The ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defence is on the rise in the UK – and, alarmingly, it sometimes works, writes Louse Perry of the We Can’t Consent To This campaign, which documents such cases
Millions of people around the world now know the most intimate details about Grace Millane’s life and death, but we still know almost nothing about her murderer: his name remains suppressed by the courts and so has not been reported in the New Zealand media. Anyone who has followed coverage of the trial, however, will have read in excruciating detail exactly what he did to Grace when he strangled her to death on the night of December 1 2018.
The defendant’s counsel attempted to argue in court that Grace’s death was accidental – the result of a “sex game gone wrong”. The jury were, thankfully, unconvinced by his account. After all, what sort of person, having “accidentally” killed his sexual partner, would have – instead of calling an ambulance – taken photographs of his victim, watched violent porn, and then gone on a date with another woman, leaving her body lying in his hotel room?
For many watching the trial unfold, it would have seemed obvious that the jury would surely find the defendant guilty of murder. However, for those of us at the We Can’t Consent To This campaign based here in the UK, we knew that outcome was far from assured. We have learnt from our work in documenting killings like this that all too often perpetrators are not being held to account.
Defending the indefensible: On the Grace Millane trial and victim blaming
Justice for Grace Millane. Now let’s now change how we talk about blame
How to put the hurt, rage and grief for Grace Millane to good
Our campaign documents cases in which a woman from the UK has been killed or injured and the defendant has claimed in court that this was the result of “rough sex” or a “sex game gone wrong”. Grace Millane’s murder was the 59th of a British woman that we have recorded so far. Although some of these cases go back to the 1970s, recently there has been a marked increase in the number of perpetrators making this defence: we have found a tenfold increase in “consent” defences to violent injury and killing in the last 20 years.
Just within the last five years we have found 20 women, in whose homicides the “rough sex” claim has been made, and in 45% of those cases it was successful: instead of being found guilty of murder, the defendant was instead found guilty of some form of manslaughter, had his sentence reduced, or – as in two cases – was not found guilty of any crime at all.
One woman’s husband was only found guilty of her murder when he confessed to a friend – police had believed his story that her death was an accident and did not investigate it as a crime. We have yet to find a single instance of a woman killing a man and making a similar defence: every one of the UK perpetrators has thus far been male, and their victims overwhelmingly female.
It appears that juries are increasingly willing to believe defendants when they offer the “rough sex” defence. To give just one tragic example, a British woman called Laura Huteson was 21 – the same age as Grace – when she was killed on the night of February 27 2017. Her killer, Jason Gaskell, was later found guilty of attacking another woman 11 days previously and he had a longstanding interest in extremely violent sex, with a string of previous convictions to his name. Having met Laura only a few hours earlier, he severed an artery in her neck with a knife he kept under his pillow. His account was that he had consensually held the knife to her throat during sex, and then had accidentally slipped and fatally wounded her. He was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter and sentenced to just six years’ imprisonment.
The law in England and Wales is, at least on paper, clear on this point: it isn’t possible to consent to serious violence, let alone to the sort of violence that can lead to death. Nevertheless killers are still managing to persuade police, prosecutors and juries that their victims consented to the acts that killed them and that they therefore had no intent to murder. Although a manslaughter conviction can carry a life sentence, it appears from recent cases that men found guilty of manslaughter after using the “rough sex” defence are being handed relatively low sentences. There is therefore a strong incentive for killers to offer such a defence. And shockingly these “consent” claims are made even when the women survive the assault: in recent weeks there have been seven cases in the UK in which the defendant has claimed that the victim consented to serious violence while the victim has insisted that she didn’t.
For the families and friends of the women who have died, the use of the “rough sex” defence makes their loss even more agonising as they are forced to listen in court to lurid claims made by the defendant about his victim. This is made worse by media reports that repeat the defendant’s allegations as if they were true. In Grace’s case, we have seen some truly dreadful headlines that, instead of focusing on the actions of her killer, instead allowed him to frame the narrative around her death. She was entirely innocent, and yet was implied to be responsible for her own murder.
All of us at We Can’t Consent to This are relieved to hear of the murder verdict and hope it may bring small comfort to Grace’s family and friends. But the work is not over: many more women are dying in similar circumstances, and many of their killers are not being brought to justice.
Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner based in London, UK. The We Can’t Consent To This campaign tweets at @WeCantConsentTo