We Can’t Consent to This is the campaign started by a Vauxhall resident to end the so-called ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ murder defence where women are dying in cases of domestic violence repackaged as kink.
When Fiona Mackenzie, 36, (pictured above) noticed ‘sex game gone wrong’ was repeatedly appearing in murder trial reports, she decided to investigate.
Taking to social media last Christmas Eve, she asked Mumsnet users to help her compile a list of cases where ‘rough sex’ had been cited as a defence in court. Examples began flooding in and the scale of the issue started to surface.
Ms Mackenzie said: “Most people aren’t aware of how common this defence actually is. Our work shows it’s been used for years – we’ve found examples dating back to the 1970s.”
She and seven volunteers from across the UK who work under the banner We Can’t Consent to This have used local newspaper reports, archives and court records to uncover 39 examples of relevant cases. However, they believe there are still significant gaps to be filled.
“Before 2010 there is very little content online because a lot of newspapers didn’t have fully developed websites. You can access written court records if you know what you’re looking for, the problem is we don’t. We don’t know all the cases that are out there. I’m sure we’re still missing a lot,” Ms Mackenzie said.
We Can’t Consent to This is now receiving more and more leads directly from victims, who are relaying their own experiences via Twitter and Mumsnet.
Ms Mackenzie said: “We’ve heard from women who want to help because they have been injured by men in sex acts themselves. They are so angry at how common this violence is that they want to do something about it.”
One Twitter user tweeted: “My ex set up this exact scenario, he’d tell people how much I liked being choked and we enjoyed really rough sex. That way if he finally raped and strangled me not just to unconsciousness, but to death, he had already laid the foundations of his defence.”
Ms Mackenzie said: “We now know that tens of women are dying and hundreds more are being injured in what’s really just domestic violence under the guise of kink.”
The latest femicide census – a UK-wide database of information on killings of women by men – revealed 139 women died in the UK in 2017 as a result of male violence, with many deaths involving strangulation. Three quarters of victims were killed by a man they knew.
“What’s perhaps most frightening is that men are hearing of cases where perpetrators are getting lighter sentences by claiming the crime was an tragic result of out-of-control BDSM, and they’re now starting to get ideas,” said Ms Mackenzie.
“It’s such an appealing defence for potential murderers. Claiming the death was a result of a sex game gone wrong is worth a try because the cost to the killer is nil, while the cost to the woman and her family – who then have to listen to endless speculation about her sex life – is shattering.”
The most recent and high-profile case to be included is that of Natalie Connolly, whose boyfriend, businessman John Broadhurst, was cleared of her murder and grievous bodily harm a week before the campaign’s launch.
Ms Connolly, 26, was found two years earlier in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase at their home in Staffordshire. Broadhurst, 40, claimed the death was an accident following a day of excessive cocaine and alcohol consumption, and consensual “rough sex”.
He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the basis of gross negligence and was sentenced by Birmingham Crown Court to three years’ and eight months’ in jail. Widespread indignation ensued and the case was referred to the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC on the grounds of undue leniency.
Labour MP and Chair of parliamentary human rights committee Harriet Harman was among those who contacted Mr Cox asking him to examine Ms Connolly’s case. He replied with a letter on 14 January 2019 confirming that he would not refer Broadhurst’s sentence to the court of appeal as he was ‘satisfied the judge approached the sentencing in the correct way’.
Re killing of Natalie Connolly bitterly disappointed @attorneygeneral not appealing John Broadhurst lenient sentence. @Mark4WyreForest @RobertBuckland @cpsuk @jessphillips @VeraBaird @NickTorfaenMP @janemerrick23 @SophyRidgeSky @EavesCharity @womensaid @EVAWuk @Wecantconsentto pic.twitter.com/jynOlPMcIs
— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) January 14, 2019
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last month, Ms Harman expressed concerns that lighter sentences, such as that given John Broadhurst, set a negative precedent for future use of what she called a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ defence.
“We cannot have a situation where men kill women and then blame those women for their own death by saying she wanted to be hurt because she enjoyed S&M and sex and violence,” she said.
“No man will ever be accused of murder again if he can say ‘yes she’s injured but she wanted it, she was asking for it’.”
Ms Mackenzie eventually plans to use evidence gathered through We Can’t Consent to This to push for amendments in the law which will prohibit the use of ‘sex games’ as a viable murder defence.
Ms Mackenzie said: “There’s a lack of understanding and, perhaps, sympathy among the judiciary in these cases, plus it’s so hard to get evidence beyond hearsay. The police and court have to take the suspect’s word for it that a consensual sex game was involved. The only other witness is of course dead.”
“What’s frustrating is that so much has been done to get domestic violence shunned and prosecutable, but as soon as you introduce ‘consensual’ BDSM into the equation, the criminal justice system starts raising its eyebrows.”
Fifty Shades of Grey has brought BDSM and kink into the mainstream, and many people celebrate this as an acceptance of sexual choice.
But campaigners agree: there can be no grey areas when it comes to murder.