Christopher Cullen. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Although we still have a long way to go, it seems like the messages around violence against women in Australia are finally beginning to sink in. At least one woman is killed every week in this country, and the majority of these cases are characterised by an alleged male perpetrator known to the victim. It is becoming increasingly difficult to tune out when the name of yet another dead woman hits the news, especially when her partner, or ex-partner, is the one arrested and charged with her murder.
Yet, despite this increase in community awareness, the arguments put forth to justify taking the life of a woman remain rooted in retro ideas of defence and provocation.
"She made him do it."
Victoria Comrie Cullen was found dead in the car park of a Taren Point anglers' club. Photo: Supplied
"He was provoked."
"He lost control."
"She pushed him too far."
Christopher Cullen, who was yesterday found guilty of murdering his wife Victoria Comrie Cullen, was the latest perpetrator to use the defence of provocation.
He slit the throat of his estranged wife in January of last year and abandoned her body in a car park.
The 51-year-old told police he was provoked by his 39-year-old wife who "taunted" him about her sex life with other men and he "lost it"
The trial heard evidence that Cullen had long been abusive towards his former partner, calling her a "slut" and a "whore" in front of their friends.
'Provocation', and its various incarnations, is regularly used to defend violence, particularly when perpetrated in intimate partner relationships. Popular culture has historically referred to such acts as 'crimes of passion', a description that lends a sinister kind of romance to something brutal and fundamentally cruel.
Rather than understand revenge killings to be an execution of ultimate power, defence arguments frame perpetrators as being driven by circumstances outside of their control. If she undermined his masculinity or turned him into a cuckold, can he really be blamed for getting angry and lashing out?
Well, yes. Violence (particularly the kind perpetrated in intimate relationships) is always a choice. There is no such thing as 'losing control'. Rather, entitlement and power leads people to choose to seek revenge or retribution against victims they consider weaker than themselves.
As Lundy Bancroft writes in his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, "When a man starts my program, he often says, 'I am here because I lose control of myself sometimes. I need to get a better grip.' I always correct him: 'Your problem is not that you lose control of yourself, it's that you take control of your partner. In order to change, you don't need to gain control over yourself, you need to let go of control of her.'"
As has been proven in work with abusive people, 'loss of control' is typically an excuse used to justify the choice to exact punishment against another person. The same people who claim to suffer from a loss of control when their partners make them angry are more than capable of maintaining control when it comes to other people in their lives - their bosses, their friends, the person who serves them coffee in the morning. It is understood that the kind of abusive behaviour hidden at home cannot be justified in public while maintaining a positive reputation.
The choice is therefore made by the abuser to maintain control, be it control over their emotions in public or control over their partner at home. It is the extrapolation of screaming angrily at our siblings or partners in ways that we wouldn't to our friends or colleagues - because we feel some kind of dominion over our loved ones that excuses abusive behaviour, and that we will be forgiven in return.
But there's a big difference between the kind of negotiated and mutual irritations that exist in all relationships and a one-sided abuse of power and control. Citing defensive homicide or manslaughter because of humiliation or a perceived threat to masculinity should be dismissed outright, especially when it's the kind of provocation defence that justifies misogyny or homophobia (that other realm in which the heterosexual dominance of men has been prioritised above other people's actual lives - for example, it is still legally acceptable in Queensland to use the provocation defence in response to unwanted or even just perceived homosexual advances).
Provocation should never be a defence for murder, nor should it be used as a stand-in word for self-defence. One of the reasons defensive homicide laws were scrapped in Victoria was because abusers had begun to use them (and successfully in some cases) to argue against intimate partner murder charges.
If we continue to conflate violence with a loss of control that comes from supposedly being provoked, we have no hope of addressing the significant problem of gendered violence against women. Abusers are already good enough at making excuses for their behaviour. Don't make it any easier for them, unless you're prepared to watch as more women's bodies are put in the ground.