What Kind of Debate Should We Be Having About Domestic Violence?

This post is a guest blog post written by Sarah Phillimore. Sarah is a family barrister with over 15 years of experience. She tweets as @SVPhillimore and this is her first foray into blogging. This post arose from a tweet from @change4victims calling for support for an e-petition entitled "review of access laws for domestic abusers", subsequently retweeted by @womensaid.

The petition reads:

70% of cases in the family courts cite domestic abuse as a major concern yet only 1% are refused access. a review is required. Supervised access is the minimum that must be considered when an abuser scores low to moderate on the DASSH risk assessment. Supervision must be on a 1:1 basis. No access should be given where an abuser scores high risk on the DASSH, where a MARAC hearing is held or planned, Where target hardening is carried out on a victims property or where the abused has had to move to refuge, out of their hometown away from their support network. government should consult Women's Aid, The Police and the Domestic Abuse helpline in reviewing this. Family law must consider children's safety and not simply chase social ideals. A happy child with a lone parent will always make a more positive impact than an unhappy child brought up with abuse. Also where drug use is cited as a problem rehabilitation must take place before access can be considered.

 It has to date achieved 35 signatures.

Over to Sarah...

What Kind of Debate Should We Be Having About Domestic Violence?

Disclaimer:
I do not believe that it is ok for people to abuse each other, with fists or with words. We all need to take responsibility for our own behaviour and not complain that we were ‘provoked’ by another person or situation into acting badly. I agree that men who expose their children or children’s mothers to violence should expect State intervention in their family life, which could mean they are prevented from having a relationship with their children as they grow.

Why do I even need to say this? Because sadly my experience of attempting to discuss violence in relationships has shown me that it is difficult to engage in useful debate. At times it seems that only one response is permitted – men are the perpetrators and women are the victims. Any deviation from that norm is met with accusations that I must be a supporter of violence against women and anything I say should be dismissed.

I have been a specialist family lawyer since 1999, acting for both mothers and fathers. Many parents who are separating make allegations about each other’s behaviour. Violence is often an issue. I do not use the term ‘domestic violence’ because that is a ludicrous term. ‘Domestic’ makes it all sound so lovely and cosy. I find the term ‘relationship violence’ more helpful as I think  the context of the relationship in which such violence occurs is relevant – to how we blame, how we punish and how we move on.


I was prompted to write by the e petition ‘review of access laws for domestic abusers’. It says: ‘70% of cases in the family courts cite domestic abuse as a major concern yet only 1% are refused access. A review is required.’

I do not know where this statistic comes from or what is meant by ‘cases in the family courts’. I assume it must refer to applications for contact in private law proceedings as the word ‘access’ is used. I assume that means ‘direct contact’ and thus does not cover birthday cards etc.

I don’t know what is meant by ‘domestic abuse’ but I assume it must follow the definition in The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 as:

‘ any act of violence, even if only verbal, perpetrated by a household member upon another household member and includes any omission which causes physical or moral harm to the other.

That ‘violence’ goes beyond phsyical harm or threats of physical harm was confirmed by the the Supreme Court in Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow [2011] UKSC 3 where in the context of section 177(1) of the Housing Act 1996, a husband shouting at his wife would be sufficient conduct to fall within that Act’s definition of ‘violence.

I don’t know what is meant by a ‘major concern’ as the petition seems to advocate two different kinds of approach to two different kinds of violence.  Men who score ‘low to moderate’ on the DASSH (sic?) risk assessment should only be allowed to have direct contact with their children if subject to one on one supervision. Those who score highly on the risk assessment or where a MARAC hearing is held or planned get no direct contact at all.

The internet informs me that

the new Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Based Violence (DASH 2009) Risk Identification, Assessment and Management Model means that for the first time all police services and a large number of partner agencies across the UK will be using a common checklist for identifying and assessing risk, which will save lives. ACPO Council accredited the DASH (2009) Model to be implemented across all police services in the UK from March 2009.’

A MARAC hearing is a multi agency risk assessment for the highest risk cases of abuse in order to create a safety plan for the victim.

I would think it highly unlikely that any individual who was subject to either a DASH assessment or a MARAC hearing would be out and about in the community freely making applications for contact orders. I would be very interested to know what the statistics are about this. All I can say is that in 13 years of practice I have only had a handful of cases where a father was making an application from prison or had come out of prison after serving more than six months for an offence of violence against a partner or others. Most fathers in those positions appear to drop out of their children’s lives. Those who did make applications from prison or after sentence were subject to pretty intensive risk assessments before even indirect contact commenced.

Therefore, the vast majority of cases I have dealt with are presumably ones where the father would score ‘low to moderate’ on the DASH assessment;  violence is in issue, involving drunken arguments, mobile phones being thrown or smashed, threats made, doors kicked, police call outs which involve ‘advice given’ rather than arrest, and children present in the home throughout.

There was not a risk of serious physical injury to the mother or the children, but this of course does not make the behaviour trivial. Those at the receiving end of it cannot be expected to rationally assess their risk at the time; they are likely to be very frightened and may reasonably fear that the violence will escalate.

The court is then faced with parents who have split up in such circumstances, sometimes after complicated, messy and toxic relationships, often spanning many years and involving more than one child. The parents cannot agree post separation on how they manage contact, particularly if the non resident parent is continuing with a pattern of aggressive and unpleasant behaviour.

In order to determine the nature and extent of the risk posed by the non resident parent, the court is likely to need a fact finding. Once facts have been established on the balance of probabilities, the risk posed by the perpetrator can be assessed and consideration given to how to manage contact.

Again, the statistic that only 1% of violent parents are then refused ‘access’ simply reflects  my experience of such cases and is proportionate to the facts of those cases. The  most serious issues of violence are not going to be before a family court in the context of an application for contact.  Rather, those cases go through the criminal courts or public law care proceedings where issues of risk of significant harm are debated. I would expect the percentage of men refused direct contact with their children in those circumstances to be considerably higher than 1%.

The fact that low level abusers are still allowed to see their children is in recognition of the clear principles of both domestic and international law of the child’s and parent’s right to have a relationship with one another.

Children generally love their parents, no matter how unworthy they might appear to an outsider. They are very likely to suffer harm if they are exposed to abuse within their parents’ relationship but the answer to this harm is unlikely to be to cut out of their lives one half of their genetic identity, particularly if the children are old enough and had spent enough time with their parents to form close attachments to both.

The authors of the petition assert that low scorers on the DASH risk assessment must nevertheless only be permitted 1:1 supervised contact.

Several things worry me about this. The first is practical. I doubt we are going to trip over any enormous pots of money any time soon to fund supervised 1:1 contact for all those assessed as a low risk. So the reality would be, if supervised contact is the automatic minimum, this will equate to no direct contact at all.

But I can’t let the financial tail wag the dog of principle. If the money were available, is it the right response to demand that people assessed as ‘low’ risk should only see their children in an environment of 1:1 supervision? I don’t agree.  Children who grow up in abusive families are already damaged by constant exposure to a poor template of good parenting. I don’t see how that damage is undone by then demanding they can only see their non resident parent in the stressful and artificial environment of 1:1 supervision.

I agree that when parents separate, if the non resident parent has been abusive, a regime of free and easy contact is inappropriate; it creates further tension and makes arguments and unpleasant behaviour more likely.  But when complaints of abuse do not attract charges under the criminal law or the abuser is assessed as ‘low risk’,  a draconian demand for only 1:1 supervised contact is not proportionate to the harm caused or feared. Rather, there is a need to consider less invasive and expensive options, such as referral to counselling, anger management or parenting courses, supported contact at a centre, help from family or friends to arrange picking up and bringing back children and contact only as visits during the day, rather than longer periods and overnight.

However, there is another part to my objections to the petition. We are not only concerned about the need for a proportionate response to a low risk offender. What about the dynamic within the relationship itself and the role both parents play in creating a family life which can be unpleasant and unhappy for all concerned? Attempts to acknowledge and discuss this dynamic are often rejected in very aggressive terms, hence my disclaimer above.

To permit a women in a violent relationship only the role of ‘victim’ stifles any consideration or debate about how she got there and why she stays or what her own behaviour has been in the relationship.

When Erin Pizzey wrote Prone to Violence she reported that she had been the subject of death threats because she concluded that most domestic violence is reciprocal, and that women also have a capacity to be violent.

I agree with her conclusions, albeit to a more limited extent. I do not agree that most women have the physical or emotional capacity to be as violent as some men. However, with regard to the reciprocity of violence in relationship, at the lower end of the scale where neither the criminal courts or the Local Authority is involved, it is my experience that in many cases both parents are making allegations against each other about behaviour which falls clearly within a definition of either physical or emotional abuse. If we really do want to keep children safe we can’t ignore this reality or attempt to aggressively censor anyone who wants to discuss it.

Of course, most men are likely to be stronger than most women. If they react aggressively they are likely to do more immediate physical damage than a woman. Reported incidents of women being physically violent towards men in relationships are rare. This either reflects that it doesn’t happen often, or that it is under reported due to the shame and embarrassment felt by male victims – they can’t be a proper man if they let a woman hit them. These factors probably explain why the division between ‘female victim’ and ‘male perpetrator’ has become in certain circles such a self evident truth.

I am concerned that this clear cut division between men as the violent perpetrators and women as victims, promotes a simplistic clarity at the expense of proper analysis of what is really going on in these relationships. Relationship violence occurs within the dynamic of that relationship. I do not seek to blame women or demonise men when I say that what both people bring to the relationship can be relevant to understanding it.

Demonising violent men isn’t going to help our understanding about what we can do or should do as a society to intervene in obviously unhealthy relationships. If just from a cold hearted capitalist view we have to do something as even low levels of violence in relationships damages children. Damaged children may grow up to be damaged and unproductive adults who inflict harm on their own children in turn.

The increased understanding of the interplay between genes and environment has  potential implications for cases of relationship violence and deciding issues of fault and blame.  In the USA, Bradley Waldroup escaped the death penalty in 2009 for trying to murder his wife and successfully murdering her friend. It was argued during the trial that Waldroup was not responsible for first degree murder due to his possession of the (inaptly named) ‘warrior gene’ combined with a deprived and abusive childhood which triggered his propensity for extreme adult violence. The jury agreed and found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.  It appears that this was the first case of its kind where the impact of genes and environment was argued during the trial itself, rather than being put forward as mitigation in sentencing.

There is a legitimate argument that behaviour shown by Waldroup is so serious that we should put our need to be protected from him much higher than any consideration of how to help him. But the petition is not exclusively directed against these high risk men, It demands also that low risk offenders face significant disruption to their relationship with their children.

The real problem for society at large, is that toxic adult relationships often produce children. These relationships are likely to break down in great acrimony. The parents can’t negotiate how to parent now they are separated. The only agency they can reliably turn to is the family court which can only ever intervene by setting out a legal framework for the future, leaving the issues of past and present emotional dysfunction entirely untouched.

Children will generally love their parents and need to know them however unworthy the parents are by any objective standards. For a court to endorse refusal of all contact between a parent or child is deliberately a very rare step because we have been told so clearly and for so long by psychiatrists and psychologists that this risks causing significant emotional damage to children.

‘Family law must consider children’s safety and not simply chase social ideals’ complains the petition. The problem with this is that promoting a child’s relationship with both parents is not some woolly ‘social’ ideal; it is a legal obligation upon our courts, imposed by domestic and international law. The move away from this principle will require as a first step that we refuse to be subject to Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Further, if the aims of the petition are accepted by the Government, it is not just from international law that we will have to resile. Every decision any Judge makes about a child’s contact with his parents is made according to the central principle of the Children Act 1989 - the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration. The problem with the petition is the attempt to impose blanket rules which over ride any fact specific analysis of what is best for this particular child in these particular circumstances. If this petition succeeds, the Children Act will have to be re-written and we say good bye to the welfare principle.

The petition concludes ‘a happy child with a lone parent will always make more positive impact than un unhappy child brought up with abuse’. I don’t argue much against that conclusion. But it is based on a false premise, that men are perpetrators and women are victims and once the men are removed all will be well. I hope I have made it clear why I don’t think this is a helpful assumption.

Men who present a moderate to high risk of killing or seriously injuring their partners are a danger to us all. I hope that most of them are in prison. I agree wholeheartedly that once they are out of prison they should not be having unsupervised contact with children unless they have shown insight into their behaviour and have completed treatment or therapy to successfully change their mindsets.

But men who score ‘low’ on a DASH assessment? Children born into relationships where both parents display abusive behaviour? What are the consequences for these children of then denying them any real relationship with their father?

If there is money to spend on supervised contact for low risk men, I hope there is money available to ensure early help and support offered to all who need it, to try to break the pattern of repeated dysfunctional behaviour in relationships.

We can’t usefully debate issues of violence in relationships and its impact on society if we are not prepared to consider the wider issues beyond the  simple perpetrator/victim dichotomy. People and their lives can be messy and complicated. The Judges can’t help them with that, they can only apply the law. And before we petition to change the law to deal with a social problem, we have to be as sure and as honest as we can be about all the facts of the problem before us.

Koo-ee! We’re over here love!

Where are all the feminist lawyers? Discuss. Kat Watson's essay on the topic was posted on The F Word last week. I was alerted to it by a critical blog post in response written by another female lawyer type who had been irked by it (that post has now been removed hence no link). It irks me too, but not for entirely the same reasons.

The post ponders the question of the alleged absence of feminist lawyers, and prescribes the creation of a "coordinated, active group of feminist lawyers or law students" as a cure for this apparent malaise.

The post refers to the "ever-impending prospect of starting a career at the bar without knowing who to look to as a feminist leader in the field". You want role models? For goodness sake, didn't she even do a cursory google search before paying her BVC fees? Can it be possible that someone can gain entry to the profession without being able to use Wikipedia?

Try these (a sample only):

Helena Kennedy QC (Amongst many other things, Author of [amazon_link id="0099224410" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Eve Was Framed,[/amazon_link] President of The Helena Kennedy Foundation)

Baroness Hale (First woman in the Supreme Court, [amazon_link id="1849460531" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]supporter of the Feminist Judgments Project[/amazon_link])

Theis J DBE (Mother, Barrister, QC, Former Chair FLBA, High Court Judge)

Shami Chakrabarti (barrister and one woman campaigning machine for human and civil rights, now panel member on the Leveson Press Inquiry)

So, in answer to your question "Where are all the feminist lawyers?":

We are out there working, achieving, juggling, surviving. In amongst it all some of us campaign for justice in small ways, some in big ways, others just get on with doing a job that would not have been possible for their mothers, and doing it well. Many work quietly to improve diversity at the bar, by mentoring, guiding and supporting young women and young men of talent. They put in extra time to give them a helping hand and to keep an eye out for them. Most challenge discrimination and backwards attitudes when they encounter it. Very occasionally, some of us write about feminist issues.

The law, particularly the bar, is not an easy environment for a woman, or at any rate for a woman with children. There have been many improvements, and although it remains only in isolated pockets, I speak from experience when I say that direct sexism still exists at the bar. But I've learnt that feminism is about more than challenging minor acts of chauvinism (women committee members being habitually referred to as "girls" for example). Every time a woman returns from maternity leave, successfully juggles caring and professional responsibilities and achieves in her career it is an achievement that feminists should be proud of. It is to the credit of the individual women (and their supportive others), and to some extent to those within the profession who have pushed change through, that this is possible. Just doing my job day in day out, quite apart from the fact that many of my clients are vulnerable women, is a feminist act. I do being a feminist every day. I don't particularly feel the need to be a member of any club to prove my feminist credentials - I am a member of the bar.

But that aside, I have to take issue with the proposition that there is "no coordinated, active group of feminist lawyers or law students". Apart from the Association of Women Barristers obviously. Or the Association of Women Solicitors. Or organisations like the Haldane Society. Or the various Specialist Bar Associations with their Equalities / Diversity Officers and subcommittees.

Maybe we could do with a whizzy new organisation, but based on the examples of "feminist" issues set out in Ms Watson's post I gather its focus would be on law reform not on legal practice per se. Those matters it seems to me are primarily matters for politicians and for political, representative and lobbying groups to deal with, although professional bodies and specialist bar associations etc often contribute to public debate and consultations about such matters that affect their members or their client groups or that raise points of general public interest (eg FLBA or Sound Off For Justice).

Why is there not more? Because we're busy people who prioritise our clients. Because we represent those clients, fearlessly, independently of our personal views or convictions - be they female victims of violence, or male perpetrators. When we campaign we campaign for justice. When we gather it is to defend it.

I don't have F branded on my forehead like some feminist Rimmer. Instead I wear a wig*.

So, to Kat Watson: You may think we're invisible. But you're not looking hard enough. You are emphatically NOT the first / only feminist lawyer.

Prescription: more experience. Advice: learn from observation not keyword searches.

* in point of fact I rarely wear a wig as I practice in family law, but I do wear the "dark suit" uniform. I don't understand the offence taken at the wig - it isn't gender specific. In fact it renders uniform all members of the bar, be they male or female and thus is a neutralising device rather than a sign of male domination.

Walking Talking Living Doll

Health warning: Enormo-post.

Most legal eyes this week have been on the various Legal Walks taking place in London and elsewhere, to raise funds for Law Centres and Pro Bono legal advice (and in Bristol it was an Access to Justice Walk). Not satisfied with that, half of my chambers seems to have participated in the Bristol 10k run at the weekend for charidee. But this post is about a whole other kind of walk. The SLUT WALK. Some of you may have seen Paxman last week (see 27.45m on iplayer) apparently oscillating between overexcited, bewildered and just plain petrified, pinned between a pair of variously vociferous and voluptuous women arguing the pros and cons of the proposed SLUT WALK - the contrast between their visual appearance was surely no coincidence - one tight lipped, pinned back, steely and contained; the other wild haired, verbally passionate and physically demonstrative (guess which was the Tory MP). I myself found it a strange mix of amusing and excruciating - I could almost hear the boys from my school chanting "Bitch fight!". The polarised comments on twitter during and after carried on the theme and kept me absorbed for a whole glass of chianti.

But the quaero-erotic tableau contrived by the producers of Newsnight last week is not the topic of this blog post. I do actually want to talk about the slut walks. You can read about them here, if the whole concept has passed you by. Because to me the real issues have been slightly lost in the (predictable) media hoo ha (And in the coalition style drafting "pause" before publication of this post a further broo-ha-ha on the topic of rape has arisen from Ken Clarke's outrageous suggestion that not all rapes are of identical degrees of gravity).

Back to the sluts. Let's just take the offending word "slut" out of the equation and place it to one side. We will deal with it later. Now we can look a little more objectively. What we are left with is Police Constable Sanguinetti's suggestion that young women may expose themselves to greater risk of sexual violence depending on how they dress (incidentally I am trying SO hard to fight the persistent visual image of Canadian law enforcement qua Malcolm the Mountie). The notion that women should take some responsibility for the consequences of their actions rather than rely upon unrealistic expectations of male behaviour is not new (see for example the always controversial Camille Paglia - sorry, can't find a quote and my copy of the book is lost / leant out / hidden by toddler). This is not the only thing that Paglia has said that has made her unpopular, but it certainly has been one of them. It's a very delicate topic - for good reason, because of the tension between how the world is and how it ought to be (or how we would like it to be).

But, lets put Paglia to one side (she too makes people too hot under the collar to focus properly) - there are a number of really important questions here (to which I do not know the answers, and which I cannot see anyone asking let alone attempting to answer):

  • Statistically speaking, does a woman's choice of clothing whilst out in public impact upon the risk of her becoming a victim of sexual violence?
  • As opposed to (say) whether or not she is alone, drunk or taking a poorly lit route?
  • And in any event, what proportion of sexual violence takes place in the snatch and assault stranger rape scenario that Sanguinetti apparently has in mind, as opposed to rape at home or by an acquaintance or (ex-)intimate partner?
  • Which leads on to important questions about who rapes, and why / when do they do so? How much rape is opportunistic rape arising from an impulsive response to a woman's choice of clothes? If I had to guess I would say a pretty small proportion.

It seems uncontroversial to me that in the course of their crime prevention duties (as distinct from detection, prosecution and punishment) it is right for the police to educate the public about risk factors and help them to keep themselves safe and avoid becoming victims of crime. I think that includes sexual crime. But that's the easy bit. What I don't know is whether the risk factor to which PC Sanguinetti is alluding is in fact a risk factor at all. And I wonder if there are even statistics available to answer that question - my guess would be not, but it would be great if someone could tell me in a comment. (The only stats I have been able to find are a reference to the 2004-5 British Crime Survey Interpersonal Violence Module which suggests that 51% of serious sexual violence was carried out by partners or ex partners, and that only 11% was committed by a stranger to the victim.

Because it is one thing to suggest that women can reduce their risk of sexual violence by modifying their appearance if there is an evidence base to support that as an effective risk management strategy, but quite another to put forward such a proposal based upon assumptions about how men and women behave and relate to one another. For me, the use of the word slut is telling - he could have said "don't wear skimpy clothes" but he chose to equate a(n unspecified) mode of dress with a sexual attitude. "Slut" is evocative as well as provocative, but not objectively identifiable - it suggests to me that the guidance offered is based on assumption and stereoptype rather than evidence or analysis. But that may be a wrong guess.

We do not criticise other public education or health programmes such as safe sex campaigns, safe sun campaigns, anti theft campaigns etc, even though they in some cases urge us to modify what we consider socially acceptable or normal behaviour (including sexual behaviour). And I don't see the provision of good information about risk as inimical to the right of women to make choices, to express themselves and their sexuality and to take risks if they want to. Sound information (as opposed to social assumption) enables us to make informed choices and to take known risks.

So let's look at the word slut. What does it mean? What was it meant to convey when used by PC Sanguinetti? What does it's use in this context reveal? Well, it connotes sexual promiscuity. How does one dress "like a slut"? Presumably by signalling through clothing that one is sexually available by choosing revealing clothing. Of course the notion that we can identify something we can't even define is rubbish anyway. There are lost distinctions between sexually confident, sexually active and promiscuity, and more importantly a lost distinction between perceived or actual promiscuity and consent. Promiscuous individuals say Yes a lot. But that doesn't mean their Nos don't count as much as any other person's.

It is abhorrent to think that a woman has to be ashamed of her body and deny her sexual self because our expectations of male behaviour are so low (religiously based codes of female modesty are quite difficult for me to come to terms with for this reason - why should women cover up because society doesn't expect men to keep it zipped? Equally, biological determinist arguments about male socio-sexual behaviour give me the shivers). It would be abhorrent to think that the society I live in accepted any argument that men simply cannot help themselves when faced with naked flesh. But wouldn't it also be stupid to ignore good evidence about risk factors if that evidence exists?

Society doesn't accept burglary or car crime is socially acceptable; but we are educated by the police in how to protect ourselves and our homes from this unacceptable behaviour and we follow that advice even though it curtails our freedom and our autonomy (we lock doors, set alarms, clutch possessions) - we all judge for ourselves where the line should be drawn, but every day we take sensible steps to reduce risk based on advice because we know that crime is a reality. And if my car is nicked because I didn't bother to lock it people might think I was daft, but they wouldn't treat the taking of my car as acceptable behaviour. It would still be car theft. Like lots of other sensible people I get very uncomfortable, and angry whenever there is a suggestion that a victim of sexual violence was "asking for it" or that the violent behaviour is less culpable because of the victim's own behaviour, but it seems to me that the tendency towards hysteria about the perceived minimising of the seriousness of rape, and the general hypersensitivity about anything that suggests women are to blame for male behaviour is a barrier to sensible discussion about women's behaviour. To suggest that we talk about that is not inconsistent with the idea that sexual violence is not OK and should be punished. Women's behaviour doesn't make sexual violence more or less serious. But it might make it more or less likely. As I say, I'd like to see any statistics that exist on the extent to which dress actually impacts on the prevalence of sexual attacks.

Last time I was out in Bristol on a Saturday night I walked along the Waterfront by the Watershed. It was like a cattle market. I have a particularly memorable image of walking behind a gaggle of overweight young women, maybe 19 or 20 years old, all heavily dolled up, wearing short dresses and heels, and one with a dress so short that both bum cheeks were hanging out of the bottom of the dress, like a pair of cellulite pelmets. I'm still quite traumatised by it. But does their poor choice of dress make them vulnerable? Maybe. But I would guess that being rolling drunk and wearing shoes that would prevent a quick escape were their biggest risk factors. For me the bigger issue is why women feel like they have to put on a show of sexual availability as some kind of Saturday night ritual? I'm all for choice, and I've done my fair share of revealing clothes and drunken nights out (in days of yore), so this doesn't come from prudishness - I'm all for celebrating our bodies, our youth and our sex. But I sometimes sense that what for young women of my generation was a choice, a rebellion - has somehow slipped into a way of conforming, of fitting in, and an expectation for girls growing up today - and it begins before girls even reach puberty.

What is most upsetting about the use of the word "slut" to me is that we seem to expect our girls to dress revealingly, provocatively and in a sexually adult way from a very young age (like sluts?), and then society tells them it's their fault when they become victims of sexual violence. And in some ways reminding young women that they have choices about who they become, and they are responsible for those choices is no bad thing. How much of the way we raise our girls as sexually precocious eye pleasers is a barrier to changing social attitudes to and about women and sexual behaviour? That the choice of language used by PC Sanguinetti was so massively provocative is telling of the underlying reality - that male and social attitudes to women's sexuality and sexual choices are not as far forward as they ought to be.

Our girl children are raised in an environment in which sex is just another commodity, they are under chronic social pressure to present themselves as physically appealing, and to conform to a pretty narrow and standardised version of physical attractiveness. That's why, for me, the idea of reclaiming the word slut is missing the point - it's symptomatic of the lack of intellectual rigour in the idea that young girls are somehow empowered women. How are they empowered when society condemns their very conformity as sluttishness?