Julie Bindel

Have we confronted the truth of what fuelled Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes?

Have we confronted the truth of what fuelled Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes?
Peter Sutcliffe in 1974 (photo: Getty)
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Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire ripper’, is dead. What is his legacy? He of course leaves behind the countless relatives and loved ones of his victims, whose lives have been torn apart and exist in a fog of pain and torment.

The women Sutcliffe killed had no dignity except in the minds of those that knew them. And thanks to the press reporting of the case, their last moments and the horrific, intimate details of their murders and defilement became embedded in true crime popular culture.

One thing that has changed since the 1970s is that Sutcliffe would not be able to get away with 13 murders now. CCTV and DNA evidence would hopefully have prevented him running rampage over long periods of time. 

Perhaps as well the police are now more clued up when they interview suspects in such crimes. Perhaps they have learned, after decades of feminists educating them about these issues, that ‘ordinary’, ‘respectable’ family-orientated men do indeed kill women and commit acts of heinous depravity. In the 1970s, the police were looking for a monster, which is why after interviewing Sutcliffe on nine separate occasions, they let him go to kill again.

But there are other aspects of Sutcliffe’s legacy that society is less willing to confront. Sutcliffe was a sadistic necrophiliac, meaning that he took sexual pleasure from watching his victims die, after which he would defile their bodies. Today, porn featuring necrophilia, and near fatal strangulation, is a popular genre that is incredibly easy to access.

I am not suggesting that violent pornography directly leads to men going out and committing the kind of crimes that Sutcliffe did. But there are serious ramifications if the eroticisation of women’s pain, humiliation and even death is normalised. We should ask why so many men still find women’s pain, suffering and death sexually exciting. After all, this is the reason Sutcliffe killed – not because of rage or madness – but for sexual gratification.

The case of Jane Longhurst, a music teacher who was killed by Graham Coutts in 2003, should have taught us all about the dangers of murderous men fuelled and abetted by violent porn. Jane was strangled to death with a pair of her own tights so Coutts could masturbate with his free hand while she was dying. Not wanting to be parted from the dead body, he stored her in a box he would regularly visit in order to defile her body further.

Police were able to confirm, by downloading his computer hard drive, that Coutts had visited many websites about rape and murder, and subscribed to several pornographic websites, including those aimed at sadistic necrophiliacs.

Coutts denied that he had committed murder, instead saying it was a ‘sex game that went wrong’. The feminist campaign group We Can't Consent to This has collated 60 similar examples of women killed during so-called 'sex games gone wrong' in the UK since 1972. The group found that 45 per cent of these cases ended in a lesser charge of manslaughter, a lighter sentence, or the death not being investigated as a crime at all. The so-called ‘rough sex defence’ was outlawed in the recent Domestic Abuse Bill. But the fact that feminists had to campaign to stop men from defending themselves against a murder conviction by saying that victims actually wanted to be beaten, strangled and tortured during sex is shocking and disgraceful.

Today, many would-be Sutcliffes have taken their activities online. Is it not time, out of respect for the women who die at the hands of such men, that we look at the way our society permits men to enjoy the idea of women being harmed and degraded for their own pleasure? Sutcliffe is dead, but what of the misogyny that fuelled his murderous actions?

Written byJulie Bindel

Journalist, author, broadcaster, feminist campaigner against sexual violence.

Topics in this articleSociety