‘Sex games gone wrong’ is increasingly invoked as a defence by men who kill women, according to new research drawing on the cases of 43 women killed by sexual partners between 2000 and 2018. In all cases, the perpetrators had either been convicted of murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide. Six in ten victims were killed by strangulation, two in ten killed with a blunt instrument, and two in ten either with a sharp instrument or by asphyxiation.
The data, gathered by campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, sheds light on the realities of ‘sex games gone wrong’. Overall, there was a significant age gap between perpetrator and victim, with an average age difference of 5.7 years, a marked difference to the average age difference of 1.9 years between couples marrying for the first time in England and Wales. The research was conducted by criminologist Professor Elizabeth Yardley at Birmingham City University (you can read her blog here).
The research was motivated by the 2016 murder of Natalie Connolly by her partner John Broadhurst, 16 years her senior. The 26 year old woman was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics, having sustained 40 separate injuries including a fractured eye socked and facial wounds. At trial, Broadhurst was sentenced to three years and eight months in custody after invoking the ‘rough sex’ defence, a sentence which his lawyers argued is ’too long’. In October 2020, he was released after serving half of his term.
Fiona Mackenzie, founder of We Can’t Consent to This, described the ‘rough sex’ defence as ‘the ultimate victim blaming’. In more than half of the cases examined by Dr Yardley, the perpetrator had claimed that it was the victim who initiated the act which led to her death.
Yardley argues that the’ normalization and mainstreaming’ of ‘rough sex’ in popular culture through films like Fifty Shades of Gray together with the way in which porn and women’s magazines present acts like strangulation as ‘play’ have created ‘a culturally approved script for perpetrators of violence against women – regardless of whether or not they have an established relationship with a victim’. ‘Over half of the perpetrators in my sample claimed that the victim initiated the specific “rough sex” act that led to her death. As such, abusers are using women’s sexual liberation to explain and justify their violence to those they have silenced.’
The academic argued that the defence of the ‘sex game gone wrong’ was nothing new. ‘It’s a new disguise for age-old misogyny,’ she wrote. ‘These deaths are not accidents. They are the outcome of patriarchal belief systems that position women as subordinate, and imbue perpetrators with a sense of entitlement to treat women as property.’
The trend is not specific to the UK. In December 2018, 21 year old backpacker Grace Millane was strangled to death by a man she met on a dating app in Auckland, New Zealand. After the murder, the perpetrator took pictures of Ms Millane’s body and searched for pornography online. He then buried her in a mountain range near the city, her body stuffed in a suitcase. Over the course of the trial, the jury heard of how a sex game had taken an undesired turn, and that Ms Millane had died in the course of consensual activity. The man, who was sentenced to a minimum term of 17 years in prison, is now appealing both his conviction and his sentence.
The Centre for Women’s Justice is calling for a new offence of non-fatal strangulation and asphyxiation to be added to the statute books. At it stands, if a victim is unable to prove observable injuries, strangulation will fall under the common law offence of assault, punishable by up to six months in custody. This, the CWJ believes, demonstrates a failure by police and prosecutors to appreciate the severity of strangulation, which can leave victims with long-term effects such as loss of memory, internal bleeding, and even strokes.
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the existing problem of domestic abuse, with many women and men left with no choice but to ‘lockdown’ with abusive partners. Over the course of the first lockdown, there was one call made to the police regarding domestic abuse every 30 seconds.