The autumn gloom was relieved last week by one of the funniest news stories for many years. On a dark damp street I found myself laughing out loud at the evening headlines. Rebekah Wade, 37, the pouting, flame-haired editor of The Sun, known for her public campaign against domestic violence, was arrested in the wee hours of last Thursday on suspicion of duffing up her soap star husband and giving him a thick lip.
Summoned to the matrimonial home at approximately 0400 hours by two 999 calls, the police felt obliged to take Wade into custody to a local police station, where she spent the morning behind bars. By lunchtime she was released without charge, but not soon enough to make a Women of the Year lunch. The same morning, Steve MacFadden, her husband’s fictional brother in the soap EastEnders, was also reported to have been attacked by his estranged partner. You couldn’t make it up, as The Sun would say. You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh, as Oscar Wilde did say, although for those caught up in the drama it can’t have been funny at all.
TV tough guy decked by Ginger Ninja! Top totty turns tough! Redtop queen floors hardman hubby! Alpha female runs amok! What a pity The Sun’s inspired headline writers were unable to exercise their famous skills on this sensational story; how frustrated they must have felt.
Many aspects of this life-enhancing tale have yet to emerge. For instance, it is not yet clear who called the police. The obvious candidate would be Wade’s husband, Ross Kemp, in need of assistance. It is true that he looks a bit of a bruiser and has played the role of a hardman in EastEnders, but that is only make-believe. In real life he may not be quite so macho; he may have been truly terrified of the fury of the Ginger Ninja.
On the other hand it may have been Wade herself who rang, keenly aware as she is of the danger and the social evil of domestic violence, and anxious to stop herself in her own tracks before she did anything worse. Perhaps it was both of them. We may never know, just as we may never know what the row was about. But it has been fun speculating — the journalistic airwaves have been buzzing with gossip and giggling and the sweet sound of schadenfreude.
Wade has toughed it out and made light of it, as has her proprietor, and her husband has said it was a lot of fuss about nothing. But domestic violence, as Wade in her famous campaign was so determined to point out, is not nothing. If it is serious enough for someone to call the police about, it is quite something. And if the police take it seriously it must be quite something; the police don’t tend to arrest alpha females for nothing.
All the same I admit to a sneaking sympathy for Wade. There can hardly be a journalist alive who hasn’t at some time said one thing publicly but done another; that is human weakness but it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy. And there can hardly be a married woman alive who hasn’t, many times, felt inclined to duff up her husband, if not actually to wring his neck. The old-fashioned idea that women aren’t inclined to violence is a serious mistake. Female domestic violence is much more common than one might imagine.
I learnt that the hard way from my future mother-in-law, a formidable, bad tempered rather large woman. When she had come to terms with the idea that I was about to marry her son, she made the best of things and, to my surprise, offered to pay for me to have plastic surgery on my nose. It was not, in her view, distinguished enough for someone about to enter her family. I muttered in a cowardly way that it was all too risky, and too difficult to find someone reliable.
At that point my future father-in-law, who normally kept quiet on the precautionary principle, for some reason brightened up and said he knew of an excellent plastic surgeon who had done a good job on his nose. When I asked him what had been wrong with his nose he fell silent. So for once did his wife. For what he had unaccountably forgotten, and then just remembered, and what I learnt later, was that she had taken a knife to him and slit his nose quite badly. Fortunately my mother-in-law took no further interest in mine.
So it is that in the best regulated of homes — and my mother-in-law’s household was extremely well-regulated — women can be unpredictably violent. The evidence is rather alarming. One in six men will be the victim of domestic violence at some time in his life, according to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, then president of the family division of the High Court, in a lecture she gave at 10 Downing Street in 2003. Butler-Sloss extended the term much further than I would, to include emotional and psychological abuse, threats and verbal abuse, but even so her point is right. There is far more female violence at home than our preconceptions allow us to imagine.
Those preconceptions are bound up with a useful taboo against female violence — a taboo that explains the fascinated reaction to Wade’s arrest. Women are constantly tempted to attack men who enrage them, but it isn’t usually in their interests to do so, for obvious reasons. Men are usually stronger and their inhibitions about violence are usually weaker. So women’s inhibitions about violence have to be correspondingly stronger, because they are physically weaker. But I am beginning to wonder whether that taboo isn’t itself becoming weaker.
In the same speech Butler-Sloss said she was concerned about attitudes to domestic violence among young people. I don’t know where her figures came from, but she said that 10% of young women thought it was acceptable to hit their boyfriends or husbands. (The figure for young men was 20%.) For young women that seems extraordinarily high and it doesn’t even count all the young women who don’t think it “acceptable”, but might give in to temptation occasionally.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising, given the growing number of films devoted to women whacking men, and given the increasing amount young women drink, if the number of women desensitised to the taboo were not growing too. The irony of Wade’s arrest is that it has done far more to raise awareness of domestic violence (female) than her entire newspaper campaign. It has also added a little to the gaiety of nations.