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Black-eyed monster

Theodore Dalrymple observes an increase in sexual jealousy and the violence that follows

26 July 2003

12:00 AM

26 July 2003

12:00 AM

If you exclude the hypothesis that most British official statistics have been manipulated for one political purpose or another, the latest crime figures appear strange and mysterious: while crimes of violence against the person have risen by 20 per cent in a single year, other forms of crime have fallen somewhat. Since most serious crimes are committed by people who also commit many lesser crimes, and clear-up rates are at an all-time low, the figures are surprising, to say the least.

The most parsimonious explanation I can think of (other than that people now know there is no point in reporting lesser crimes to the police unless it be for insurance purposes) is that the government wants things to look serious enough for it to be allowed to continue to erode genuine civil liberties – simultaneously continuing to confer scores of bogus ones upon us – while at the same time presenting its fight against crime as a success.

Be that as it may, I am perfectly satisfied that the level of violence in our society has increased, is increasing, and ought to be reduced. And one of the reasons for the increase is the sexual revolution: from the sexual point of view (and indeed from several others) much of Britain appears like a zoological garden in which the cages have been unlocked and from which the zoo-keepers have fled. It used to be the case that morbid jealousy was an uncommon condition: so uncommon, in fact, that the Othello syndrome was included as a chapter in a book entitled Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes, written by two eminent British psychiatrists, Enoch and Trethowan. But just as satire has a habit these days of turning into prophecy, so rare conditions sometimes become common ones, indeed – in this case – very nearly the norm.


In my six-bedded ward in the hospital I meet about 400 morbidly jealous men a year, and 400 victims of such men as well. In morbid jealousy, someone (usually, but not always, and decreasingly, a man, for women are becoming more prone to jealousy too) believes, on completely inadequate grounds and without the possibility of reassurance, that his sexual partner is playing him false. He uses his suspicions as a justification for his violence towards her: he controls her utterly by means of his menacing cross-questioning, his demand that she be available for him at all times (though he will not say when he is going to be present, for he himself must be free to come and go as he pleases) and by repeated episodes of truculent violence, followed by abject but completely insincere apologies and promises never to repeat the episode. This is what might be called the when-he’s-nice-doctor-he’s-very-nice syndrome. The violence of the sexually jealous person is not irrational, in the sense that it is committed without a purpose or without conscious control; on the contrary, it is, in most cases, a deliberate and concerted policy, which is highly successful for a time, though not usually in the long term. But the morbidly jealous person does not love his lover; he loves himself, unfortunately, with a tender, extremely inflamed and fragile ego. When the worm turns, as eventually it does – that is to say, when the woman finally plucks up courage to leave him – he takes it as a grave insult and tries to intimidate her into returning, and then simply transfers his affections elsewhere, to another woman – whom, of course, he treats in precisely the same fashion. One woman’s liberation is thus another woman’s enslavement.

The jealous man is not violent only to his lover; he has a paranoid, suspicious stance towards the whole world, which he suspects also of playing him false – at least if he is not what our managers in the health service call proactive. A glance in a pub, a word passed between his lover and another man – however innocuous or required by social convention – is enough to set him off; of the jealous men whom I see, three-quarters are violent not just to their lovers but to others as well. For example, recently I saw a man with two lovely black eyes. He had spoken in a casual way to the girlfriend of a man in the pub, and the man, taking immediate offence but being smaller than he, deputed four of his friends to administer a beating to the offending man on his way out. Needless to say, and living as we do in a primitive society, the beaten man swore vengeance; he knows where the offended lover lives, and will lie in wait for him and there attack him. I have known murder committed for less.

Is there any reason why insensate jealousy should have increased, provoking a wave of violence? The answer is yes, and it is an obvious one. There is no institutional structure any more to relations between the sexes. Of course, there was never a golden age in which jealousy did not exist: if there had been, Othello would not speak to us down the ages. Nor do I claim that when there was such a structure, everyone abided by the rules; of course they did not. But the institutional structure permitted a decent hypocrisy to smooth over the consequences of man’s permanent desire to wander. Moreover, when there were genuine difficulties in forming a liaison and penalties for breaking one once formed, it is likely that the incidence of cheating was lower than it is now – or at least there was more incentive to cover up evidence of cheating. The philanderer had to be subtle. Now all he needs is a mobile phone, which makes and then breaks up liaisons almost as often as it makes and breaks its connections.

Alas, man’s heart does not change quite as quickly as his head. The possibility of having all restraints on his sexual activities removed did not mean that he lost the desire for the exclusive sexual possession of another. Unfortunately, these two things are not entirely compatible: an unscrupulous predator on the sexual property of others himself, he naturally assumes that everyone else is a predator on his. He comes to see all men as a threat; hence the development of what anthropologists might call the who-you-looking-at? culture. A cat may look at a king, but not a man at a woman, at least if he doesn’t want a smashed beer glass or bottle in his face. In some cities, the old dimpled pint glasses have been banned or abandoned because they inflict serious injuries compared with the more easily breakable glasses now to be found, which inflict only superficial cuts when smashed. We are definitely in the age of harm reduction rather than in that of the control of evil.

Glass and bottle have become verbs in much of Britain: greater love hath no man than that he bottle or glass someone for his consort’s sake. Of course, I do not know what percentage of vicious assaults on both men and women are motivated by the green-eyed monster that mocks the meat it feeds on. I suspect, however, that it is quite high. And with the ever greater sexualisation of society, with the belief that sexual success is not only important but all-important from the point of view of a person’s self-worth and worth in the eyes of others, it would hardly be surprising if crimes motivated by jealousy had increased. On the contrary, it would be entirely logical that they should have done so. He who says sexual liberation – at least without a concomitant change of man’s heart with regard to exclusive sexual possession, which might well be impossible – also says violence.


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