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‘it could be him’: the new musical London Road and gendered violence

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There are many aspects of London Road that are just plain weird. This musical-turned-film is based on the true events surrounding the serial murders of five female sex workers in 2006 by Steve Wright, taking interviews about the crimes verbatim and turning them into snazzy show-tunes. But perhaps what is most unique about London Road is that it’s not based on the crimes themselves, but on the community reaction from London Road and Ipswich, as well as the journalists reporting on the case.

While a couple of the songs fall short in composition, there are a few that really excel as found poetry, such as the song “It Could Be Him”, sung by two teenage girls as they try to navigate their feelings about the unknown serial killer. “It Could Be Him” employs their youthful diction and nervous laughter to demonstrate the fascination and the fear of the women in the area. The men, on the other hand, have to deal with the suspicion placed upon them—with the gravitas of the mystery, and the nature of the victims’ work, they are all suspects even before it’s proven that the culprit was a male.

In a way, I suppose this is what worries certain men when it comes to discussing male violence against women. Britain has a high rate of deaths caused by domestic violence; the police website for Suffolk County (where Ipswich is located) states that an average of two women per week in Britain are murdered by a current or former partner. With the introduction of Clare’s Law, it is now possible for concerned partners, family members, and friends, to apply for relevant background information (such as whether or not they have a history of criminal violence) on their significant other. And with statistics demonstrating that the majority of victims of domestic violence are women (77% in the UK), it is often classed as a gendered crime. Cue hashtag #NotAllMen, and comments about the hysteria and misandry of feminazis. There is a knee-jerk concern that discussing violence as a gendered issue will tar all men with the same brush. They don’t want people to hear about the domestic violence statistics, then look at them and wonder if ‘it could be him’.

Image is a huge concern in London Road. The film starts off with the introduction of a new stadium to Ipswich, which leads to an influx of sex workers around the area. These women are criticised for soliciting in the area, without any consideration of what has brought them to London Road. But any profession, even a despised one, is based on supply and demand. The commercialisation of the area, and the men who provide the demand, are largely ignored by the community as contributing factors to the issue. The women are blamed for the serial killer’s presence in the community, and one resident even states that she’d like to shake the hand of Steve Wright for getting rid of the prostitution problem. And while the violence is a concern, so too is the perception of Ipswich, London Road in particular, after the murders and sex work become highly publicised in the British media.

The women who were interviewed for the musical seem to have become sex workers due to social issues, such as poverty and drug addiction. While the song “We’ve All Stopped” explores the positive interventions that took place for these women after the publicity, it also draws attention to the fact that ‘it took five girls’ and their horrific murders for the community to reach out and help them.

Because sex work is such a stigmatised profession, it’s very easy for those involved to be dehumanised when they are the victims of crime, such as in that old joke that raping a prostitute is not rape but ‘stealing’ or ‘theft of services’. But this does not help the cause against male violence against women in the least. Take, for example, the case for Jill Meagher in Australia, who was raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley. In early 2015, Bayley was found guilty of the rapes of three other women prior to Meagher, two of which were sex workers at the time. For the first victim, it took eleven years for her to report the crime, and I can’t help but wonder if the stigma against her profession is what led to that decision.

In a blog post written by Meagher’s husband, Tom, he examined the monster myth and the blame placed upon women who are the victims of male violence. He wrote about the ‘prostitutes [that had contacted him] who felt it pointless to report sexual assault because of perceived deficiencies in the justice system,’ and how women who are raped are often criticised for ‘wearing x or drinking y,’ when in reality, ‘no amount of adherence to these ill-conceived rules could have stopped him [Bayley] from raping somebody that night.’ What Tom Meagher is telling his audience is that violence is not something that just happens in reaction to stimuli—it is an act that is willingly committed by a real and conscious human being.

When certain men worry about the change in the narrative, the shift of focus from the victim to the perpetrator, and about the way they will be perceived (even those who aren’t violent offenders), they are ignorant of the irony in their statements. They do not want to be seen as the cause of crime, all the while the victims of gendered violence are being blamed for the crimes committed against them. London Road certainly demonstrates a reluctance to shift the narrative. But unless we change the cultures allow gendered violence to thrive, women will always be wondering if ‘it could be him’, because, realistically, it could be.

 

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