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The Victim-blaming Defence (That Didn’t Work This Time)

The sentencing of Grace Millane’s killer to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years marks the end of a judicial process that can only have been extremely harrowing for her family. They had already experienced the loss of their daughter, literally every parent’s worst nightmare.

White Ribbon Campaign Manager Rob McCann states: “We need to act to prevent other women suffering the same fate. We need to focus on educating our young people about healthy sexual relationships and the meaning of consent. If we do not, they will learn from other sources – their mates or the increasingly violent pornography that is now readily available to anyone with an internet connection irrespective of age.”

A useful resource for understanding and teaching consent is the cup of tea video. https://whiteribbon.org.nz/2015/07/12/consent-explained-with-a-cup-of-tea/

Access to pornography has never been easier and the content regularly features the domination of women. Last year BBC Radio 5 live, commissioned a survey in which it asked 2,002 UK women aged between 18 and 39 if they had experienced various acts during sex.

The majority (59%) had experienced slapping, 38% had experienced choking, 34% had experienced gagging, 20% had experienced spitting and 59% had experienced biting. Almost half of the women (44%) surveyed, said these acts were always wanted.


However, 29% said they were unwanted some of the time, 14% said they were unwanted most of the time, and 10% said they were unwanted every time.[1] A substantial number of respondents felt pressured into these behaviours which suggests their partners lacked a clear understanding of consent. McCann notes: “While this survey was conducted in the UK, there is no reason to believe results would be significantly different in the New Zealand context. In fact, with our intimate partner violence statistics they may be worse.”

The Centre for Women's Justice in the UK said the figures showed a "growing pressure on young women to consent to violent, dangerous and demeaning acts", which was "likely to be due to the normalisation of extreme pornography".[2]

“In December 2018, strangulation became a stand-alone offence,” says Mr McCann “and immediately the number of charges and convictions went through the roof. What we think this indicates is widespread use of strangulation being used not as part of what is known as ‘breath play’, a sexual act that is consented to, but as acts of violence towards women.” As reported by Alison Mau, Women’s Refuge Chief Executive, Dr Anj Jury, said strangulation was so common many victims neglected to even mention it.[3]

This is relevant because Millane’s killer sought to avoid facing the penalty for committing murder by arguing that her death was the result of an accident during consensual rough sex. This is an international issue and there is increasing pressure on Western governments worldwide to ban the so-called “rough sex” defence for murder, which many suggest has evolved from the “she asked for it” defence commonly used in rape trials.

As Canadian commentators have observed: “The “rough sex” defence is not gender neutral. The sex is “rough” for women, not men. “Rough sex” depicted in pornography and in practice is marked by gender asymmetry. It is overwhelmingly women who are on the receiving end of this violence and whose health and very lives are on the line.”[4]

Rob McCann says “In this type of defence, the defendant takes the focus off their own behaviour and encourages discussion of the victim’s prior sexual history and preferences. This is an irrelevant distraction in a murder trial. They use the defence to blame the victim and it is totally unacceptable. There is no way of knowing what the victim wanted or said in this instance, and you simply cannot consent to being murdered.”

“The idea that rough sex could result in accidental death is a fallacy. It takes considerable pressure to strangle someone and if a sexual partner loses consciousness for any reason during sex, the logical response would be stop and check they are ok. While engaging in sadomasochistic behaviours can be a valid choice for consenting adults, it comes with the responsibility to ensure the safety of your partner.”

For more information about how to support Healthy Masculinity go to www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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