We didn’t consent to murder: how the ‘rough sex defence’ authorised violence against women

The Rough Sex Defence

1st September 2020

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The ‘rough sex defence’ gained particular attention during the high-profile case of Grace Millaine in 2019. Grace and many others were murdered when supposedly their consensual sex game ‘went wrong’. Their deaths have led to campaign groups such as We Can’t Consent to This (WCCTT) lobbying for legal reform, who estimate that more than 60 women have been killed since 1972 by men who have used this defence in court. According to WCCTT, the ‘rough sex defence’ is when the defendant denies intention to kill or cause serious harm, which is necessary for the prosecution to prove murder. A victory for these groups was made with the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020, which will theoretically help to bring perpetrators to justice. The bill will prevent the use of ‘consent’ as a defence to actual bodily or more serious harm, including death. 


Grace Millaine’s case made global headlines after her disappearance in 2018. The media attention given to Millaine’s sexual history was invasive, scrutinising her right to explore and embrace her sexuality, rather than recognising her as a victim. Articles covering her trial presented her death as an episodic incident, which was a product of her alleged interests in BDSM, rather than paying attention to the broader issue of violence against women. Her killer remained anonymous while claiming in trial that he accidentally killed her through consensual strangulation. And yet, he buried her body and attempted to cover up her death after watching pornography and taking photographs of her dead body. The tabloids plastered Grace Millaine’s sexual preferences over their headlines throughout her trial, attempting to ruin her reputation and integrity through the publication of her sexual history, portraying her as someone who was ‘up for anything’. There are huge societal and thus legal implications of sensationalising women’s murders, whilst relentlessly revealing their sexual history. The message promoted suggests women have to be more careful, and less sexually adventurous, rather than there is a systemic issue which urgently needs to be tackled. Consequently, this can trickle into the legal system, with the message influencing judges and juries about both the perpetrator and the victim’s innocence. 


This defence has been used entirely by male defendants, with the majority of the deceased being female. Despite the continuing movement surrounding women’s sexual liberation, and the increasing awareness and acceptance of different sexual practices, abuse against women is still a prevalent issue. Violence is gendered, as it is estimated that at least 1/3 of women will experience physical or sexual violence against them in their lifetimes. This ‘defence’ is a form of victim-blaming, similar to ‘she was asking for it’, which has previously been a justification to warrant a woman’s rape.


‘Rough sex’ as depicted in pornography, has an obvious level of gender asymmetry, with the sex being almost exclusively ‘rough’ for women and not men. Its violent and sexist nature persistently portrays women as submissive; if not actively enjoying the pain which is inflicted upon them. The effect of porn and a growing ‘sex positivity’ movement can influence judges and juries that these women’s deaths were experimental sex games ‘gone wrong’. This has also been visible in mainstream media and films, most notoriously Fifty Shades of Grey. Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic criminologist, said: “Fifty Shades opened the floodgates to this. Women felt under pressure to indulge in dangerous behaviours.”. Films such as Fifty Shades of Grey are encouraging violence during sex as the norm, so that often women don’t want to say no to these acts in fear of being labelled as ‘unexciting’. Fiona MacKenzie, founder of the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, claims ‘there is a push for young women to accept it as normal — to go along with it because it’s ‘sexy’.’

Women have reported feeling uncomfortable and shocked by unwanted choking and slapping during sex. During a study by Savanta ComRes, thirty eight percent of the women who took part said they had experienced these acts, with them being unwanted at least some of the time. 

Legislation can benefit the families of sexual violence victims killed in these circumstances through appropriate sentencing. However, this does not undo the cultural and societal norms of victim blaming and gender stereotypes which contribute to the roots of the issue; normalised violence towards women. For Grace Millaine, her killer was granted anonymity in her trial, whilst detailed descriptions of her sexual history were plastered across newspapers and in court, implying that in some way she was thus responsible for her own murder. It can certainly be seen as a contemporary version of ‘she was asking for it’, as this kind of slut-shaming combined with a general lack of conversation concerning consent will inevitably influence a jury. However, we must go further and create preventative measures to reduce violence against women in general, specifically in terms of assumptions that all women will enjoy it rough. Increasing sex education to include various issues which have previously been considered taboo or ‘awkward’ such as sexual abuse would improve the narrative surrounding sexual violence. For those women, and men, who do consent to rough sex practices, it is important that they are protected from an abuse of power from their sexual partner. The proposed legislation change can only do so much in protecting women from sexual violence, and more widespread change tackling the cause of the issues must occur.


The Rough Defence
  1. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2020/08/01/canadian-courts-test-the-rough-sex-defence 
  2. https://www.thejusticegap.com/the-so-called-rough-sex-defence-is-unlikely-to-change-the-outcome-of-trials/ 
  3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022018320936777 
  4. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/january-2020/the-misogyny-of-the-so-called-rough-sex-defence/ 
  5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50546184
  6. https://wecantconsenttothis.uk/aboutus 
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