It’s never the first time

This wasn’t his first time. Whoever killed Sabina Nessa – and we know a man has been arrested on suspicion of murder – it wasn’t his first time hurting or intimidating a woman. Of that, we can be more or less certain. Because, as writer and campaigner Jamie Klingler said in an interview with the BBC, “People don’t just go out and murder right away. There are signs, there are histories, there are reports made ahead of time – there are people that are scared of these men before they perpetrate these crimes.”

So maybe he had catcalled girls on the street, because that’s just a joke, right? It’s not dangerous, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a shout about tits on a weekday afternoon. He might have started talking to a woman as she tried to go about her day, and ignored her attempts to move away. Called her a bitch when she politely, nervously, asked if he could possibly leave her alone, it’s just she’s on her way somewhere, she can’t stop, sorry. He might have walked behind a woman late at night, watched her pace quicken, felt a flickering flame of power come alive in his limbs. He might have responded to romantic rejection with anger, and bombarded someone with calls and messages even after being asked to stop.

He might have overwhelmed someone with gifts and compliments and then started chipping away at her. Comment by comment, sharpened words twisting deeper each day, until she couldn’t talk to her friends or her family or her colleagues, because he’s not a bad person, and he needs her, and she’s overreacting. He tells her a lot that she’s overreacting.

Who do you report these things to, if you’re a woman? If you’re not in physical danger, if you don’t actually fear for your life, who’s keeping track?

Or maybe he groped someone in a club or on a busy tube – because you can get away with it when bodies are packed in together and women are there. He might have assaulted someone during a sexual encounter and managed to convince himself that because she went along with him, eventually, it wasn’t a crime, that he did nothing wrong, really. He’d never rape anyone, he’s not a monster. She wasn’t fighting him off or screaming or crying or anything. 

High on rage, he might have made a woman flinch and cower. 

Whoever killed Sabina Nessa, we stand a good chance of finding out in the coming days and weeks that he had done something before this. There will have been a warning sign, somewhere.

Wayne Couzens, who pleaded guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly exposed himself in public – while he was a working police constable – twice before he attacked the 33-year-old woman. Jake Davison, who murdered five people in Plymouth last month, was required to attend an anger management course in 2020 in order to get his legally-owned gun back after an assault allegation. The man convicted of killing sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in June 2020 had been referred to Prevent (the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy) in 2017, after he was found using his school computers to access far-right material. In the US, Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured a further 14 in an attack that was explicitly motivated by a hatred of women, had a history of smaller incidents – throwing coffee at a couple and at girls who didn’t return his smile, attempting to push some other girls off a ten-foot ledge. His own parents contacted police with concerns about his behaviour; the only conclusion drawn appears to be that he didn’t require an involuntary mental health commitment. When a mass murder or similar atrocity is committed now, we hold our breath and count the days until it comes to light: he had a history of violence, he practised his terrorism on women first.  

We can tick off years of our lives by the names of women and girls murdered by men, a sick imitation of a parlour game: “The year of Milly Dowler. The year of the Ipswich murders. The year of Clare Wood. The year of Joanna Yeates.” 2020: the year of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. 2021: Sarah Everard, Gracie Spinks, Sabina Nessa. And we know that these are just the ones that make the front pages. We know that they are just a small fraction of a bigger, bleaker picture. Women of colour, trans women and sex workers are less likely to make the headlines. And every single vibrant life stolen shames us all. We didn’t join the dots in time.

And women so often know. They know the men who are genuinely aghast, sick to their core at the thought of inflicting pain or fear on another human being – and the men who are OK with women being scared of them. The men who see both women’s fear and women’s autonomy as things to be met with force.

We can all think of men we wouldn’t leave alone with a drunk female friend. We murmur it to each other in corners at parties, we slip each other warnings: “watch yourself around him. If you need me to come over, give me the signal.” Good men know it too – they know the guy they have to keep an eye on, the guy who says and does things that make the rest of the group wince and wonder if they should say something.

Please, always, say something. 

Because we can’t keep counting our lives in dead women. We can’t keep wilfully refusing to heed the warning signs, dismissing red flags as bad days, one-offs. We can’t keep being grateful for scraps like “more street lighting” and “undercover police in bars” and “not walking home alone”. There is a world of difference, of course, between a catcall or a grope in a club and a mass shooting. But if we can work backwards from “terrorist act” to “history of domestic abuse” and see that in some circumstances one can be a predictor of the other, then my God, we can start working forwards. Seeing all misogynist behaviour on a spectrum, and cutting it off at the source.

We can’t keep doing everything except the one thing that might work: demanding that men, not women, change.

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