Last week, the trial of the man suspected of killing British backpacker Grace Millane finally began.
The 22-year-old from Wickford, Essex, had been on a round-the-world trip when she was strangled to death in the Auckland apartment of the 27-year-old man she had met for a Tinder date last December, the eve of her 22nd birthday.
Jurors have heard that after she died, the accused took “intimate” photos of her body, watched pornography, and went on to have on another Tinder date the following evening, while Grace’s body was kept in a suitcase in his room.
Prosecutors allege Grace was strangled to death in the man’s apartment – but the case for the defence? They claim that Grace died by accident during consensual sex, saying “acts designed to enhance sexual pleasure went wrong”.
This defence will mean Grace’s family will have to endure a month-long trial during where her sexual behaviours and preferences are openly discussed. Her parents, David and Gill, are sitting just feet from the accused.
Grace’s story is a shocking one – but sadly not unique.
‘Consensual rough sex’ defences to the killing or injuring of women and girls are successfully being used to get lighter convictions and sentences.
In fact, the consensual violence defence has been used in the case of 59 deaths of women since records began. Only in the case of 36 pf those deaths was the defence not supported by the jury, and the accused were convicted of murder.
Of the remaining cases, 16 resulted in manslaughter convictions, two were found not guilty, and in three no charges were brought. Two cases – Grace’s included – are ongoing.
Currently, so-called ‘sex gone wrong’ defences are successful roughly 45 per cent of the time.
Around 60 per cent of women who are killed in alleged ‘rough sex’ die from being strangled, and a third of the dead women just met their killers on the same day as their murder.
What’s worse, the use of the ‘consensual rough sex’ defences to the killing or injuring of women and girls is on the rise in courts.
According to the most recent available statistics, there were 20 uses of the defence in 2017, compared to just two in 1997 – a tenfold increase in 20 years.
These statistics have been collated by We Can’t Consent To This (WCCTT), an initiative looking to change laws on domestic violence, with the consensual violence plea at the heart.
WCCTT are campaigning to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill in England and Wales to end the use of these defences in court.
The bill has sadly been temporarily halted due to the dissolution of parliament ahead of the general election in December. But two MPs – Harriet Harman and Mark Garnier – have announced they will take action over the use of ‘rough sex’ defences.
Its message is a simple one: women can’t consent to their own death. And it’s one that is brutally encapsulated in the dozens of true stories it has on its website – stories like Grace’s.
There’s Natalie Connolly, a 26-year-old mum who died at the bottom of her stairs in 2016 after suffering 40 separate injuries, including serious internal trauma, vaginal arterial bleeding, a fractured eye socket and facial wounds.
Her partner of only a few months, millionaire property developer John Broadhurst, claimed it was consensual, alcohol and drug-fuelled rough sex. He was convicted of manslaughter and got only three years and eight months.
Then there is Laura Huteson, a 21-year-old who was killed by a man she had met just that day. Her killer Jason Gaskell had held a knife to her neck while having sex and cut through her carotid artery.
Gaskell, the only surviving witness, claimed he didn’t intend to use the knife to kill Laura. He was ultimately charged with murder but admitted manslaughter and got just six years in prison. Courts heard how Gaskell had strangled a woman 11 days earlier.
Chloe Miazek was a 20-year-old student who had been out drinking in Aberdeen when she had been thrown out of a nightclub for being too drunk. She was approached by Mark Bruce, 32, while waiting at a bus stop and within two hours he had strangled her.
Bruce claimed it had been an accident and denied murder. He pleaded culpable homicide – the Scottish equivalent of manslaughter – and got just six years inside.
The examples make for tough reading – yet unbelievably, the subject of ‘consensual rough sex’ remains fraught with grey areas, legally speaking at least.
But for WCCTT founder Fiona Mackenzie, it reads starkly black and white.
“The law should be clear it shouldn’t matter if she consented to rough sex, that shouldn’t matter at all, it shouldn’t be part of a case,” she tells Tyla.
Fiona was inspired to create WCCTT when she heard MP Harriet Harman speak about Natalie Connelly’s death on BBC Woman’s Hour.
She – like a lot of other women she knew – were horrified by John Broadhurst’s short sentence and concerned by the frequency in which these kinds of cases were appearing in the news.
On Christmas Eve last year, Fiona decided to collate all of the cases she could immediately and launched the website.
Fiona explains how in some cases, even police officers investigating these cases, coroners, and crime scene officers are then “writing them off” because they look like sex accidents gone wrong.
“This defence allows people to switch their brains off,” she explains. “They think ‘other people must get up to this, who knows what goes on in the bedroom, maybe she asked for it.’
“That’s why it’s so successful. It’s the ultimate in victim blaming – blaming women for their own death.”
In all cases, jury’s have to go off the accused’s word alone. The victim can’t offer their side of the story, as is the sad situation with Grace.
“We need a change in attitude in the criminal justice system so people know that women do not consent to this violence,” Fiona adds.
Aside from changing the law, Fiona hopes WCCTT can help to raise awareness about the dangers of violent sex more generally.
“There’s a huge issue with young women being choked, punched, slapped or just horrendously assaulted as part of consensual sex by men that they are dating,” Fiona explains.
“We know this, we know its really dangerous to strangle someone, but for some reason young men are able to override this knowledge and are choking their partners.”
Recent figures from the ONS showed an estimated 4.3 million women have experienced some form of domestic abuse, and one in five have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 in England and Wales.
Police receive a domestic abuse call every 30 seconds, while two women are killed by an ex or current partner every single week in England and Wales alone.
It’s clear the increase in cases of violent sex and the use of the consensual rough sex defence goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of violence against women, and it needs to be stopped.