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SARAH SANDS: At last we have a chance to stop the Fifty Shades Of Grey defence

Catching up with my old friend Nimco Ali last week, I asked her about her new role as an independent adviser to the Home Office on violence against women. 

Nimco has long campaigned against female genital mutilation, for instance. And now there is the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has been hailed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help eradicate domestic violence.

It seemed to me that things were going quite well as Nimco begins her new role. Then she said: ‘What about choking?’

It was not something I had given much thought to. In Norfolk, we are more interested in fifty shades of bantam hen than in Fifty Shades Of Grey – the sadistic, erotic fantasy novel and film that involves a lot of rough sex.

According to the campaign group We Can’t Consent To This, at least 60 British women have been killed during so-called ‘consensual’ sexual violence since 1972, with at least 18 women dying in the past five years [File photo]

But, significantly, a so-called ‘rough sex amendment’ has been incorporated into the Domestic Abuse Bill to prevent alleged killers using the ‘Fifty Shades’ defence of rough sex to counter murder charges. 

Also, it would be enshrined in law that consent cannot be used as a defence to actual bodily harm.

Despite these hopeful developments, it looks as if it will take longer for popular culture to change so that throttling women is seen as a crime rather than a fantasy.

For Nimco had shown me an article in Men’s Health magazine from July which was headlined: Why some people are turned on by choking during sex – and how to do it safely, according to experts.

Really? There are experts on this?

The article starts: ‘Have you been curious about choking during sex?

‘Maybe you had a partner recently who, seemingly out of nowhere, asked you to choke them? Or perhaps you saw a porn scene recently where choking was the main attraction. What’s the deal? We have the goods.’

An ‘expert’ offers advice to the presumably mostly male readership – along with a warning.

Notably, earlier this year in New Zealand, the rough-sex defence in the trial of the killer of Grace Millane, a 21-year-old Essex backpacker, was condemned by police who said the term ‘retraumatises’ victims and their families

‘You are restricting air flow, which means the strength you use on your partner’s neck shouldn’t be crushing. You don’t want to break their oesophagus.’

The Conservative MP Laura Farris saw the article and tweeted her shock and dismay.

According to the campaign group We Can’t Consent To This, at least 60 British women have been killed during so-called ‘consensual’ sexual violence since 1972, with at least 18 women dying in the past five years.

In 45 per cent of those deaths, the claim that a woman’s injuries were sustained during a sex game ‘gone wrong’ resulted in a lesser criminal charge if the case ever got to court, a lighter sentence, an acquittal or the death not being investigated at all, the group said.

Notably, earlier this year in New Zealand, the rough-sex defence in the trial of the killer of Grace Millane, a 21-year-old Essex backpacker, was condemned by police who said the term ‘retraumatises’ victims and their families.

Extraordinarily, the campaign to prevent violence against women has run into some cross currents.

Indeed, Laura Farris deleted her tweet after being accused of ‘kink shaming’ (a phrase used to describe someone who judges another’s sexual predilections).

Harriet Wistrich, founding director, said: ‘At this rate, we will be bringing back the Paedophile Information Exchange’ – referring to the notorious organisation that lobbied on behalf of child abusers and campaigned for the age of consent to be lowered to four.

Labour MP Jess Phillips agrees, saying: ‘We have gone too far.’

When I seek some guidance from her about what the attraction of choking during sex might be, she says she is stumped: ‘I regard myself as a liberal. I like to sit around talking with my girlfriends and we talk about most things, but not this. There has been a sea change in the past ten years and I just don’t understand this.’

Meanwhile, a proposed second amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill is picking up momentum. The Centre for Women’s Justice is calling for a new offence of non-fatal strangulation. It is being championed by Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner.

We may be about to become serious about choking.

Until now, strangulation has been classed as common assault, one of the more minor offences, relegated to the magistrates’ court rather than the crown court.

And yet strangling, or suffocating, is the second most common method of killing a woman – and a mighty effective way of threatening it – but as a crime it lacks the evidence of blood and broken bones.

Strangling is therefore described among professionals as ‘the hidden epidemic’. Men are using it as chilling way of saying to a woman: ‘I could kill you.’ And that it is a secret between the two of them.

A study from the Journal Of Emergency Medicine in 2008 found that 43 per cent of women murdered by partners had been choked by them in the previous year. So, this suggests the men’s behaviour moves from ‘I could kill you’ to ‘I will kill you’.

Unfortunately, police and prosecutors have found it a hard crime to crack.

Indeed, what does a red spot on a neck prove?

Yet this ignores the damage that is done internally. Loss of consciousness can happen within ten to 15 seconds, leading to mild brain damage. Strangulation can also cause internal bleeding, dizziness, nausea, ear bleeding, strokes, blood clots, miscarriage.

Studies report ‘a sense of existential threat, a firm conviction that they were going to die’.

Can you imagine the terror? You are on the edge of unconsciousness, contemplating death. This is the ecstasy of the abuser. He (almost always ‘he’) has the greatest thrill of power over life and death short of murder. It is sickening.

The amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill wants recognition for the severity of the act for which there is currently no distinct offence.

New Zealand, the United States and Australia are ahead of us on this. In the US, 37 states have introduced non-fatal strangulation offences, and in New Zealand a new offence was introduced in 2018.

Horribly, a life-threatening act has become blurred with a sexual one. Mind-bogglingly, strangulation replaces the expression of love with a fantasy of fear and surrender. 

An American survey last year quoted by the Training Institute of Strangulation Prevention claimed that one third of women between the ages of 18 and 24 had been asked to ‘choke’ during sex.

In New Jersey, a 21-year-old man called Michael Gaffney, charged with manslaughter for the death of a 19-year-old woman, told a friend: ‘I choked her. She wanted to be choked.’

Inevitably, choking features most prominently on pornography sites and Ms Wistrich also talks about increasing online interest in such things as spitting or urinating.

‘All these horrific practices are being accessed by young men on their phones,’ she says. ‘They are being educated into thinking this is all normal. We have to counter it with a strong school education to create awareness that this is not a good thing.’

The choking defence, cited in that Men’s Health article, is consent, but in reality young women may feel pressured into agreeing to do something that actually scares them, perhaps believing that normal sex (often mocked as ‘vanilla sex’) is dull. The campaigning website We Can’t Consent To This has a poignant roll-call of deaths of women. It will never be possible to know among this tragic list whether they had consented. But it is most likely that they didn’t.

I look at the recent case of Patrycja Wyrebek, aged 20 and living in Northern Ireland. Her partner, charged with murder, told the police that he killed her in an act of ‘erotic asphyxiation’.

His barrister claimed that when Patrycja died, ‘she never gave him a signal to actually stop’.

Or the case of Anna Florence Reed, 22, from Switzerland, found dead in a hotel room in Harrogate, after her boyfriend claimed a sex game had gone wrong.

We Can’t Consent To This was set up by Fiona Mackenzie, an actuary, following the ‘rough sex’ killing of Natalie Connolly, 26, who suffered 40 listed injuries, including fractures and bleach burning.

In New Jersey, a 21-year-old man called Michael Gaffney, charged with manslaughter for the death of a 19-year-old woman, told a friend: ‘I choked her. She wanted to be choked

Despite this, her partner, John Broadhurst, was sentenced to less than four years for manslaughter.

If the Domestic Abuse Bill becomes law, women who feel pressured into choking would be able to refuse on the grounds that it would be illegal.

Regardless of sexual activity, strangling is an act of extreme violence that society is not taking seriously.

Nogah Ofer, from the Centre For Women’s Justice, thinks there is now recognition in Parliament for the need of a separate offence for non-fatal strangulation. This could save lives.

She cites the inquest last year into the death of Anne Marie Nield, a 44-year-old who suffered multiple fatal injuries in an assault fuelled by ‘jealousy and alcohol’ at the hands of her partner.

The inability to breathe is a primal fear. Why would you inflict that on someone?

Jess Phillips MP is clear. Strangulation is a quick and easy way to attack women, it’s hard to prove and clouded by a pornographic acceptance.

‘It is about power and control. It is having such power over someone that you could kill them,’ she says.

Fifty Shades Of Grey, sadly, has become a licence for domestic homicide.

Now, though, the women of Parliament are making a tangible connection. Don’t choke.

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