I do not watch TV so the name Caroline Flack meant nothing to me. I believe she has killed herself following being charged in connection with an assault on her boyfriend. I know nothing about the case and have no comment to make about it. I am more concerned, as usual, with the gendered aspects of the media (and popular) reactions to these events.
HEqual has already addressed an aspect of this, namely the very different reactions of three female Labour MPs to Flack’s suicide compared with that of Labour Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant. HEqual makes a valid point in contrasting the two.
This morning (17/2/20) Radio 4’s Today programme interviewed barrister Charlotte Proudman about the Caroline Flack affair, perhaps because of her well-known even-handedness in such matters. She claimed there had been “a show trial”, a rather odd thing to assert as the case had not yet come to trial.
The concern in some quarters appears to be that Flack’s suicide was precipitated by a draconian Crown Prosecution Service deciding to prosecute her. Let us leave aside that the CPS’s decision to prosecute anyone is based on their judgment of the likelihood of gaining a conviction. A further concern relates to whether the news media and social media played a part in Flack’s suicide. Does anyone doubt that Flack’s sex is the actual reason for this consternation?
My point is – reinforcing that of HEqual – that Dr Proudman and the various female Labour MPs would have remained utterly unconcerned had the suicide in question been male. Let us look at the evidence.
Two years ago I compiled 146 cases of false allegations of sexual assault (mostly rape) in the UK. I excluded celebrities and politicians from that list (though I considered them later). 25 of the false accusers in these 146 cases had previously falsely accused at least one other man. 14 of them had falsely accused more than two men. The 146 cases involved 16 deaths. 12 of these were the suicide of the wrongly accused, one was the suicide of the falsely accused’s mother, one was the suicide of the alleged false accuser, one was a homicide due to vigilante action, and one was the death in prison of an innocent man.
Apart from the case of the falsely accused’s mother, and the case of the alleged false accuser, the other 12 suicides were all men. I recall no protestations from Dr Proudman about “show trials” in those cases. Notice the alarming prevalence of these suicides: 12 out of 146 cases (8%). And these men were innocent.
How common is suicide amongst those accused of serious crimes and awaiting trial or verdict? Consider homicide. In round numbers there are about 650 homicides per year in England & Wales, but probably fewer than 450 are brought to trial. (Currently over 200 have no suspect to charge). So, of these 450 or so defendants, how many die before being tried or sentenced? The answer is about 30, and about 90% of these are by suicide. 95% of these suicides are men. Again it is a large percentage: 30 out of 450, or ~7%. Some of these men may have been innocent, but – statistically speaking – it is likely that most were guilty. But the suicide rate is much the same as for the aforementioned men who suicided after being falsely accused of sexual assault,
And that brings me to the most curious piece of evidence, namely that suicidal ideation by potential perpetrators is the best predictor of partner homicide. This has been revealed by the analysis of Bridger et al (2017) which reviewed 188 cases of intimate partner homicide recorded in England and Wales between April 2011 and March 2013. Offenders in these cases were 86% male and 14% female, and vice-versa for the victims. Whilst perpetrators had high rates of substance abuse (mostly alcohol) and prior offending, the most disproportionately prevalent characteristic was suicidal ideation, self-harm or suicide attempts by the perpetrator.
Prior to the homicide, 40% of the male offenders were known by someone, but often not to police, as suffering suicidal ideation, self-harm or attempted suicide. For female offenders the figure was 28%. Post-offence suicide attempts occurred in 33.4% of cases with a ‘success’ rate for the perpetrator of 24.2% of those attempts. It is striking how dramatically higher this success rate is than amongst the general public (2%-5%). The authors conclude, rather remarkably, that,
“Of all of the characteristics, suicide ideation appears to be the most over-represented in relation to the general population. Chronic substance abuse, cohabitation and even prior crime against the victim are so widespread and prevalent in the population generally that they would massively over-predict domestic homicide. Suicidal ideation or attempts, however, appear to be much rarer in the population. Thus, a 40% rate of suicidal indication among the male offenders may be the most useful of any of these characteristics in distinguishing people who are much more likely to kill their partners than other offenders.”
“It is plausible that many more intimate partner homicides might be accurately predicted, and perhaps prevented, with more public investment in obtaining data on suicidal indicators and more proactive treatment of domestic abuse offenders known to suffer suicidal tendencies.”
This is particularly noteworthy as research by the police in Thames Valley and in Dorset have shown that tools such as the Domestic Abuse Stalking and Harassment instrument (DASH) have failed to predict most cases of domestic homicide, see Bridger et al (2017) for details.
Suicidality, and completed suicide, are vastly more common amongst people who perpetrate serious violent crimes, or are charged with serious violence offences, as well as amongst those falsely accused of sexual offences.
Suicide of the accused, whether guilty or innocent, overwhelmingly involves men.
Whilst I make no comment on the Caroline Flack case, cases like this should be seen in the context of the above observations. In particular that suicidality is hugely increased by being accused, charged or tried. This has overwhelmingly affected men more than women, but has not been seen as a problem to be addressed in the context of men.