More than 60 victims have been forced to go to court over the past decade to deny that they consented to strangulation, assaults or violence, according to the campaign to end reliance on the “rough sex” defence.
Figures for the number of such court appearances have been collected by the organisation We Can’t Consent to This, which supports amendments to the domestic abuse bill being considered by MPs on Thursday.
The lobby group is one of several calling for changes to the law to prevent defendants blaming victims – almost invariably women – for the violence inflicted on them by alleging they had consented during “sex games”.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson repeated his commitment to end the rough sex defence. During prime minister’s questions, he was challenged by the Conservative MP Laura Farris who asked: “When men who kill their partners in appalling acts of sexual violence establish in court that ‘she asked for it’ and avoid a murder conviction, does [he] agree that the time is now to end the rough sex defence?”
Responding, Johnson, whose fiancee, Carrie Symonds, was a victim of predatory sex attacker John Worboys, said: “She raises an incredibly important point and we do – we are committed to ensuring that the law is made clear on this point and that defence is inexcusable.”
Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, welcomed the prime minister’s statement: “It is past time for the government to get rid of the ability of men who murder women to claim in court as a defence that it was consensual and part of rough sex.”
Campaigners argue that the defence should not have been open to any defendant since 1993 when a test case, R v Brown, in the House of Lords resulted in the conviction of a group of men for assault and wounding even though their sadomasochistic victims willingly participated in the violence.
But We Can’t Consent to This has assembled evidence of 67 cases in the past 10 years in which it said victims were nonetheless required to come to court to deny that they had consented to physical attacks. Going back as far as 1997, it said, it had discovered a total of 115 such cases.
The cases involved women whose attackers claimed they consented to acts including “waterboarding, wounding, electrocution, strangulation and asphyxiation, slapping, beating, punching and kicking, and, in one case, a shotgun fired intimately at a woman,” the campaign group said. “In every one of these cases, the victim insisted that she did not consent to the violence.”
The organisation believes that, going back to the 1970s, as many as 60 women in the UK have been killed in violence, which it was claimed they had consented to.
Among those who died in similar circumstances recently was the British backpacker Grace Millane who was murdered in Auckland, New Zealand.
“There was a tenfold increase in rough sex claims between 1996 and 2016 in the UK and, in every case that we have found, the defendant has been male, many with a substantial domestic abuse history or other convictions for serious violence against women, like rape, kidnap or homicide,” the campaign group said.
“We have long said that the existing law is not working. Our evidence shows that although case law in England and Wales is said to prohibit ‘consent’ claims in defence to violence, it is routinely disregarded in the criminal justice system, and these claims work, resulting in a lighter sentence, a lesser charge, or no prosecution at all – and the woman’s sexual history used to prove she asked for it, even where she says she didn’t.”
The organisation has also accused the Crown Prosecution Service of failing to pursue charges in a recent case in which a woman who reported a violent assault to police has, reportedly, been told in a CPS letter that the prosecution would not be pursued because “the courts have shown an interest in changing the law so that the suspect could say that you consented to these assaults. This would be difficult to disprove”.
A CPS spokesperson said: “Tackling violence against women and girls has long been a CPS priority, and one we remain strongly committed to.
“Claims that a victim has ‘consented’ to an assault do not stop us from prosecuting. We work closely with the police to build and strengthen cases, and if our legal test is met, we will always prosecute, no matter how challenging the case.”