What happened to Grace Millane in a court in New Zealand, while devastating, wasn’t new. Victim-blaming has been all the rage since Medusa was turned into a Gorgon for the crime of being raped by Poseidon. Women are constantly asking for it. Sometimes they’re too damned sexy; sometimes too damn gobby. Either way, what are hot-blooded men supposed to do? The law has always understood both their sense of entitlement and the limits of their tolerance, and compensated with defences such as “provocation by sexual infidelity”.
Nor does the brutalising of women end with their deaths. After destroying their bodies, the men responsible come for their reputations. Angelika Kluk was murdered by serial killer Peter Tobin; but – as the defence raked through her sexual history for evidence of promiscuity – it was clear he wasn’t the only one on trial.
Claire Hampson was killed with a hammer by her husband David, who buried her in the garden. But let the records show she was an almighty nag, who behaved in a way “calculated to impact on [his] mind”. Having been dead two years when her body was unearthed, she was in no position to deny it; and anyway both the prosecutor and the judge seemed happy enough to accept whatever story Hampson spun.
Even the so-called “rough sex” defence, used by Grace’s killer, isn’t new; but it is on the rise. The website We Can’t Consent To This was set up last year after millionaire John Broadhurst claimed his girlfriend, Natalie Connolly, had consented to the fatal injuries he inflicted on her. It has uncovered 30 cases over the past decade in which the “rough sex” defence has been used, noting a ten-fold increase since the turn of the millennium.
Of those 30 cases, 18 resulted in murder convictions, nine (including Broadhurst’s) in manslaughter convictions and two in acquittals. Perhaps it’s down to a growth in asphyxiation-related porn, or Fifty Shades Of Grey or the scrapping (in England at least) of the provocation defence. But – though it has no official status in law – “sex gone wrong” appears to have become the default excuse for men who want to get away with murder.
The way Grace’s character was posthumously trashed is an indictment of justice systems across the world. Her killer strangled her, took intimate photos of her, watched some porn, did some google searches about the disposal of a body, then shoved hers into a suitcase, dumping it later in the bush.
Yet – in a move apparently common in New Zealand – his identity was protected, while every aspect of her sexual history was scrutinised in the service of his exculpation. The aim of this public shaming was to prove Grace had a long-standing interest in BDSM. It’s nobody’s business if she did or didn’t. BDSM is a common enough kink with its own code of conduct which includes the use of a “safe” word in the event of pain or panic. Constricting someone’s airwaves until they lose consciousness is not BDSM; it is abuse.
Prosecutor Brian Dickey said “You can’t consent to your own murder.” His words may have helped bring about a unanimous guilty verdict – and thank God for that. But Grace’s parents had already been forced to witness their daughter being reduced to her Tinder account and her alleged sexual predilections, while her killer’s lies were repeated in court under the cover of anonymity.
Even if this verdict sets a precedent in New Zealand, the “rough sex” defence is still prevalent here. And you can see why. With the victim dead, there’s no-one to contradict it. And it taps conveniently into a zeitgeist in which women are supposedly stripped of their sexual inhibitions and up for being choked.
As Harriet Harman has pointed out, it is predictable that yet another putative staging post in women’s sexual liberation should be turned against them. Like the mini skirt and the pill and having one too many on a Saturday night. And it is entirely gendered. Victims of strangling are overwhelmingly female, and those using the rough sex defence overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male.
The Grace Millane case wasn’t the only one showcasing society’s contempt for women last week. In Swansea, Geoffrey Bran walked free from court after a jury found him not guilty of murdering his wife Mavis by pouring boiling oil over her in their chip shop.
Unlike Grace, Mavis lived long enough to describe what happened. Racked with pain, she phoned a friend to say: “Geoff has thrown boiling oil over me, help me, help me, get here now,” but the jury chose to ignore that in favour of her husband’s story that she had slipped and tipped the oil over herself.
Finally, there was the scandal of Helen McCourt. Helen, 22, was killed in Liverpool in 1998. The following year, Ian Simms was convicted of her murder after some of her blood and an earring identical to the one she was wearing were found in his car. He refused to accept any culpability and Helen’s body was never found.
Last week, the parole board decided Simms should be released due to the “progress he has made”. This progress does not include an admission of guilt or agreement to reveal the whereabouts of her body. It does not, therefore, include any demonstration of the capacity for self-reflection or empathy. Apparently these qualities are no longer prerequisites for releasing a killer back into the community.
Like many women, I try to keep my fury at bay. I remind myself that most people are good; that the fact I can’t wander alone in a park after dark is the fault of a few dangerous individuals not an entire sex class. But it’s difficult when the flaws in the justice system are so flagrant, and the silence from those men who have the power to change them so very deafening. It is especially difficult during a general election campaign in which much anger is (quite rightly) being expressed about anti-Semitism, yet none about misogyny.
The following is a source of frustration too. Campaigners had been pushing for changes to Westminster’s Domestic Violence Bill: one to outlaw the “rough sex” defence, another to militate against the release of killers who refuse to disclose the location of their victims’ remains. The Scottish Government has recently published proposals for “Suzanne’s law”, which would reform the rules on parole in much the same way.
But the Domestic Violence Bill was one of the casualties of Boris Johnson’s proroguing of parliament. It was delayed in favour of one man’s desire to take a wrecking ball to the country.
Last week’s cases, and the issues they raise, barely registered in the pre-election debate, which was dominated by arguments over tax and confected outrage over Jo Swinson’s willingness to push the nuclear button. And, sure, isn’t that just the way of things. Men must politic and women must weep; and the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep. RIP Mavis, Grace and Helen. Sorry you were so badly failed, but the patriarchy had other priorities. It always does.