Grace Millane’s trial is another case of a woman’s sexual history being used against her. We have to end this insidious culture of blame

So long as victims of sexual violence are smeared and discredited because of their past choices and preferences, fewer and fewer will seek justice against their attackers

Almara Abgarian
Saturday 23 November 2019 11:16
New Zealand PM fights back tears as she issues apology to family of murdered Grace Millane

The trial for the murder of 22-year-old Grace Millane took yet another appalling turn this week, as the legal team of the man charged for the crime presented new “evidence” of what really took place the night she died.

If you haven’t read the headlines yet, let me explain: Grace was killed while backpacking in Auckland, New Zealand, and the defendant claims that she died “accidentally during sex”.

His legal team are now building their defence based on Grace’s character, saying that she was a member of BDSM dating sites and that she asked her ex-boyfriend to choke her in bed.

Whether she was or wasn’t into BDSM isn’t the point. But more importantly, we should ask: why would anyone think it matters?

The argument being used in the Millane trial comes all too close to the logic of telling a woman who got raped that she “deserves” it because she wore a certain type of clothing or generally likes to have a lot of sex.

It’s never, ever a valid defence.

The dangers of outlining a woman’s sexual activities in court, especially in a case that’s being widely reported in the media, is that it perpetuates the age-old premise that women have to behave in a “ladylike” manner to be deemed respectable.

I dread to think what would be dragged up if someone sexually assaulted me and was taken to court. Would they talk about all the sex articles I’ve written? Would they mention the time I reported from a sex club?

Or perhaps they’d contact one of my former lovers, of which there are many (and if you’re judging me while reading this, you’re part of the stigma) and ask if I like to be choked in bed.

I’m also a member of several fetish sites, though for research rather than pleasure, and I’ve once hooked up with a man through a fetish app called Whiplr. It has no reflection on who I am or on my character.

The legal team also claim that Grace slept with another man the night before she met the defendant. Once again, I ask: so what?

A woman has the right to enjoy sex as often and with as many partners as she’d like. We must always fight against the stigma attached to women having autonomy over our bodies, or we risk regressing back to the pre-#MeToo era where some people deemed it OK to call us “promiscuous” or “sluts”.

The campaigning group We Can’t Consent To This keeps a tally of cases where British women were killed by men who claimed it happened during violent, yet consensual sex. So far, the count is 59.

Among them is the case of 29-year-old Christina Abbotts, who was murdered last year by a man who claimed he acted in self-defence during a sex game.

Another is Chloe Miazek, a 20-year-old student in Aberdeen killed in 2017 by a man who choked her to death and said it was an accident – but also admitted that she hadn’t consented to the strangulation.

As someone who has had rough sex and knows many others who enjoy it, I cannot imagine any of our partners being so involved in the act that they wouldn’t notice us struggling against them or our bodies suddenly going limp – let alone falling asleep in the bed next to us afterwards, as the man accused of murdering Grace says he did.

And yet, the defence in cases like Grace’s is all to often that the woman’s sexual history indicated she was somehow partly to blame for her own death.

Using a woman’s sex life as a measure of her character isn’t just dangerous and wrong; it also runs the risk of making women afraid to report sexual harassment, rape and abuse for fear that others won’t believe us. Or worse, that we will report it and then have our life choices used as justification for the crime.

According to statistics gathered by Rape Crisis in 2017, around 85 per cent of people (the majority of them female) don’t report sexual violence to the police.

Harriet Harman is now pushing for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill to remedy the situation, because men are “getting away with murder by using the ‘rough sex’ defence”.

I fully support this and hope it will bring change and justice. But beyond amending the law to better protect women, we also need to shape a new narrative.

One where we celebrate sexual freedom and choice for everyone – whether that’s never having sex or having sex every night.

One where we educate people so that women don’t need to worry about choosing the “wrong” clothes, or say and do the “wrong” thing, for fear of being attacked.

And one where sexual empowerment doesn’t become ammunition for violence against women.

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