A Feminist Perspective on the Crimes of Rose West

Introduction

Within this case study, a feminist perspective will be carried out in order to critically examine the crimes committed by Rose West. The aim is to give a detailed insight into modern perceptions surrounding the role gender plays within the Criminal Justice System and public responses in regards to it, during the 1970’s at the time of West’s crimes. Rosemary West was born on the 29th November 1953, in Devon, England and married Fred West in 1972. The couple are regarded as two of the most sadistic serial killers to commit a crime within the UK and were accountable for the dismemberment and murder of women and young female children, with two of them being from their own family.

As a result of Fred West’s fatal asphyxiation in 1995, Rose was in the end found liable of 10 separate counts of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The police thoroughly believe that the West’s were guilty of further unsolved murders and disappearances due to the fact that during questioning Fred admitted to the murder of around 30 victims, meaning that there are around 18 unfound people. The crimes of Fred and Rose West still to this day create a kind of moral panic within society with their Daughter Anne Marie still being emotionally scared by the events.

A Newspaper Article written by The Guardian in 1999 identifies the struggles their daughter faces in the aftermath of the events. Having just attempted suicide Anne Marie told them “People say I’m lucky to have survived, but I wish I had died. I can still taste the fear. Still feel the pain. It’s like going back to being a child again.’ (The Guardian, 1999). Virtually instantly after being given a life sentence Rose West filed an appeal against her 10 murder convictions, stating that Fred West murdered them single-handedly and she had no involvement. Rose is still currently an inmate at HMP Low Newton, Brasside, Durham, England.

Female Criminality

Women commit significantly less murders than men. In the year ending March 2018; around 94% of people convicted of murder were male with only 6% being female. Therefore, in the event that women are to commit murder, some of the important social structures established on suitable gendered behaviour are contradicted and tested. Furthermore, Lombroso (1903) adopted a biological deterministic strategy explaining that people who possess a certain appearance or psychological development are fundamentally going to commit crime, or in Lombroso’s words going to be ‘born criminal’. He goes on to state that females were ‘psychologically immobile and psychologically passive’ labelling female criminals who have not yet developed into a feminine woman as ‘abnormal’ (Lily, 2015, p.251). Adding to this, Sheldon (1949) using a correlational study, found that many criminals possessed either a mesomorphic body type (muscular and hard) tending to be aggressive and adventurous or an ectomorphic body type (thin and fragile) these people tend to be introverted and restrained. On the other hand, Lombroso’s work can be criticised for failing to acknowledge that women were declined the same opportunities as men, due to patriarchy and socioeconomic status, therefore appearance isn’t the explanation for their crimes their lifestyle is. (Smart, 2013).

More recently, theories as to why people commit crime are determined by socialisation. Gender socialisation and gender roles have always existed within society and are often deemed as unfair and are guilty of creating too much pressure. Vygotsky (1978) developed the idea of social constructionism to highlight that society teaches people how they must act in order to fit into social norms; both men and women must conform to certain rules in order to fit these ‘gender norms’. Traditional gender roles define the males as the ‘bread-winners’ and the ‘most superior of sexes’ thus giving them more opportunities (Garrett, 1992).

Traditional gender roles define females as being a housewife and as them having a nurturing disposition towards children as ‘domestic roles are closely associated with women, and a significant proportion of men view changing diapers or washing clothes as strictly feminine’ (The World Bank, 2012, p.173). In recent years however, both men and women are taking on each other’s gender roles. Moreover, a more modern perspective of gender roles can be identified as suiting the person who carries them out ‘the view that gender is performative sought to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts’ (Butler, 2011, P.15). This supports the idea of social constructionism by identifying that our actions outside the gender norm can be altered in order have a better standard of life.

Rose West had a difficult childhood, with her mother and father separating and being from a low socioeconomic background, her mother had depression and her father was a paranoid schizophrenic who sexually abused rose when she was around 10 years old. Albert Bandura (1961) conducted a study involving young children’s reactions towards adults behaving in an aggressive way to bobo dolls. The aim of the study was to see if the child would copy the behaviour of the adult and the results confirmed his theory. As Rose grew up in a violent environment it can be theorised that this is a reason for the number of murders she committed and the sadistic way in which she did it.

On the other hand, the idea that criminal behaviour is imitated has its limitations, and other circumstances can be used to explain why people become criminal. One reason could be due to social deprivation or mental health problems. Sutherland (1939) argued that crime within society is learnt through social interactions with other people who offend. People from all different backgrounds offend without any specific reason this could be due to the excitement of committing a crime or to impress someone who has previous convictions. Sutherland’s theory could be used to examine why Rose West committed murder. It could be due to the fact she wanted to impress Fred or Fred’s previous convictions could have enticed Rose in to join him.

Moreover, it could be implied that the nature of Rose West’s crimes is due to coercion by her partner Fred West. Rose was only 16 when she got into a relationship with Fred who was 27, thus meaning that she was quite naïve. Rose was also a vulnerable young girl as she was born into a poor family with 6 siblings, parents with mental health problems and had suffered being raped at the age of 10. Three of the crimes carried out by the Wests had a sexual motive, Lynda Gough, Alison Chambers and Heather West. According to Pettiway (1987), women who commit crimes of a sexual nature were only likely to do it due to coercion from their spouse (Koons, 2003, p.363).

Criminologist Jane Carter Woodrow wrote in her book “The Making of a Monster” that on the basis that men are undeniably always the dominant partner in serial killer relationships, many people believed that rose was a victim of Fred’s coercion and possibly covering up Fred’s crimes. However, this was not the case, “Rose was not simply an unsuspecting wife and victim of Fred as she maintained at her trial, but a primary player” (Woodrow 2012). It was discovered that Rose west therefore shared the same violent tendencies as Fred, with their son Barry stating that when he was only seven years old he heard Rose brutally attack his sister Heather (one of the victims). The way in which Rose committed her crimes can be closely linked to Lyngs idea of edgework. Lyng (1990) developed the idea of edgework, constructing the concept that people take calculated risks in order to acquire control and satisfaction (Arnoldi, 2009, pp.140-141).

In the early 1970s, Rose West worked regularly as a prostitute, often with her husband watching. The term ‘sex worker’ was used to replace the term ‘prostitute’ in the 1980s in order to avoid negative associations and feelings of shame and unworthiness, replacing it with a care-giving profession ideology. The ‘sex work’ introduction also allowed for the idea that woman are not limited to what profession they want and if a performance of the body is the job that they want to pursue then that is socially acceptable. In the years that Rose West was a sex worker she didn’t do conduct it on the street, she would take the men back to her house in a sort of one night stand manner, but for money. Despite Rose’s sexual experiences, she was deprived of a normal healthy teenage relationship or friendship within school. After getting into a relationship with Fred, Rose’s sexual experiences became more erratic with Fred enjoying watching Rose with other men and being into submissive sex when engaging in sexual encounters with himself, for example being tied up and beaten. This could perhaps be an explanation for the reason why once Fred and Rose were together they started sexually assaulting their victims. As if Rose was feeling this great amount of dominance when with Fred, when he is ideally supposed to be the dominant one according to society, then she will be anxious for it in all aspects of her life.

Furthermore, it can be argued that women are treated either too harshly or too leniently within the Criminal Justice System and the Media when compared to men. Judges can be described as being to magnanimous in regards to sentencing female defendants, as ‘women are less likely than men to be sent to prison for equivalent offences and when they do go to prison, they tend to serve shorter sentences (Croall, 2011). This directly relates to the chivalry theory, with much of the Criminal Justice System being male, the natural instinct to protect and respect the female population is established and they tend to be more lenient with them, than if a man were to commit the same crime.

This portrays huge disparities within the system and explains why the prison population is predominantly male. On the other hand, it can be argued that female criminals are judged more severely, as indicated by the double deviance theory. Heidensohn (2002) developed this theory and says that crimes committed by women with their gender norm ideally being caring and compassionate makes them doubly deviant. Carrabine et al. 2008, identified Rose West as being a victim of ‘double deviance’ due to there being very little crimes of this nature committed by woman, essentially woman are punished twice for their actions against societies norms. Adding to this, after being deemed as doubly deviant Rose West can be opened up to further criticism and disapproval due to some of her crimes being towards young female children and in fact her own children, this goes against the idealistic female gender role of motherhood. Also, Rose West’s case could perhaps have been punished more harshly due to Fred West’s suicide; all of the victim’s families will have focused all of their anger towards her, as she is the only one alive.

The crimes committed by Rose West, created a moral panic during her time of sentencing. Moral panic was a theory developed by Stanley Cohen (1972) and it can be defined as an instance of public anxiety or fear in response to a problem deemed as threatening to the moral standards of society. Moral panics ‘seem to guarantee the kind of emotional involvement that keeps up the interest of… newspaper readers.’ (McRobbie, A., & thornton., S.L, 1995, p.559), and Rose Wests crimes were highly publicised within the media. One reason for the huge moral panic surrounding the case is due to the severity of their crimes. Rose West not only murdered her victims but she also dismembered their bodies, killed children and heavily pregnant women this posed a huge threat toward society. Adding to this, the “Hypodermic needle theory” states that the media has direct, immediate and powerful influences on its audience.

It works by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ the audience with suitable messages devised to trigger the desired response (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). In the Rose West case the media created a huge hypodermic needle. The public were outraged by the fact that there were 18 possible other victims undiscovered and that both Fred and Rose got away with their crimes for so long without anyone having an incline of what was going on. The dismemberment of the bodies and the killing of the heavily pregnant women only allowed for more anger in the publics eyes. Now, 25 years have passed since the brutal and cruel crimes committed by Fred and Rose West, since then trial broadcasting has dramatically decreased. A study conducted by Brian Thornton found that from the year’s 2012-2016 court reporting had dropped by 30-40% in national and regional newspapers (Guardian 2019). Former lord chief of justice, Lord Igor Judge, deemed this decrease as a huge “threat to the justice system” with him arguing that justice needs to be seen by the public in order for people to understand what is going on whilst having the opportunity to be aware and cautious. In the year Fred and Rose West were convicted the press highly publicised the murders and in some cases broke the law in order to make them known. However, nowadays it can be argued that Rose west could have possibly gone unnoticed, as major stabbings, murders and rapes are all going unnoticed by the public (Guardian 2019).

In the UK most crimes appear to be committed by males with 20.9% of males and 11.2% of females being convicted of indictable offences in 2017 according to the Ministry of Justice. Women are more likely to be convicted of property crimes or TV licence evasion, whereas men were more likely to be convicted of violent or sexual offences. In Rose West’s case had she been a male she would have been charged with the rape of three of her victims however because she was female she couldn’t be charged with this offence. Westmarland (2004) states that The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines rape as the ‘Penile penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth’ without the persons consent, this results in only men being the target for the conviction of rape, even though woman are able and capable of commiting the offence too. Furthermore, Published statistics can be deemed as inaccurate due to the fact that a lot of unknown crime is committed within society.

One way to account for unreported crime is to examine Criminal Victimisation surveys, for example in 2017 males were more likely to be a victim of a violent crime or robbery whereas females were more likely to be a victim of muggings. Victimisation surveys in England and Wales identified that crime is around four times as high as than recorded, whilst showing that the crimes that are more likely to go unreported are that of domestic violence and historic sexual assault. Moreover, the idea that females commit fewer crimes is rather inaccurate, this ideology could be due to the fact that women commit crimes of a more petty nature like shoplifting or prostitution whereas men commit crimes that are more likely to go noticed like violence and burglary. Wilson and Kelling (1982) used Broken Windows Theory as a metaphor to explain how if petty crimes aren’t caught early and punished then it will lead to more serious crimes. For example Rose West was a known prostitute and when she got into a relationship with Fred she stopped and moved on to more serious crimes like sexual assault and murder, perhaps if her prostitution was tackled earlier she wouldn’t have moved on to the more sadistic crimes.

Conclusion

In conclusion by examining Rose West’s crimes with a modern feminist perspective massive differences can be seen in gender when discussing crime. As society is controlled by gender norms and expectations there is a vast amount of pressure put on individuals to behave how society has deemed socially acceptable. Not only are females expected to conform to the rules of their peers but they are also expected to act the way media has portrayed them. The Rose West case caused extreme anxiety within society, as it is not expected for a woman to commit such horrific crimes against other women and young female children. Although, the Rose West case is out-dated it still has relevance when being examined through a feminist perspective. It is suggested, that Rose west was treated more harshly when being sentenced due to not only her being a female and committing such serious crimes but also due to the suicide of Fred as someone needed to be punished harshly for these crimes. Additionally, It was clarified that Rose west was not pressured or coerced into any of her crimes and in fact could be deemed as worse than Fred.

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