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Serial killer self-ID

Men who kill women shouldn’t get to define themselves

Artillery Row

Harvey Marcelin admits to having “problems” with women. That would be putting it mildly. Marcelin has spent more than 50 years in prison for killing two of them, and has recently been charged with the second-degree murder of a third.

You could say this presents a particularly stark example of men’s fatal violence against women. Although, actually, you couldn’t say that. Harvey Marcelin, who hates women enough to shoot, stab and dismember them, now claims to be a woman, too. Oh, well. I guess that, in this case, cutting a woman into pieces and leaving her torso in a shopping trolley isn’t a feminist issue after all. 

Female victims of male violence suffer no less when their attacker claims not to be male

If, as a feminist, you express outrage at newspaper reports describing Marcelin as female, you tend to be told one of three things: one, there’s no reason to think Marcelin is lying about being a woman; two, denying a trans person their pronouns just because they’ve committed a crime would be punishing them more than other people; three, highlighting Marcelin’s crimes is just a ploy to make trans people look bad. 

You may have noticed something about these responses. Marcelin’s subjectivity — Marcelin’s truth — is very much a concern. The subjectivity of Marcelin’s victims, not so much. Of course, they’re not around to say how they feel, but I’ll make a guess.

I do not think the inner identity of a male perpetrator makes the slightest bit of difference when he’s sticking a knife into your body. It is the same male violence you’ve always known, that you’ve always lived with, since the day you were born female. That is your truth and it deserves to be respected in the same way we respect the truths of those killed by more “suitable” perpetrators. 

Female victims of male violence suffer no less when their attacker claims not to be male. Their terror is still located on the same old continuum. The trouble is, these victims are an embarrassment to liberal feminism, a feminism that seeks to name male violence without ever defining what is meant by “male”. If your killer is a policeman, your rapist a movie mogul, you might get a vigil, perhaps a whole movement gathering behind you. 

But a death at the hands of someone who claims to be a transgender woman? A rape in a prison cell, or by a spouse who claims you’re unsupportive of their transition? Liberal feminism does not want your story; it is inconvenient. There’s no place for you in the list of survivors, should you live to tell the tale. In the name of inclusion, your suffering must be excluded. 

Male subjectivity wins out over female social reality

Of course I understand why this problem has arisen. The terms “male” and “female” are highly contested due to the fact that some people wish them to refer to sex difference, others, to gender identity. Labour leader Keir Starmer recently stepped in, King Solomon-like, to resolve things, informing us that “a woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women”.

This resolves nothing; it’s a posture that treats two competing, conflicting understandings of what a woman is as though they can simply sit alongside one another, ignoring the way in which one inevitably overrides the other. 

On the one hand, there is the understanding of women as adult human females who are oppressed and exploited by adult human males. On the other, there is the understanding of “woman” as a gender identity, with cis women — that is, biologically female people — having privilege over trans women (biologically male people). How exactly do we apply these analyses simultaneously, not least in situations where adult human males are raping and killing adult human females?

You would think that, perhaps, in a situation where a male person is grievously harming a female person, the sex-based analysis of the situation would win out. You would be wrong. It is now common practice to report assaults, rapes and murders committed by male people against female people using the preferred pronouns of the perpetrator, and for these pronouns to be used in the courtroom. Male subjectivity wins out over female social reality. 

This is grotesquely unfair, treating the perpetrator as the ultimate arbiter of where the structural privilege lies. It is as though male violence against women isn’t something which sits in any global, relational context, with as much meaning to victims as it has to perpetrators. The victim is denied her perception of reality — and the broader meaning of her assault — on the basis that the perpetrator cannot be denied his. It is male privilege on steroids. 

Naturally, one could say, “Well, this doesn’t affect a lot of women. Most perpetrators are cis men.” Some might even argue that the pain and isolation of a woman who cannot speak of the violence done to her — who would never, ever be welcomed onto a podium to speak of her trauma; who might even be dead, so who cares? — is a small price to pay so that everyone else can “be themselves”. 

I would point out that this failure to recognise male violence against women in a small number of cases changes our definition of male violence for all women. It ceases to be something male people do to us because of our location in a social hierarchy that, as feminists, we all must challenge. It becomes something entirely conditional on male declarations of how they see themselves in relation to us. We don’t get to tell the story; our interpretation is irrelevant. 

The victims of Harvey Marcelin deserve to be recognised as victims of male violence; their suffering deserves to be placed in its correct social and political context. 

This is not a debate about Marcelin’s self-perception. It’s about the inclusion of all female victims in our politics and the validation of their realities. These women matter, too. 

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