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Grace Millane. Photo: RNZ / YouTube

Why is it that so few believed Grace Millane's killer would be held accountable?

Warning: Coverage related to the trial of the man who murdered Grace Millane contains graphic and sexual details that may be distressing to some readers

Analysis - It's been four days now since the man accused of Grace Millane's murder was found guilty, and a collective sigh of relief was shared by people all over the world. Immediately after the verdict was announced, my twitter feed was flooded with variations of the same sentiment: "Thank God". It seems many people didn't actually believe the man who brutally took the life of this young woman would be held accountable for it. Why is that?

Partly it must be down to the way the trial was played out in public. We're used to seeing the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence framed as effectively responsible for what happens to them - for going out at night, for drinking too much, for not leaving him - but the level of detail about Grace's sexual history that was presented in court and reported on day after day hammered that point home. Despite assertions from defence lawyer Ron Mansfield that they were not out to blame or shame Grace or her family, what followed was impossible to see as anything else.

Over the course of the trial, the story put forward by the defence was one of a consensual sexual encounter in which both parties got carried away and one of them paid the ultimate price. 'Rough sex gone wrong' is a convenient defence - there are usually two people in the room when it happens and only one lives to tell the tale. More and more men are claiming 'rough sex' as a defence for the murder or violent injury of women and girls - the organisation We Can't Consent To This has counted 59 women killed in this way in the UK since 1972, with 20 of those happening in the past five years.

In one of the most infamous, millionaire John Broadhurst was last year given a sentence of three years and eight months for the manslaughter by negligence of his partner Natalie Connelly, who died at the bottom of the stairs with 40 separate injuries including a fractured eye socket and with bleach on her face. If that sentence is shocking to you, consider that in those 20 most recent 'rough sex' cases, 50 percent resulted in a lighter sentence, a lesser charge of manslaughter or in the death not being treated as a crime at all.

Because I'm in the business of talking with people about their sex lives, undoubtedly I encounter people who believe the conversations being given a platform by BANG! (and RNZ) should be kept quiet. Sex is private, these people say, there's no need to talk about it so openly.

But sexuality educators and experts have been pushing for better, deeper, richer conversations and education about sex and sexuality for decades - often against great resistance - and I can't help but think that if we'd paid closer attention we might be better equipped to see through the dangerous and irresponsible narratives we're fed again and again: that a woman seeking sexual pleasure is partly accountable for any harm that befalls her and, specifically in the case of this trial, that in the context of 'rough sex' a woman can consent to her own murder.

If we talked about kink and BDSM, we might know how incredibly difficult it is to kill someone by consensual choking. As the forensic pathologist who examined Grace outlined, that kind of death is incredibly rare - he's never seen it in New Zealand - and it would take 5-10 minutes of sustained pressure on a person's neck for death to occur.

We might also be aware that BDSM and kink practices are routinely engaged in by people who operate within a strong community, where the potential for harm is mitigated by thorough and exhaustive consent conversations. Before anything sexual even begins, it's commonplace to talk about boundaries and expectations and to decide on a safe word, and partners will also check in with each other throughout, and sometimes practice 'aftercare' - ensuring everyone leaves the experience feeling as good or better off as when they went into it.

Of course no system is perfect and sometimes harm does occur; more than once I've been told about dangerous individuals being booted out of BDSM communities, from where they are essentially free to circle around its edges, predating on those who are curious about kink but not yet embedded enough in the community to be kept safe.

Related articles: How domestic violence has been normalised in New Zealand | The murder of Helen Meads: The insidious nature of domestic violence

We might also talk about the fact that while some women willingly and consensually engage in 'rough sex' practices, many are never even asked if they want to have their hair pulled, be spanked or choked by the men they are having sex with. One of the witnesses for the defence in the Grace Millane trial was a man she'd had sex with on a previous date, who told the jury he couldn't recall whether he'd choked Grace during their encounter but that it's something he does often because "girls usually enjoy it". When asked if he ever asked them first, he said no.

Let me be clear - it is never okay to choke a person during sex unless you know for certain that this is something they want you to do. You'll know because they've expressly asked you to do it, they're in a state and of an age to willingly give their consent, and there are an abundance of other positive signals being expressed and not a single one that might indicate discomfort (read more on 'Traffic Light Consent' here).

But it's also important to be aware of the wider context - that the increasing normalisation of practices like this (aided by everything from 50 Shades of Grey to pornography to women's magazines suggesting choking as a way to spice up your sex life), means kinky sex is making its way into the bedrooms of more and more people who have no experience in negotiating consent.

The inevitable result is more people agreeing to or going along with things they aren't comfortable with for fear of being labelled weird, boring or a prude, or to keep a situation that already feels dangerous to them from getting worse.

As I write this, I'm sitting outside the main stage door at the school hall where my daughter's dance company is showcasing their end of year performances. Dozens upon dozens of dancers, mostly girls aged between four and sixteen, have been filing in and out for the past two hours - and right now I can hear the music of the Hunger Games dance starting.

I saw the show yesterday, so I know that twelve teenage girls and one boy are currently sweeping and leaping across the stage as a female vocalist sings, "Are we the predators or are we the prey?" I remember it all so clearly because as they danced I performed a mental calculation that I'm sure many women will be familiar with - which three of these bright and shining girls will face serious sexual violence at some point in their lives? Which of those will be at the hands of an intimate partner? Will they survive it?

We need to start having some of these complex and uncomfortable conversations, about sex, consent and healthy relationships. We need to talk about power dynamics and gender stereotypes, and to confront head on the socialisation that still tells boys that sex is something to do to others and girls that sex is something done to them.

We need to embrace sex positivity and the idea that sexual pleasure can be enjoyed without shame by all, while also understanding that without critical analysis sex positivity can become pressure - especially for young people - to be sexual and to be sexual in a certain way. We need to eradicate slut-shaming and make sure that no matter what type of sex people are having - casual, not casual, 'vanilla', kinky - they know that mutual care and respect is compulsory.

The Grace Millane trial is unlikely to be the last time we hear the defence of 'rough sex gone wrong'. Next time that happens, let's be more aware of how incredibly rare it is for death to result from any kind of consensual sex, and of the wider societal context that has legitimised and encouraged a defence seeking to make women responsible for what men do to them.

  • Because of the nature of the Grace Millane Case, this article speaks to sexual violence perpetrated against women. But statistics suggest one in seven boys may be sexually abused by adulthood.

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* Melody Thomas is the creator of RNZ sex and sexuality podcast BANG!, sometime-presenter for Music 101, and a writer for various print and online media.

 This article was first published on Radio NZ.