Imagine being attacked so violently during sex that it almost kills you. Now imagine having to give evidence in court, where the defence claims you asked your assailant to do it. It’s known as the ‘rough sex’ defence and yesterday Boris Johnson promised to ban it.
The Prime Minister made the pledge in the Commons, in answer to a question from a Labour MP, Laura Farris. She asked Johnson whether he agreed it was time to stop men using the ‘rough sex defence' to avoid a murder conviction, and his answer was unequivocal: "She raises an incredibly important point and we do – we are committed to ensuring that the law is made clear on this point and that defence is inexcusable".
What frustrates campaigners is that it’s not the first time Johnson has promised action – and done nothing. He was asked a similar question in December, during the general election campaign, in response from a call from Labour’s Harriet Harman. "I agree with Ms Harman that the 'Fifty Shades defence' is unacceptable and we’ll make sure the law is clear on this," the PM said then.
That was just weeks after a man who used the ‘rough sex defence 'was found guilty of murdering the British backpacker, Grace Millane, in New Zealand. The killer, who can’t be named for legal reasons, strangled Ms Millane and hid her body after meeting her on a Tinder date. His claim that she died accidentally during ‘rough sex’ caused enormous pain to her parents, who had to listen to his lies during a lengthy trial. They said their lives had been "ripped apart" by their daughter’s murder.
All of this happened last year - so why are we still waiting? The Government has before it the perfect vehicle to enact the Prime Minister’s pledge, in the shape of the Domestic Abuse Bill which had its second reading in April. But ministers have left it to backbench MPs to propose amendments that would outlaw the defence. "Ministers have a historic opportunity to stamp out this horrific 'Fifty Shades of Grey' defence, and they must seize it," Harman wrote in the Telegraph in April.
That was more than a month ago – and they haven’t seized it. The Bill is being debated in the House of Commons again today, but there’s still no sign of the Government following up on its promises. A couple of months ago, a spokesman repeated a commitment to "ensuring the law is clear: and said the Government was "looking at ways to achieve this".
But it has sent mixed messages, pointing out that defendants who deliberately cause injury during sex can be convicted under existing laws. That’s true in some cases, but it means putting women – and the victims are almost invariably women – through a second ordeal of having to challenge their attackers’ claims in court. New research shows just how many men have used this handy piece of victim-blaming, shamelessly arguing that their female partners ‘wanted’ to be beaten, choked or otherwise hurt.
Obviously women like Ms Millane who have been killed in these ludicrously-named ‘sex games’ can’t speak for themselves. But the campaigning organisation We Can’t Consent To This has found more than 60 cases over the last decade in which surviving victims have been forced to appear in court to deny that they consented to the violence they endured.
Some of it is extreme. The campaign lists cases where attackers claimed women agreed to ‘waterboarding, wounding, electrocution, strangling and asphyxiation, slapping, beating, punching and kicking’. In a recent, jaw-dropping case, the grime artist Andy Anokye, who performed under the name Solo 45, admitted in court that he liked to ‘terrorise’ his sexual partners but insisted that they consented to his ‘rape games’. His victims were forced to describe a staggering catalogue of violence, including beatings, being threatened with weapons and waterboarding. Anokye was convicted of 21 rapes, five counts of false imprisonment, two counts of assault by penetration, and two of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Why should any woman have to go through this? And these women, remember, are the ones who survived to tell the tale. Campaigners at We Can’t Consent To This believe as many as 60 women didn’t live, in cases stretching back to the 1970s. In a statistic that speak volumes about misogyny, every perpetrator who used the 'rough sex defence' between 1996 and 2016 was male – and many had a previous history of domestic and sexual violence.
At the root of this is a set of scandalously anachronistic beliefs about women, who are crying out for protection from these calumnies. The Prime Minister has once again said all the right things – but the women of this country are entitled to know when he intends to act.