Sexual violence against women is on the increase in the UK in alarming and little-understood ways. It extends from the use of women’s personal sexual histories during their own murder trials through to the popularisation and misuse of BDSM practices, often blamed on the ubiquity of hardcore porn. What remains unclear is what the cause of this new wave of gendered violence is, and how women’s own consensual and growing engagement in extreme forms of sex speaks to a wide-reaching problem within sex today.
The murder of 21-year-old British backpacker Grace Millane and the high profile trial that followed caused deep concern, highlighting the way women’s private sexual narratives could be used against them as part of a ‘rough sex’ defence.
On the eve of her 22nd birthday, Millane – who was backpacking in New Zealand – went on a date with a man she met on Tinder. After a night out, the two returned to his home where he proceeded to strangle her to death during sex. Although the jury delivered a guilty verdict last month, the trial itself sparked outrage at the way Grace’s sex life was presented as evidence against her. Her previous participation in BDSM and use of fetish dating apps like Whiplr were used as proof that she enjoyed certain types of practices, implying that this was a case of ‘sex games gone wrong’. One of her ex-boyfriends was even called to the stand by the defence to attest that Grace engaged in choking for sexual gratification.
Across the UK in the last decade, there’s been a 90 per cent increase in the ‘rough sex’ defence, and in the last five years it’s been successful in almost half the cases. Horrified by this emerging trend, actuary Fiona McKenzie set up We Can’t Consent To This, a campaign group working to have the ‘rough sex’ – or so-called ‘50 Shades’ – defence thrown out of British courts. Along with Labour MP Harriet Harman, the group is trying to add a clause to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would make it illegal for a man who has killed a woman to claim she consented to the violence that brought about her death. The campaigners argue that consenting to certain sex games is not equivalent with consenting to be murdered, as the Millane case demonstrated. The ‘rough sex’ defence also further discourages victims of sexual abuse to come forward, in fear that their sex lives will be used to shame or blame them – something that is already far too prevalent in the court system.
“This appears to be a totally traditional male violence against women that seems to be absolutely in-line with wider violence against women,” McKenzie says. “But for some reason in the criminal justice system, and to some extent in the news media as well when it’s reported, it’s believed that the women have said ‘yes, I want to be horribly injured. I want to be hospitalised by my sex life’.”
“Often, you’ll find nothing about the person who has died beyond their name and these lurid accusations that she consented to all kinds of sexual activity before she died,” McKenzie continued. “If we’re going as far back as the 90s and 2000s, there’s women’s names splashed across newspapers under the headlines ‘kinky sex mum’, ‘BDSM college student’.”
Dealing with questions surrounding the complicated intersection of sex and violence has become an urgent issue, not only because evidence suggests it is increasingly fatal to women, but because it’s a manifestation of widespread confusion around how people under 40 are having sex.
That rough sex has become popular in recent years comes as news to nobody, and yet the sexual politics behind its prevalence among young people is still unknown. A study carried out by Savanta ComRes for BBC Radio 5 last week revealed that 38 per cent of women under the age of 40 experienced “unwanted” slapping, choking, or gagging during consensual sex. 42 per cent of these women said they felt “pressured or coerced” into it. The normalisation of violent sexual practices is often blamed on the proliferation of hardcore porn among young men. But, according to Mary Sharpe of the Reward Foundation – a charity specialising in pornography and sex education – porn is similarly conditioning women to seek out “the rough stuff in order to feel anything”.
“By the age of 25, as a young woman, you’ve probably been watching 10 years of hardcore porn,” Sharpe tells Dazed. She believes the current cultural moment encourages women to mistakenly equate sexual liberation with sexual extremes – a fact made worse when young men have “internalised that women want to be pounded”. The point of confusion here is that women are not simply victims of the culture, but that it may have insidiously moulded their desires, and conditioned to them to seek out sex that is often about re-enacting a fantasy that’s not wholly theirs and puts them at risk.
The rough sex debate also does a disservice to the BDSM community and its practices. People have borrowed its aesthetics and supposed ‘deviant-status’ without adopting the rules and guidelines around consent and safety that the community is bound by. Being brought into the mainstream by the (unavoidably awful) 50 Shades effect has only encouraged the misappropriation and misrepresentation of BDSM culture and community, which is extremely rule-abiding – consent is at the basis of kink culture, and if you’re doing it healthily and safely, you can opt in or out at any time.
“It’s still hard to say what this wave in sexual violence against women and how it has been defended says about us and the current moment, but while we reckon with it, it’s important that safeguards are put in place on both legal and cultural levels”
Another consideration is how gendered violence relates to the ‘crisis’ in masculinity. That men would reach out for the most primal modes of asserting dominance and power in a moment of collective crisis is perhaps too easy a conclusion to draw, and lacks any real evidence (yet). But it is worth considering whether men are ‘pushing back’ in the privacy of the bedroom and far from the public eye. A post-MeToo moment has thrown male sexuality into a state of confusion: some men suddenly find their previous sexual conduct to now be defined as unacceptable; others feel resentment over changes that have moved forward with greater force and speed due to the momentum behind the movement.
Conor Creighton, a writer and meditation leader who has turned his attention to running workshops on mindfulness and masculinity, believes there’s “a lot of confusion about relationships” among men at the moment, but not necessarily anger. “I don’t think men are angry, but anger is the only emotion men are encouraged to share,” he says. “So if a man’s depressed, sad, or confused it emerges as anger, because that’s how we’re socialised.”
It’s still hard to say what this wave in sexual violence against women and how it has been defended says about us and the current moment, but while we reckon with it, it’s important that safeguards are put in place on both legal and cultural levels. On the legal side, this is covered by the likes of the We Can’t Consent To This campaign and their mission to have a clause added to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would ensure a dead woman’s sexual history can’t be used against her by her alleged killer. On a cultural level, it is harder to know where to start. An acknowledgement that violence against women is manifesting itself in more subtle and private ways is needed – and needed immediately perhaps – as only then can we attempt to resolve a growing and sometimes fatal problem in which women’s own interest and coercion in extreme forms of sex puts them at risk, and leaves our culture unaccountable.