The Government have just announced a change in the law to ban men from claiming that the fatal injuries they inflicted on a woman were at her request during “rough sex”.
This was the culmination of a campaign that started when I saw a newspaper report about the trial of John Broadhurst for killing hid partner 26-year-old Natalie Connolly, who claimed to have found dead in their Staffordshire home, in 2016. She had suffered more than 40 injuries when she died.
The article was all about his lurid evidence of what he claimed had been her sexual proclivities. The pathologist’s report had described the bruises covering her body. Broadhurst said she liked being beaten. It was, he said, at her request. She of course was unable to say anything in her own defence.
I imagined the torture for her bereaved relatives and how they must have felt sitting in court listening to the man in the dock blaming her for her own death.
Then, the murder charge was dropped. Broadhurst pleaded guilty to manslaughter, but persuaded the prosecution that he had only been doing what Natalie had wanted.
The irony was that the feminist argument that women are also sexual beings became a means for men to defend themselves against charges of murder.
Men who kill women have always sought to blame their victim. In the past it was the provocation defence that saw the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds that she had "driven" him to kill her by her nagging or infidelity. He would stand in the dock as "victim" of her behaviour. She, of course, would not be giving evidence. We managed to get the provocation defence abolished, but only as recently as 2009.
Broadhurst was a new version of blaming the victim. Instead of a life sentence, he got only three years and eight months. I tweeted that everything in the case seemed wrong to me. To my amazement, I was emailed by the jurors in Natalie’s case, so disgusted were they that the murder charge had been dropped. I was then contacted by Natalie’s family who told me of their grief at the loss of a beloved twin sister, daughter, granddaughter - and how this had been immeasurably compounded by the trial.
I contacted the family’s MP, Mark Garnier, who was outraged at what had happened and we asked the Attorney General to increase Broadhurst’s sentence. He declined saying Broadhurst had only used a defence that the law allowed him.
But a group of young women, seeing this on social media, started an online campaign under the title “We Can’t Consent To This” and began research which discovered numerous other cases where the “rough sex gone wrong” defence had been used. This was not just one case, there was a widespread problem.
They identified that at least 60 British women have been killed in episodes of so-called "consensual" sexual violence since 1972, with at least 18 women dying in the last five years. In 45 per cent of those killings, the claim that a woman's injuries were sustained during a sex game "gone wrong" resulted in a lesser charge, a lighter sentence, an acquittal, or the death not being investigated. Their work gained traction in the media earlier this year, after the rough sex defence was used in the trial of the killer of Grace Millane, the 21 year old Essex backpacker murdered in New Zealand.
The Government had already promised to bring forward a Domestic Abuse Bill, so we decided to try and use that Bill to get the law changed and ban the rough sex defence. Vera Baird QC drafted the new clauses for us. We were totally convinced of our case but not hopeful of success. Of the hundreds of amendments put forward by backbenchers most get nowhere.
And that probably would have been the fate of our amendments, too. But for the fact that the Minister in charge of the Bill, Victoria Atkins. She went with Mark for a private visit to listen to Natalie’s family and became convinced. Her arguments inside the Government were backed up by new justice minister, Alex Chalk. The media reported on the campaign and young women on social media kept the argument going.
It’s vanishingly rare for a Government to agree to amend a Bill. They usually only do so if they are threatened with defeat by a rebellion of their backbenchers. So this was a welcome case of the Government listening to a cross-party campaign.
The Domestic Abuse Bill will be law soon and will send a powerful message to men that they have to take responsiblity for their actions and cannot blame their victim. It will tell women that the law is there to protect them. And it will mean that never again will families like Natalie’s face the excruciating pain of listening to a man explain that he was “only doing what she wanted”.