Why the ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defence is dangerous for women

Daily Telegraph, 14 November 2019

How many times have we heard the words ‘she asked for it’? It’s a common response to high-profile rape trials, even though the victim’s identity is protected by a right to anonymity. None of that stops harsh speculation about her behaviour, what she was wearing and how she ended up alone with the defendant in the first place. Sometimes, victims are even named and bullied on the internet.

That’s bad enough but now, in a sinister development, this pernicious form of victim-blaming is being used against a group of women who can’t defend themselves. In one case after another, women have been choked to death by sexual partners who claim it was an accidental side-effect of consensual rough sex – the so-called ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence.

A few years ago, it would have been laughed out of court – ‘you’re claiming she asked you to choke her?’ But what’s euphemistically described as ‘rough sex’ has become a staple of online pornography, and strangulation has moved from being a male fantasy to an actual defence used in courtrooms. Tellingly, while a handful of men have died as a result of what’s known as auto-asphyxiation, all the victims in cases involving two people have been women.

No fewer than 59 have been killed in the UK by men who claimed death was the result of a ‘sex game gone wrong’, according to the campaigning organisation We Can’t Consent To This. In the last five years, the defence was used successfully in six of 14 cases that went to trial, resulting in a conviction for manslaughter or even an acquittal.

In one of the most notorious, a millionaire property developer called John Broadhurst was sentenced to just three years and eight months in prison for the manslaughter of  his girlfriend, 26-year-old Natalie Connolly. He left her to bleed to death with more than 40 injuries, including internal trauma and a fracture to her left eye socket, after what he claimed was a session of ‘rough sex’ in December 2016. Earlier this week, and to widespread outrage, Broadhurst launched an appeal against his sentence.

Few of these deaths ever get to court. That should come as no surprise, given the abysmal failure of the criminal justice system to deal with other forms of violence against women, but those that do involve the public shaming of women who aren’t able to defend themselves. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some men are looking for unsuspecting new partners via dating apps, pressurising or coercing them into risky sexual practices.

The unspeakable consequences for family and friends have been highlighted by a trial currently taking place in New Zealand, where a 27-year-old man has been charged with the murder of a British backpacker, Grace Millane, 22. Her body was found stuffed into a suitcase in a popular tourist spot outside Auckland in December last year, after she went on a Tinder date with the defendant.

He told police Ms Millane initiated ‘rough sex’ and asked him to choke her because she was a fan of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In court, Ms Millane’s family has had to listen to a string of lurid claims about her supposed sexual proclivities, which have been reported in headlines around the world. Dead women can’t speak for themselves – but the man making these claims has had his identity protected by a court order.

Two MPs, Harriet Harman and Mark Garnier, are so concerned that they want to use the Domestic Violence bill (currently on hold because of the general election) to shut down the ‘sex games gone wrong’ defence. They cite a crucial judgement in 1993, when the House of Lords ruled in a case involving GBH that a defendant cannot successfully argue that his victim consented to serious injuries. ‘Men are now getting away with murder, literally, by using the ‘rough sex’ defence’, the MPs wrote in a joint article for HuffPost.

The wider question raised by this phenomenon is as old as the hills. Is there any claim about a woman, no matter how outlandish, that won’t meet a receptive audience? Do we really believe that the country is suddenly who full of young women who’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey and actively want to be punched, bitten and choked during sex? That they’re prepared to risk their lives to please a boyfriend or an importunate stranger?

It’s far more likely that some men are becoming desensitised by online porn, making a link between sex and violence that threatens their partners’ lives. We know that non-fatal strangulation is a common form of domestic violence, as well as a warning sign for domestic homicide. Women need to be warned about men who demand ‘rough sex’ – and the criminal justice system shouldn’t indulge this new form of victim-blaming.

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