Senior lawyers and women’s organisations have condemned the increasing use of “rough sex gone wrong” as a courtroom defence to the murder of women and called for a change to the law in the UK.
In the wake of the conviction of British backpacker Grace Millane’s killer in New Zealand, researchers have revealed a tenfold rise over the past two decades in the number of times similar claims have been made in UK courts.
According to the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, in the past decade 30 women and girls have been killed in what was claimed to have been consensual violent sexual activity in the UK.
Of those, 17 resulted in men being convicted of murder, nine led to manslaughter convictions and two ended in acquittals. In one further case, there was a murder conviction but only after the victim’s husband confessed; police had initially treated the death as non-suspicious. The case of one woman’s death has yet to go to court.
In 1996 there were two cases in which deaths and injuries to women were blamed on “rough sex”; by 2016, that had climbed to 20 cases a year.
During the Auckland trial of Millane’s murderer, the accused’s lawyer, Ian Brookie, told the jury that the 21-year-old backpacker had died during “a perfectly ordinary, casual sexual encounter between a young couple … as a result of what they consensually engaged in.”
The jury, however, did not believe him and unanimously found the killer guilty of murder. “You can’t consent to your own murder,” the crown prosecutor Brian Dickey said.
Fiona Mackenzie, an actuary, set up We Can’t Consent to This after the outcry over the killing of Natalie Connolly, 26, by her partner John Broadhurst, 40. Despite having 40 separate injuries, including serious internal trauma, a fractured eye socket and bleach on her face, Broadhurst received a sentence of three years and eight months for manslaughter.
Mackenzie supports changes to the domestic abuse bill, put forward by the MPs Harriet Harman and Mark Garnier, to incorporate the principle of R v Brown into statute.
She told the Guardian: “As well as changing the law, we need to have an attitude change across the justice system. People need to stop buying into these ‘rough sex’ excuses.
“Everywhere you look in the world, there’s the same failure in countries’ criminal justice systems. It’s terrifying.”
Consent, which has increasingly entered popular consciousness as a key concept in rape cases, is no defence to injury, let alone death. The principle was established in a 1993 test case, R v Brown, in the House of Lords in which a group of men were convicted of assault and wounding even though their sadomasochistic victims had willingly participated in the violence.
The defence of “rough sex gone wrong” has no official status in law but can, campaigners claim, influence prosecutors to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter or a judge to lower the eventual sentence.
Sarah Green, the director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said: “Women monitoring femicides in the UK believe the so-called ‘rough sex defence’ is growing. It is deeply alarming and at worst reflects the fact that defence is, actually, a business where some are willing to ‘test’ approaches that might win in court. It sets women up to be harmed in life and grossly insulted after their deaths.
“We’re also appalled at the willingness of large parts of the media to uncritically reproduce this deeply misogynistic line. Editors need to get a hold of this now and stop the thoughtless and sensational communication of cases where women have died.”
Prof Susan Edwards, a barrister who teaches law at the University of Buckingham, believes strangulation should be made a stand-alone offence.
“Strangulation is the cause of death in around a third of all spousal homicides,” she said. “Now there’s a burgeoning use of [rough sex excuses] because there’s greater acceptance of BDSM [bondage and sadomasochism] in relationships.”
Thirty years ago, she said, the more common excuse from a violent partner would have been that they were provoked, that it was unintentional or they lost control.
Campaigners partly blame the cultural normalisation of rough sex on the growth of violent online pornography and books such as Fifty Shades of Grey with its themes of sadomasochism.
What is not so clear is whether there has been a significant rise in the number of sexual strangulation deaths or whether the excuse of “rough sex” is simply being deployed more often than in the past.
Karen Ingala-Smith, the chief executive of the domestic violence charity Nia, said: “Women don’t die from rough sex. Women die because men are violent to them.”
She said violent and degrading online pornography was “socialising young men into different expectations of what they are supposed to do in bed. Women are pressured, whether they’re conscious of it or not, to accept violence during sex and do things that weren’t commonplace 10 or 20 years ago.”
A mother had nude pictures and her address posted on sex websites by her partner, leading to a dozen strangers arriving at her house on one night.
Builder Darren Rowe, 49, took secret images and spread intimate content without her knowledge using a phone connected to a customer’s wifi, a West Midlands Police probe found.
The victim said men arrived at her Birmingham home saying they had spoken to her online and been invited.
Rowe received a suspended sentence.
Mother-of-three Sharon, who wanted to protect her full identity, said she felt destroyed by a person she had worshipped.
“You don’t expect the man that you love, who says he loves you, to try and destroy you,” she said.
Rowe, from Rowley Regis, admitted two counts of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress.
Last month he was given a 12-month jail term, which was suspended for two years, at Wolverhampton Crown Court.
Sharon said she was “disgusted” by what she feels is a lenient punishment.
She initially sobbed on the floor “like a baby” thinking it was all for nothing, but came to feel some sort of closure.
“His name is out there now. Now people know who he is and what he does,” she said.
Describing the moment she saw herself on various sex sites, Sharon said: “In that second everything changes. The life that you had has gone.
“You’ve got to get your head around the fact that potentially thousands of people have seen those pictures of you.
“One night 12 men came to the door. I was with my three-month-old baby at the time. Another time someone tried to get in the house.”
She said as many as 35 men turned up at her doorstep over a four-month period during the summer of 2017.
The 39-year-old said her partner had initially convinced her the images had been posted by a friend pretending to be her.
“When police did their investigations I found out it was my partner at the time who had been uploading pictures from a customer’s house,” she added.
“I wasn’t aware he had the pictures or that he’d taken them. He was very, very devious. I didn’t have a clue any of these pictures were there.”
Sharon, who is no longer with Rowe, has never been given an explanation over his intentions or received an apology.
“The police think he wanted to play the hero, whereas I think he had certain fetishes, which I’m not interested in,” she said.
Sharon, a customer service assistant, said she had been unable to take down some of the nude images two years on.
“Only Darren can remove them. He knows what sites they have been uploaded to. The police don’t have the authority to do it,” she said.
PC Lee Newell, of West Bromwich CID, said it had been a “long and complex case”.
“Our investigations revealed that the only person linked to an email address used to transmit the material was in fact Rowe,” he said.
“His victim has suffered a distressing onslaught of online abuse.”
Last week, the trial of the man suspected of killing British backpacker Grace Millane finally began.
The 22-year-old from Wickford, Essex, had been on a round-the-world trip when she was strangled to death in the Auckland apartment of the 27-year-old man she had met for a Tinder date last December, the eve of her 22nd birthday.
Jurors have heard that after she died, the accused took “intimate” photos of her body, watched pornography, and went on to have on another Tinder date the following evening, while Grace’s body was kept in a suitcase in his room.
Prosecutors allege Grace was strangled to death in the man’s apartment – but the case for the defence? They claim that Grace died by accident during consensual sex, saying “acts designed to enhance sexual pleasure went wrong”.
This defence will mean Grace’s family will have to endure a month-long trial during where her sexual behaviours and preferences are openly discussed. Her parents, David and Gill, are sitting just feet from the accused.
Grace’s story is a shocking one – but sadly not unique.
‘Consensual rough sex’ defences to the killing or injuring of women and girls are successfully being used to get lighter convictions and sentences.
In fact, the consensual violence defence has been used in the case of 59 deaths of women since records began. Only in the case of 36 pf those deaths was the defence not supported by the jury, and the accused were convicted of murder.
Of the remaining cases, 16 resulted in manslaughter convictions, two were found not guilty, and in three no charges were brought. Two cases – Grace’s included – are ongoing.
Currently, so-called ‘sex gone wrong’ defences are successful roughly 45 per cent of the time.
Around 60 per cent of women who are killed in alleged ‘rough sex’ die from being strangled, and a third of the dead women just met their killers on the same day as their murder.
What’s worse, the use of the ‘consensual rough sex’ defences to the killing or injuring of women and girls is on the rise in courts.
According to the most recent available statistics, there were 20 uses of the defence in 2017, compared to just two in 1997 – a tenfold increase in 20 years.
These statistics have been collated by We Can’t Consent To This (WCCTT), an initiative looking to change laws on domestic violence, with the consensual violence plea at the heart.
WCCTT are campaigning to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill in England and Wales to end the use of these defences in court.
The bill has sadly been temporarily halted due to the dissolution of parliament ahead of the general election in December. But two MPs – Harriet Harman and Mark Garnier – have announced they will take action over the use of ‘rough sex’ defences.
Its message is a simple one: women can’t consent to their own death. And it’s one that is brutally encapsulated in the dozens of true stories it has on its website – stories like Grace’s.
There’s Natalie Connolly, a 26-year-old mum who died at the bottom of her stairs in 2016 after suffering 40 separate injuries, including serious internal trauma, vaginal arterial bleeding, a fractured eye socket and facial wounds.
Her partner of only a few months, millionaire property developer John Broadhurst, claimed it was consensual, alcohol and drug-fuelled rough sex. He was convicted of manslaughter and got only three years and eight months.
Then there is Laura Huteson, a 21-year-old who was killed by a man she had met just that day. Her killer Jason Gaskell had held a knife to her neck while having sex and cut through her carotid artery.
Gaskell, the only surviving witness, claimed he didn’t intend to use the knife to kill Laura. He was ultimately charged with murder but admitted manslaughter and got just six years in prison. Courts heard how Gaskell had strangled a woman 11 days earlier.
Chloe Miazek was a 20-year-old student who had been out drinking in Aberdeen when she had been thrown out of a nightclub for being too drunk. She was approached by Mark Bruce, 32, while waiting at a bus stop and within two hours he had strangled her.
Bruce claimed it had been an accident and denied murder. He pleaded culpable homicide – the Scottish equivalent of manslaughter – and got just six years inside.
The examples make for tough reading – yet unbelievably, the subject of ‘consensual rough sex’ remains fraught with grey areas, legally speaking at least.
But for WCCTT founder Fiona Mackenzie, it reads starkly black and white.
“The law should be clear it shouldn’t matter if she consented to rough sex, that shouldn’t matter at all, it shouldn’t be part of a case,” she tells Tyla.
Fiona was inspired to create WCCTT when she heard MP Harriet Harman speak about Natalie Connelly’s death on BBC Woman’s Hour.
She – like a lot of other women she knew – were horrified by John Broadhurst’s short sentence and concerned by the frequency in which these kinds of cases were appearing in the news.
On Christmas Eve last year, Fiona decided to collate all of the cases she could immediately and launched the website.
Fiona explains how in some cases, even police officers investigating these cases, coroners, and crime scene officers are then “writing them off” because they look like sex accidents gone wrong.
“This defence allows people to switch their brains off,” she explains. “They think ‘other people must get up to this, who knows what goes on in the bedroom, maybe she asked for it.’
“That’s why it’s so successful. It’s the ultimate in victim blaming – blaming women for their own death.”
In all cases, jury’s have to go off the accused’s word alone. The victim can’t offer their side of the story, as is the sad situation with Grace.
“We need a change in attitude in the criminal justice system so people know that women do not consent to this violence,” Fiona adds.
Aside from changing the law, Fiona hopes WCCTT can help to raise awareness about the dangers of violent sex more generally.
“There’s a huge issue with young women being choked, punched, slapped or just horrendously assaulted as part of consensual sex by men that they are dating,” Fiona explains.
“We know this, we know its really dangerous to strangle someone, but for some reason young men are able to override this knowledge and are choking their partners.”
Recent figures from the ONS showed an estimated 4.3 million women have experienced some form of domestic abuse, and one in five have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 in England and Wales.
Police receive a domestic abuse call every 30 seconds, while two women are killed by an ex or current partner every single week in England and Wales alone.
It’s clear the increase in cases of violent sex and the use of the consensual rough sex defence goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of violence against women, and it needs to be stopped.
This article is a long, detailed, critical, but balanced account of the history, from the 1970’s to today, of the second ever battered women’s shelter in the US. I’m posting the first few paragraphs, which cover the setting up of the shelter and its early years, and include details of what was happening in second wave feminism at the same time, but I would recommend reading the whole thing.
In the winter of 1975, a week after a ten-inch snowfall, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez decided to turn Cherie’s apartment into a shelter for women who were getting beaten up at home. Cherie lived downstairs from Chris in a building on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither knew what running such a shelter involved, but nobody did; there was only one in the country, which had opened in St. Paul the year before. They were both on welfare, and each had a little kid, but rent was cheap, and their apartments were bigger than they needed. They put up signs with Cherie’s phone number in laundromats, and the bathrooms of broken-bone units in hospitals, and the waiting rooms of maternity wards. Cherie painted a picture on her wall of a woman brandishing a rifle. They met a few times with a lawyer they knew, to ask questions like: What if a guy found a woman in their apartment and killed her—would they be responsible? They got some women together to make plans, but the meetings were long and kind of boring, so they decided to just do it.
Chris grew up in the projects in South Boston. One night in 1966, when she was seventeen, she went to the Waldorf, a twenty-four-hour restaurant on Tremont Street where gay people used to go after the bars closed. She met a deaf Puerto Rican guy there, got pregnant, and married him. Soon after she gave birth, he started beating her up. He tried to strangle her and drown her in the bathtub. She fought back, but he was stronger. They had terrible arguments, all in sign language. She left him when she was eighteen and moved back in with her parents; her mother watched the baby while Chris went downtown and turned tricks. The money was good, and she moved to a nice apartment in Back Bay with a woman she’d been seeing who worked as a prostitute, too. She changed her last name from her husband’s name, Mendez, to Womendez.
Later, around 1973, Chris had a minor nervous breakdown, became religious, moved to Cambridge, and found work moving furniture and delivering the Gay Community News in her van. Then, one night, she met Cherie at a Daughters of Bilitis meeting, and they went out afterward to a lesbian bar in Boston called the Saints. They became friends, and then a couple, and talked every night about how they wanted to do something to really turn things upside down. They thought, There are so many women getting beat up who need a place to stay—we should just open our place up, make it a shelter. They would call it Transition House.
Cherie, like Chris, had fled a violent early marriage. When she was a teen-ager, she went to Puerto Rico with some friends and met her future husband, a rich man from San Juan, in a hotel lobby. They had a daughter together, but he hit her, and then he became violent with their daughter, too. She left him and travelled around for a while, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a high-end escort. She spent some time in Mexico City, then stayed for a summer with friends who had an organic farm in Michigan. Finally, she fetched up in Cambridge and met Chris.
Word about the shelter spread fast. It was Cambridge in 1975, and there was a lot going on. Women were meeting for consciousness-raising sessions at the Sergeant Pepper Coffee House, and helping rape victims at the Women’s Center, and starting up the Combahee River Collective. There were biker feminists in leather, and Cambridge feminists in bandannas, and Dorchester feminists in dresses. There were socialist feminists who believed that all victimized groups should struggle together against capitalism, and radical feminists who believed that misogyny was the fundamental oppression—that if the patriarchy could be broken then all other oppressions would follow.
Cherie and Chris opened their shelter on New Year’s Day, 1976, and it was full almost immediately. There were mattresses stacked up in the kitchen and all over the floor, and children everywhere. The women who came to stay all pitched in, cleaning the house, taking donations, answering the phone, which began ringing constantly, helping out with child care while mothers went to the doctor or the housing office. A lot of women showed up at the apartment to help. One was Betsy Warrior, a former battered woman who was a founding member of Cell 16, a radical feminist group whose journal, No More Fun and Games, advocated celibacy, separatism, and wages for housework. Another was Lisa Leghorn, an ardent young student who had met Warrior in Cell 16 and spent time with her studying social movements. (They concluded that the basis of women’s subjugation was their place as unpaid laborers in the home, reinforced through violence.) There was Rachel Burger, who had grown up in a pacifist Anabaptist community in England and Paraguay, and, having seen abuse that nobody talked about in that community, had gone looking for another. There were housewives from the suburbs who turned up carrying homemade cakes.
The idea was that there should be no difference between women who came to stay and women who came to help. They made decisions together, went on protest marches together, went out drinking and dancing. “We were changing consciousness,” Leghorn says. “A woman would come into the shelter in the morning, and by the evening she was showing a new resident around. Women were learning that they weren’t just victims.” Nobody wanted to make rules or control behavior; the only rule was to keep the shelter’s location a secret. Chris and Cherie had almost no money, but they were determined not to fund-raise from any source other than individual women, because doing so would compromise their independence and their politics.
Chris and Cherie worked around the clock, taking naps when they could. There were a lot of people and a lot of frantic emotions in a small space. Everyone was in crisis, panicking about where she was going to go next. One woman kept begging Chris to kill her, and Chris would say, Not today, honey, maybe tomorrow. A volunteer went to help a woman escape from her house and got beaten up herself. Some of the women had not been battered but had come because they were homeless; Chris and Cherie couldn’t decide what to do about them. Some days, when the weather was nice, all the women would take a picnic out to the back yard and the kids would play and everybody would be at peace for an hour or two.
In August that first year, Transition House helped to organize a women’s march that rallied at Government Center, in Boston. Five thousand people turned up. Leghorn spoke passionately about female servitude. Florynce Kennedy, the founder of the Feminist Party, advised battered women to occupy the nearest cathedral, mosque, or synagogue, because religions had been “pushing the family trap” and had taken upon themselves “a monopoly on the license to fuck.” Afterward, dozens of women showed up at the shelter to volunteer.
Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”
Domestic violence felt like the front line of the liberation struggle. “When we started to understand how deeply pervasive and corrosive it was, when we heard stories from women whose father beat their mother and then they replicated that in their own relationship, it felt like the work was so central to creating a world in which women could be liberated,” Sullivan says. All women needed was a place to go—a refuge where they would realize that they could survive on their own—and then they would be freed from dependence on violent men, or any men, forever. The stories were brutal, but the work was exhilarating.
Unlike most small feminist organizations founded in the nineteen-seventies, the shelter survived the decade, and the next, and the ones after that. It is still open, in a clapboard house in Cambridge with an unpublished address. It was founded not just to be a refuge for battered women but to embody a set of principles and enact a theory of how women would be liberated. It survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.
Each abandonment was the occasion of bitter fights, mutinies, and accusations of betrayal. For many women who worked there, Transition House was their first political love, to which they attached their most utopian hopes for the future, and, after all the devotion and the sacrifices and the impassioned arguments and the work day and night, it was hard to leave its founding principles behind, no matter how destructive they had become. Women left in anger, or hurt, or from exhaustion, or because they got older, or it was a different time. But the doors stayed open.
QotD: “Husband killed his wife ‘when 48-hour bondage sex session’ during their ‘honeymoon period’ in Germany left her with a perforated bowel”
A German man is in court facing manslaughter charges for killing his new wife in a 48-hour BDSM sex session just days after they walked down the aisle together.
Ralph Jankus, 52, and his wife Christel, 49, took part in a 48-hour sex session for their nuptials, he claims.
New bride Christel suffered severe internal injuries allegedly after a sharp object was inserted into her.
When emergency services were called four days later, they were unable to save Christel.
Self-confessed sadomasochist Jankus faces manslaughter charges at the court in Krefeld, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany.
He is being prosecuted for failing to call for help, allegedly leaving her injured for four days. He claims he was not aware his wife was seriously ill.
The public prosecutor believes that Jankus must have been aware of how unwell his wife was and that her life was in danger.
When questioned, he told police the sex had been consensual and that he had been taking part in sadomasochism sessions for the past thirty years.
Jankus has reportedly admitted that his wife had previously complained about discomfort and had been to see an internal medicine specialist who had carried out a colonoscopy, but nothing had been found to be wrong with her.
Forensic medicine specialists came to the conclusion that the woman must have had some sort of barbed hook inserted into her and when it was removed this caused a perforated bowel.
The victim’s 30-year-old son, who has not been named, claimed his mother had been abused as a child and was mentally unstable.
He added that his mother was dominated by her husband and had started wearing clothes that covered her up well.
She had also allegedly reported abuse at the hands of her husband before they got married, in 2017, but later withdrew these allegations and had spent some time in a psychiatric clinic.
Her son claims that she fled to a women’s shelter in 2018, before turning up happier and marrying her partner in July of the same year.
He said: ‘She had injuries over her whole body and in her genital region.’
The son said: ‘I made accusations to her that she was putting up with too much and that it should never have gone this far.’
He added he had seen bruises which his mother had shown him and she allegedly told her son that she never wanted to see her partner again and never wanted to be hurt by him.
He claims that Jankus ‘abused, mistreated and humiliated’ his mother, but added: ‘I do think she loved him though.’
Her son’s partner, who is also a witness and who has not been named, said: ‘We had no idea about the violence at first. But over time it became more apparent, she was not allowed to leave the apartment. She was forced into taking drugs. She was beaten for going to the hairdressers without permission.’
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.
This is entirely true, I entered the search term into Google myself just now: