The horrific Williams murders were about power not personal fetishes

| October 21, 2010

Is it yet clear to anyone why it took three full agonizing days to read into the court record the facts that will put Russell Williams away for the rest of his life?

The Crown assures us that the courtroom and media circus was necessary to ensure that Williams doesn't get paroled after serving his mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. Could this be a joke? It wouldn't have taken more than two hours of reading in a single morning to accomplish that end. We live in "law and order" times and in cases like Williams's, that isn't likely to change this century.

One thing is clear: the effect of handling the case this way has been to feed into every stereotype about serial rapist murderers and to place Russell Williams as far away as possible from any description of humanness. That way we can file him tidily away in the mental vault we keep for depraved monsters.

Is that to ensure that few of us will be prompted to wonder just how and where he fits on our socially sanctioned continuum of male violence against women? Is that so we don't learn something that would implicate our military institutions, our systems of law enforcement, our courts of law, our legislators, and all of us in a wilful and systematic blindness to the inequities and inequalities that oppress womenfolk every hour of every day of every year in which we live?

The fit between police and lawerly narrative and mainstream media reportage is so "almost perfect" it's hard to resist conspiracy theory. The media was prompted to refer over and over and over again to the vast distance between Williams's impeccable behaviour in everyday life and the "perverted," then criminally" depraved," then sadistically assaultive and finally murderous acts he perpetrated on girls and women.

He is intelligent and was ambitious. He attained a high rank in a military institution that Canadians are taught to revere and not to question. He did things that many people are lucky enough not to be able to imagine. The only explanation is that he is a depraved sex pervert who acted beyond the pale in his "private" life and that -- hey! -- in fact, he can't be explained. Case closed.

Lest anyone be tempted to question this, plaster pictures of the macho man in women's undies to be carefully released by the court all across the country, engage in uninformed conjecture about the nature of fetishism, argue about where and how much and how many pictures should be published, ponder the character of his wife and sensationalize what needs no repetition or exaggeration to be sensational all on its own. Say the names Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Remember their crimes in detail. Make everyone as sick to death of it all as possible so they will want to forget. Ensure that as few people as possible come to any understanding of the meaning of Williams's acts.

The focus on the colonel's supposed fetish for women's underwear and how that fetish escalated from breaking and entering into the homes and bedrooms of girls and women to the imprisonment, torture and repeated sexual assaults of two women and finally, the terrible deaths of two more is critical. We should be interested in this theory of Williams's behaviour but not because it makes him so unexplainably "other" that we can comfortably forget him. Rather, it is because it is a theory profoundly in error and yet so readily accepted.

The mainstream media has accepted this description absolutely uncritically. Given decades of feminist educating on the nature of rape, sexual assault and femicide, it's just heartbreaking to witness this glib acceptance.

Wearing women's underwear doesn't lead to raping and murdering women. Predatory behaviour leads to rape and murder. The desire for power and control over women leads to predatory behaviour.

To break into the house, the bedroom, the dresser drawer of a girl or woman, try on her underwear and spend hours taking pictures of yourself wearing it while masturbating isn't a fetish, it's a violation of the personal space and the sexualized belongings of the girl or woman. It made Williams feel powerful and in control -- feelings he was clearly very fond of. To masturbate all over a woman's bedroom is a violation. To tie her up and take pictures of her while masturbating and taking pictures of yourself is a violation. To do the same and then kill her is a violation. This is escalating predatory behaviour in the service of power and control, not fetishism.

If the police don't know that, they can't do their job of securing women's safety because they can't properly categorize dangerous behaviour and make the predictions necessary to stop people like the colonel. Women can make those predictions. Several women in Tweed recognized the danger of their situations after visits from Williams. The police paid no attention to them. That was and is a tragedy.

Our failure to understand how easily predatory men get along in our misogynist, porn-saturated rape culture and particularly in the most macho aspects of that culture -- like the military! -- is another tragedy. When the next Russell Williams comes along, we won't recognize him until after more dead women are found and mourned and filed away.

Elizabeth Pickett is an internet-based feminist freedom fighter, a mother, a grandmother, a blogger, and a poet, seething in Whitby, Ont. A version of this article appeared on her blog.

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