A jury at the Auckland High Court has this evening unanimously agreed a guilty verdict against the 27-year-old charged with the murder of Grace Millane. He is remanded in custody until sentencing on February 21 next year. The decision brings justice for Grace’s family. But in the course of the trial, and the laying out of her sexual history, we witnessed a mirror of some of the worst elements of our society, writes Samantha Keene.
This post was published on 22 November 2019.
Violence against women is an epidemic. In New Zealand, one in three women will experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime. These figures are staggering, but just as alarming is the way that victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence are treated by the criminal justice system and wider society. Women are routinely blamed for their experiences of victimisation and trauma, and made to feel ashamed for what has happened to them.
For anyone with lived experience of this blight on our society, watching the Grace Millane trial will have been difficult, or worse. Grace, a jury determined today, was murdered by a 27-year-old man during her visit to New Zealand from her home in Britain, on the eve of her 22nd birthday.
I found following the daily developments in the Millane trial troubling for many reasons – not least because it’s a cruel reminder of the fear I have personally felt when meeting men from Tinder. The fear of being harmed by a man during a Tinder date is a common one. The concern that if you were to be harmed by that man, or men, you won’t be believed, or you will be blamed, is also an unfortunate reality.
Men are dramatically less likely to have this same, shared, collective fear of violence when they date. That’s because men’s violence against women is a real, common and devastating experience. Yet, still, however much I might research a potential date online, I’m the one perceived to be responsible if, or when, something bad happens. Grace Millane could not speak for herself. She had been murdered and buried by her killer in West Auckland. And yet, still, in headlines in New Zealand and around the world, we heard suggestions that the blame somehow lay with her.
What I have found most troubling during the Millane trial has been the continued focus on her sexual interests, her sexual history and her presence on dating apps and websites. The defence case, though it emphasised at the outset that Grace was not to blame, nevertheless constructed a narrative that suggested something about her, which, in turn, fed interpretations that she was somehow responsible. This is not OK. Grace was not to blame. Grace is not to blame. She must not be shamed for what happened that night.
The defence in large part rested on a “rough sex gone wrong” argument, which suggested that Grace had consensually engaged in rough sex with the accused, and that had resulted in her death. The defence spoke of Grace’s presence on dating apps such as Tinder, FetLife and Whiplr, the latter two supposedly demonstrative of her interest in rough sex. The accused chose not to take the stand in his own defence, but his statements were repeatedly referred to throughout the trial.
The prosecution pointed to his actions after she died, while the defence attempted to leave an impression of a good guy who panicked. The defence called witness testimony from Grace’s former long-term partner. He spoke of how they had researched and experimented with “rough sex”. The defence also heard testimony from a man she had met and had casual sex with (who admitted he had choked women during sex without asking). The defence even heard testimony from men Grace had “matched” with, but not met, in the context of her online dating. It’s reasonable to ask: Why is any of this even relevant in a murder trial?
I want to make a number of points clear. Consent to engaging in “rough sex”, whatever that might mean, is a world away from consenting to being killed. Engaging in particular types of sexual play with one partner does not guarantee that this will ever happen again, or will happen with another partner.
Having a dating profile on Tinder, FetLife or Whiplr does not mean you actively use it or that you meet people on it. It also doesn’t mean that you have sex with people off it, or that you are interested in a particular type of sex – even then, none of that ought to matter. You could match with 100 people on Tinder and meet none of them. You could match with 100 and have sex with them all. None of this should mean anything, especially not in a trial where a woman was strangled to death during a sexual encounter. Her sexual history does not dictate her interests, nor does it matter what they are or who they were with.
The problem is that it does end up mattering. The sexual double standard which has persisted for centuries is still in operation today. Men are heralded for their sexual conquests, labelled studs, while women’s sexual engagements are vilified and used against them. In cases of sexual violence, women are routinely questioned about what they wore, or whether they had lots of sex in the past, including with the violent person.
It all helps construct a sense of the type of women she is in determining his culpability. The same thing has happened here. The calling of testimony from men about Grace’s sexual interests and behaviours was an attempt to say something about her and divert attention away from him. Accordingly, hearing from these men about Grace’s interests further serves to endorse a rough sex gone wrong defence because it was, as is “what she was into”.
Regardless of what Grace was or wasn’t into, as the jury has made clear today, she never asked to die by strangulation. Recent legislative reform in New Zealand has created a separate strangulation offence, which is a testament to its seriousness and its correlation with women’s experiences of lethal violence in intimate relationships. In February 2019, Police were charging almost five people a day for strangling their partners. This is a particularly gendered offence – perpetrated by men against women – yet, still, women are blamed for men’s violence against them.
At this moment, my thoughts are with Grace’s family. I cannot begin to imagine what they have been through. But I hope they feel a sense of justice even after everything that has happened in this horrific trial.
Grace is not to be blamed for what happened that awful night. The narratives need to shift here. We need to stop men’s violence against women, and that starts when we stop blaming and shaming women. We need to shift the onus of responsibility for violence against women away from women – and put it where it belongs. Ultimately, the responsibility for men’s violence against women lies with men, the ones who are the primary perpetrators.