure of the serial killer, Dennehy was undoubtedly tapping into the same available cultural repository of criminal myth-making as many male killers before her.

So where does Dennehy’s type of murderous subjectivity come from? We might conclude by drawing a parallel with the ways in which what is known as “raunch culture” has been embraced by some women as a (dubious) badge of empowerment in a post-feminist age. This idea was introduced by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005). Levy argues that the rise of the FCP, who is just as likely to appear in a strip club in the role of patron as of performer, has contributed to the erasure of the feminist struggle and to making invisible intersecting, class-based, power imbalances. Female Chauvinist Pig culture co-opts a very narrow definition of “power”, based on aping valorized, typically “masculine” behaviours and roles, and showing that (some) women can access and benefit from those roles too. As Levy points out, these exceptional women achieve their agency in contradistinction to, and at the expense of, other “lesser” women, rather than by raising up the collectivity of women as a group. Perhaps, by analogy, a form of violent, antisocial self-stylization is becoming more available to those women who find themselves on the margins of social acceptability, and who seek to make a name for themselves in a culture obsessed with fame and exposure. It may be that the search for infamy offered by the label of “serial killer” is increasingly the antisocial, shadow alternative to seeking pop fame on The X Factor, or the hyper-visibility of glamor-modeling, for socially disenfranchised women of the twenty-first century, who see individualistic forms of male violence celebrated, and who want a piece of that celebrity for themselves.

High dudgeon in the dungeon

So, Camille Paglia wrote a piece reviewing three anthropological works about BDSM: Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure (2011), Staci Newmahr’s Playing on the Edge (2011), and Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix (2012). I know all of these books and, while I may not agree with every point their respective authors make, I respect them. I’ve referenced Newmahr’s work in my own writing. I reviewed Lindemann’s book recently in the Times Higher Education* and my review of Weiss’s title should appear soon in New Formations.

Paglia’s position boils down to the following: gender studies methodology, which she summarises as an “insular dogma with its own priesthood and god (Michel Foucault),” fails these academic writers. By trying to make their empirical observations fit the orthodoxy, they do not do justice to the complexity of the material they find.  But boiling something down never yields an accurate enough account of it. It ignores the grittiness of all the constituent bits that went to make up the reduction. And, in this case, those “bits” are nothing more than nuggets of ad hominem vilification and a fair quantity of bile leveled against both the poor, misguided authors, forced by “political correctness” and evil academic orthodoxy to “bang the drum of a pretentious theorizing,” and Judith Butler, whose oft-quoted status in gender studies texts Paglia seems to feel is monstrously unfair. (Presumably she should be the default go-to authority?)

Many of Paglia’s critiques of the continental theorists she abhors are over-simplifications or instances of inaccuracy too. “Foucauldian analysis is based on Saussurean linguistics,” she writes. In fact Saussure is only one of numerous thinkers Foucault reacts to — and against — mainly in his earlier work. His later work on the history of sexuality, which Butler adapts, is in fact much more indebted to Nietzsche’s critique of historical method.  (And Foucault borrows from and builds on Nietzsche, rather than attempting “to rival” him, as Paglia bizarrely suggests later in her article.) Too, Paglia insists that the context of twenty-first-century late capitalism is a red herring  in trying to understand contemporary  sexual subcultural practices. “Poststructuralism is myopically obsessed with modern bourgeois society,” Paglia states. “It is hopelessly ignorant of prehistoric or agrarian cultures, where tribal rituals monitored and invoked the primitive forces of nature.” So, for her, the meanings of eroticized acts and practices are not dependent upon the historical and situational contexts they are located in, but are transcendental, ahistorical, spiritual experiences? This kind of  ahistoricism is wholly incompatible with the way I understand human subjectivity and communities as shaped by cultural change. But it also sits strangely in an article that elsewhere decries poststructuralism for paying insufficient attention to the material reality of history.

Over at Yes Means Yes, Thomas responded with an impassioned piece opposing Paglia’s article, which I enjoyed reading enormously. He writes: “Come again, Camille?  Am I to understand that everything you’ve concluded about us … no, let me personalize it. Everything you’ve concluded about ME and how I practice MY sexuality and what it means to ME, you’ve concluded without actually talking to any of us, or watching us do what it is that we do?”  His position, however, is not my position. I am firmly in the Foucauldian tradition of being suspicious of confessional discourse and the value of self-disclosure. I have never bought into the idea that drawing on people’s reports of their individual experience stamps research with a mark of authenticity. This idea presupposes subjects capable of transparently reproducing absolute truth in discourse. It is a model of communication which can too easily discount the role of cultural forces and influences on individuals, the power disparity between interviewer and interviewee, the inaccuracy of memory, the desire we have to represent the best versions of ourselves, and the workings of the unconscious.

Moreover, anthropologically studying non-normative sexual subcultures and practitioners isn’t my own particular academic bag either. I have devoted my more recent years to scrutinizing instead the norm, or more precisely normative reactions to the perceived “abnormal.” What interests me is not getting to the heart of “the truth of the BDSM experience” (or of any sexual experience), but rather asking why — in the service of whose interests — certain types of sexual practice and subject are stigmatized, pathologized, or disproportionately prodded to reveal truths. Forensically dissecting the rectitude of mainstream discourses is my own, self-appointed sex-critical task. And yet, somehow, the fact that I do not do quite the same kind of work as Weiss, Newmahr and Lindemann does not mean that I feel compelled to argue in public that they are misguided dupes. I respect a number of disciplinary and methodological principles and practices that diverge from those I use myself. I may engage in debate on points of critical and methodological difference, but I refrain from accusing academic peers of suffering from brainwashing and bad faith.  And I wonder why everyone, especially well-known, senior figures, with prominent public platforms, cannot exercise the same kind of ethical restraint.

*My review contains an editorial inaccuracy. Newmahr’s fieldwork was not carried out in San Francisco.

What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

The title of this blog — Sex Critical — is taken from a term I used (I don’t know if I could legitimately go so far as to say “coined”, though I hadn’t heard or read it previously) in a paper I recently wrote on the ubiquitous (and ever so tedious) Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James. One of the aims of my paper was to show how most existing commentary on the books is a bit limited and frustrating because it pursues rigidly dichotomous lines of response. The nature of these will be all too familiar to anyone who regularly reads academic, journalistic, and feminist writing on sexuality and gender. On the one hand, liberal or “sex-positive” feminists and activists criticized the book’s gender stereotyping and the (in)accuracy of its portrayal of BDSM, but defended strongly its exploration of sexual practices and behaviours and promoted the beneficent effects on female readers of exposure to erotic material — any erotic material. On the other hand, certain members of the radical feminist, anti-BDSM fringe used Fifty Shades as something of a pretext for furthering an agenda which holds that there is no difference between BDSM and domestic abuse, both being versions of the heteronormative patriarchal archiplot.

I wanted in my paper to try to talk about the trilogy in a way that avoided this polarization, a way that challenged those rather tired binaries of positive/ negative; good/ bad; healthy/ harmful. (My training in continental philosophy, the fact that I imbibed Derrida with my Alma Mater’s milk, makes the urge to challenge binaries almost an involuntary reflex.) And, more fundamentally — and reaching beyond that paper’s concern with Fifty Shades I wanted to question the value of the sex-positive/ anti-sex dichotomy altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of a sex-positive agenda and I admire the writing of some sex-positive academics and bloggers. (I particularly like some of the more recent writings of Cliff [formerly Holly] Pervocracy.) Women’s sexual possibilities have been historically limited and regulated, with iniquitous double standards being applied to our desires and behaviour. It is a legitimate feminist endeavour to think about how the relationship between gender, sex, and shame needs to be put into question. But a fair bit of so-called third-wave feminism or (heinous term coming up) “post-feminism” is less concerned with critical interrogation and more with celebrating a “liberation” that is only arguably won, and with arguing for the liberating nature of sex per se (a premise that, as a Foucault-sympathizer, I cannot totally accept). Moreover, the championing of forms of sex that look pretty identical to hetero-patriarchal ideals, rebranded as ironic, postmodern, and thereby “empowering” (a word I also loathe), troubles me.

A recent post by a blogger I admire enormously offered a spirited response to precisely these tendencies in sex positivism. A Radical Transfeminist proposed rehabilitating and adopting the term “sex-negative”, usually flung around in the guise of a slur, as a proud badge of resistance to the worst excesses of knee-jerk, neo-liberal, individualistic choice feminism and the worrying tendency of some of its adherents to adopt rhetoric that strongly resembles compulsory sexuality for women. What of asexuality? What of the fact that many women’s (indeed people’s) experiences of sex are traumatic, abusive or simply indifferent? Why should a whole social justice movement devote itself to the pursuit of orgasm? These are valid questions. While I very much liked the strategic thrust of A Radical Transfeminist’s post, I prefer to eschew altogether the either/ or logic that the lexicon of “positive”/ “negative” presupposes. I also dislike the way in which such language silences the questions that to me seem key: positive for whom? Negative in terms of whose ideological agenda and interests? The very notion that “positive”/ “negative” can ever be universal qualities, that anything can ever be equally “good” or “bad” for all groups and classes, strikes me as ultimately wrongheaded.

The following may be a few starting points:

  • All forms of sexuality and all sexual representations should be equally susceptible to critical thinking and interrogation about the normative or otherwise ideologies they uphold.
  •  The discursive trappings of heterosexual relationships, intercourse, and reproduction deserve just as much critical scrutiny as non-normative identities/ behaviours/ presentations and “extreme” bodily practices (if not more, given the historical lack of critical attention brought to bear on what is perceived to be the norm, leading to unquestioning acceptance of potential inequalities and harm).
  • To what extent do we need to question the usefulness of the term “sexuality” and its reach as an umbrella? Foucault advocated in his 1976 work La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge) replacing “sex-desire” with “bodies and pleasures”. He believed that the reification of “sexuality”, in all its discursive forms, contributed to the constraints on social subjects to perform assigned identities, and to invest in the medical, psychological and ontological meaningfulness of those identities. We have not moved very far in the direction of Foucault’s declassification of sex in the 30-odd years since he wrote those words. If anything, we are proliferating ever more discourses about it and believing more ardently that it is the truth of who we are. It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.

Since delivering that paper on Fifty Shades at a session of the Onscenity network, I’ve become aware of folks using the term “sex critical” (and kindly name-checking me) in academic seminars, on Twitter, and elsewhere on the WWW. It seemed both appropriate and timely, then, to give that name to the blog I have been threatening to set up for so long, and to attempt to develop here, over the coming weeks and months, a viable sex-critical methodology for analyzing cultural phenomena pertaining to sexuality and gender.

[Disclaimer: I am an unapologetic professional academic, working from a critical humanities perspective, and with a broadly constructionist worldview. Although I intend to write here in a less formal style than I would deploy in, for example, an article for New Formations, I will use academic terminology. There is no obligation to read here if academese offends you or is otherwise not your “thang”. All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the official views of my employing institution. Sometimes I might post about things entirely unrelated to sexuality and gender, just because I feel like it.]

[Edit: 1 January 2013: My paper on Fifty Shades of Grey discussed in this post is now published as an article in Psychology and Sexuality, available here.]