Why are so many women dying in sex games gone wrong?
Last month, NewsMavens reported the media framing of the death of Anna Florence Reed whose boyfriend claims she died in a sex game gone wrong. Now we ask: why are women dying in this way? And is the problem getting worse?
When 22 year old Anna Florence Reed was found dead in a Swiss hotel, newspapers across Europe uncritically repeated her boyfriend’s claim -- that Reed had died in a “sex game gone wrong”. An autopsy revealed she had died from suffocation. She had cuts and bruises on her face and body, as well as fractures. Her partner is still awaiting charges.
According to research collected by the campaign We Can’t Consent To This, set up by Fiona Mackenzie earlier this year, Reed is estimated to be the 52nd British woman to die in a purported “sex game gone wrong”. Thirty-two men who have claimed this controversial defense have been found guilty of murder, suggesting that this defense is often deemed to be false -- an excuse increasingly used to explain the violent death of a sexual partner.
Fourteen cases resulted in manslaughter convictions, and five men either had charges against them dropped, not brought, or were found not guilty. Two thirds of the women and girls had been strangled.
Five male victims were also killed by men, and no women have killed men or women in these circumstances in the UK.
Explaining why she set up the campaign, Mackenzie told me “I and other women on Mumsnet had noticed more and more cases of women being injured by men as part of consensual sex gone wrong. In 2017-8, there were quite a few cases of young women being killed by men quite violently, and then the men claiming that this was consensual sex. I wanted to to show it wasn’t just one case, and maybe there was some commonality in what these men are claiming.”
Mackenzie and her fellow activists set about collecting data from all the newspaper websites in the UK. They have now traced incidences of the “sex game gone wrong” defense back to 1972, when Carole Califano died after being injected with five anasethetics by her partner Peter Drinkwater. He claimed she had asked for these injections because of her “perverted sexual desires”. People close to Califano claimed Drinkwater was controlling and had prevented the young mum from seeing her friends. He was convicted of manslaughter.
The Califano case shows that this defense is not new. However, according to Mackenzie’s data, the number of men claiming that a woman has died in a sex game gone wrong in the UK has increased by 90% since 2010. Of all the cases collected by We Can’t Consent To This, 24 have taken place in the past nine years.
It was the 2016 death of Natalie Connolly that first brought the term “sex game gone wrong” to national attention. She had endured 40 separate injuries, including those sustained by a blunt object, and a fractured eye socket. Her partner, John Broadhurst, claimed the injuries were from consensual “rough” sex and was convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence in December 2018. He is now serving a custodial sentence of just under four years.
Broadhurst’s sentence prompted the Labor MP for Peckham and Camberwell Harriet Harman to speak out against this so-called “50 shades defense”. The “50 Shades” term refers to the popular books series 50 Shades Of Grey.
Harman told the BBC that “we cannot have a situation where men kill women and blame them. No man will ever be accused of murder again if he can always say, 'yes she's injured, she wanted it’. She will never be able to say, 'no I didn't' because he's killed her and therefore she hasn't got a voice."
Legally, no one can consent to injury or death. This defense is not successful for men in the majority of cases, with 43 being convicted for murder. This would suggest that for many men, this defense is being used opportunistically to try and diminish their responsibility. As forensic psychiatrist Alessandro Meluzzi told Italian news outlet Tio following Anna Reed’s death, “it is always easier to talk about an erotic game that has ended badly, rather than to admit that they have intentionally killed a partner in other ways.”
Mackenzie agrees, telling me “if you are found with a dead woman and you have strangled that woman, there aren’t many ways you can get out of that, and I think it’s worth men trying to claim it’s part of consensual sexual activity gone wrong.”
However, if a man can convince the courts that a woman was accidentally killed during sex, then he can be convicted of manslaughter. This has been the case for six men jailed since 2010.
These include 20-year old Chloe Miazek. Two hours after meeting 32-year old Mark Bruce, she’d been strangled to death in his flat. He claimed it was an accident, although he accepted that he did not get Miazek’s consent to choke her. He was convicted of culpable homicide (the equivalent of manslaughter in Scottish law), and sentenced for six years.
Then there was Hannah Pearson, aged 16, who was killed in 2016 by James Morton. The court found that Morton was “obsessed with strangulation” and watched strangulation pornography. He claimed that he began to “lightly strangle” Pearson and, because she did not object, he strangled her more forcefully. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years.
In 2011, 23 year old Anna Banks was killed by her “obsessive” boyfriend Daniel Lancaster. She was found 24 hours after her death with “dried blood on her face” having been strangled. Lancaster claimed that Banks “enjoyed being throttled during intercourse” and was sentenced to four years for manslaughter as “part of a sex game gone wrong.”
Broadhurst and at least three other men using the “50 Shades” defense have been convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” -- where a person has failed in a duty of care that has led to another’s death. Mackenzie believes this sets a worrying precedent.
“By claiming that the act that led to the person’s death is consensual, it’s then not treated as unlawful,” she explained. “It makes it okay, for example, to hold a knife to a woman’s throat and cut her if you can then convince the judge that it was consensual and not an unlawful act that could be prosecuted.”
Human rights lawyer and founder of Center for Women’s Justice Harriet Wistrich is concerned that we’re seeing a “normalization, and the presumption that women would be consenting to the kinds of the things that cause their death, without an understanding of how likely it was that the woman was under duress to participate in these activities, or whether they didn’t want to.”
“We only hear his side of the story,” said Karen Ingala-Smith, founder of the Counting Dead Women project and the Director of NIA which supports women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence.
But what has fuelled the rise of the 50 Shades defense since 2010?
The timing correlates with the 2010 changes to the “provocation” defense in English law. This stopped the use of the so-called “nagging or shagging” defense that had reduced murder charges to manslaughter on the grounds that the suspect was provoked to violence by his victim’s behavior. In cases of gender-based violence, provocation could mean a man discovering his partner was having an affair (shagging defense) or complaining and baiting him (nagging defense).
According to Harriet Wistrich, it’s not possible to link the changes to the provocation defense and the rise in deaths following “sex games gone wrong” by saying that this defense is the new way to claim diminished responsibility in a violent death. She told me that “these deaths would have to have occurred in the context of some sexual situation, unless that is completely contrived and it’s a rape and murder contrived as a sex game gone wrong.”
For Mackenzie, one explanation for the increased use of the 50 Shades defense is that these cases are attracting more and more media reports, and therefore more and more men know they can claim “sex game gone wrong” as part of their defense.
There is also an argument to be made that cultural changes rather than legal changes are having an influence.
For example, BDSM is becoming more mainstream, and more couples outside of the official community are experimenting with practices once confined to fetish clubs. This could be contributing to the rise in deaths -- and the increasing acceptability of the 50 Shades defense.
Writer Rebecca Reid, who has written about her experiences in the BDSM community, told me that “the genie is out the bottle”. While it can be a positive that people are expressing their sexuality in different ways, couples experimenting with BDSM practices “don’t come with the kind of background” of the more formal community which emphasizes consent and risk awareness.
“Quite a lot of the stuff people do in BDSM is quite dangerous and people in the BDSM community have never shied away from that,” Reid explained. “The community lives by two policies -- risk awareness kink consent, and safe, sane consensual. So the BDSM community is well-regulated, but the problem arises with people who aren’t part of that community.”
“People don’t realise how much of a risk it can be,” she said. Reid has also noted that the women who have recently been killed in these cases don’t “have any kind of provable interest in BDSM” – e.g. being on forums such as FetLife. This “suggests either it’s not true and it’s being used as a defense. Or that they were trying something they didn’t understand.”
Karen Ingala-Smith suggests another cultural influence: the mainstreaming of aggression in sex, and violent pornography. She told me the rise of the 50 Shades defense could relate to the “increased use of violent and degrading porn, and its normalization” that leads to both women and girls feeling coerced into consenting to potentially violent sex acts by their partners.
“Young women are being groomed to accept this as what sex is, whether they consent or not. They are being coerced to agree to things that women might not have consented to before, and consent is being manufactured. The boundaries get pushed all the time. It’s to do with objectification and degradation of women.”
Wistrich agrees, based on anecdotal conversations going on among women. “There’s a normalization of violent porn and women feel compelled to participate in it. Obviously some people freely engage in S&M, but some feel compelled to do it rather than volunteer to do it. They see it as what they have to do. I guess the normalization of violent porn encourages people to participate in more and more dangerous type of sex. It gives men permission to do certain things to women, and because it’s normalized it makes it harder for women to refuse.”
Mackenzie also believes that the normalization of violence in pornography could be a factor. She has heard from women who have been “shamed” for being “boring” if they don’t accept strangulation as part of sex, and that increasingly “for men the expectation is that women will say yes to it. For women the expectation is that they can’t say no to it, so they go along with it.”
Having catalogued the use of the 50 Shades defense when women are killed, We Can’t Consent To This is now campaigning for this “defense to no longer be useful for men.” They have submitted to the public consultation on the UK’s Domestic Violence Bill, asking MPs to explicitly consider cases where men have used “consent” in their defense. Mackenzie hopes this will “embed policies that mean people involved in the criminal justice system follow the law and are aware of how common these cases are.”
Meanwhile, Reid is setting up a campaign to improve sex education for adults -- a “sort of NHS Direct website for sex, because right now there are so many websites with so much conflicting information. There’s a lot of sex education that wouldn’t be appropriate for children aged 14, but that people do need to know.”
Mackenzie is also collecting data on men using the sex game gone wrong defense in cases of injury to women.
“Since 2010 there’s been a humongous increase in the numbers of women being injured and the man has claimed it’s a sex game gone wrong,” she explained. “Women go through the court process and the men often are found not guilty or receive a tiny sentence because they are able to convince the judge and jury and prosecutors that this was an accident.”
Part of the issue, she believes, is victim blaming. “I am almost certain that there is a view that the woman are responsible for what killed them and asked for it to be done. That is really scary.”