The ‘Rough Sex’ Problem

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
In law and the culture

John Broadhurst, a 41-year-old multi-millionaire from the United Kingdom — convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” after he killed his 26-year-old girlfriend Natalie Connolly during so-called “rough sex” — will walk free after serving only half of his 44-month sentence.

Like many countries, Britain has a long and embarrassing history when it comes to legally permitting domestic and sexual abuse (it was only starting in the 1990s that a man could be found guilty of raping his wife). Nevertheless, in recent years, an overreliance on consent-only ethics, coupled with the normalization of sexual behaviors that harm women disproportionately — sadomasochism among them — has riven our new standards with contradiction.

Connolly died in part because of Broadhurst’s actions but also from a combination of other factors, including intoxication. According to the expert testimony, Connolly’s blood-alcohol levels were equivalent to having had five bottles of wine, and she had taken a significant quantity of cocaine, which amounted to the highest levels of combined cocaine and alcohol use the expert had ever seen. (By contrast, Broadhurst was deemed “significantly less drunk than [Connolly] was and . . . capable of taking decisions and making choices.”)

Nevertheless, the facts of the case are deeply unpleasant. In addition to beating her on the buttocks with a boot and on the breasts with his hand, Broadhurst also chose — he claims at Connolly’s instigation — to insert “a bottle of spray carpet cleaner into her vagina, as a sexual stimulant,” which then became “lodged in her vagina” and would not come out. Broadhurst was unable to remove the bottle from Connolly and so inserted and twisted his hand inside her. The judge explained: “the pathological evidence was that the bottle caused lacerations to her vagina resulting in arterial and venous haemorrhage.” He saw that she had banged her head, was bleeding from the nose, and had become “gobbledygook.” Noticing all that, he went upstairs to bed and left her on her back to die in a pool of blood.

As one might expect, the circumstances of the case and Broadhurst’s seemingly lenient sentencing provoked outrage. The campaign group We Can’t Consent To This coalesced around 60 instances of women “who were killed during so-called ‘sex games gone wrong’ in the UK, since 1979.” They record that 45 percent of guilty persons were given lesser charges of manslaughter, while an additional 114 women had to refute claims in court that their violent injury had been the result of consensual activity.

Reaction to the Broadhurst case culminated in Parliament’s passing an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Act in July, explicitly removing “consent for sexual gratification” as a viable defense in cases of assault, murder, and manslaughter. Jess Phillips, the Labour MP and former leadership hopeful, said “the law should be clear to all: a person cannot consent to serious injury or death. But the case law is not up to the task. When a woman is dead, she cannot speak for herself.”

It is true that it is currently far too easy for men to get away with violent offenses with the pathetic, age-old excuse of “she asked for it.” Nevertheless, feminists have difficulty reconciling their narrative — that women are helpless — with the circumstances of many of these cases. It is in the culture, influencing women’s poor choices, that they encounter the bigger problem.

Take the Broadhurst case, for instance. In the evidence presented to the jury, the judge remarked that he was “sure” that “Natalie’s motivation [for sadomasochistic sex] arose from the fact that she derived sexual satisfaction by being beaten quite hard.” The evidence did suggest that was true. Previously, Connolly had sent pictures and explanations of her sex-related bruises to her mother. Broadhurst, too, “spoke openly at the football match” about his sex life and “bruising that Natalie had suffered during sex.” Did no one think — at that point — that perhaps this relationship was unhealthy? Or even abusive? Of course not; it was consensual.

During the sentencing remarks, the judge also noted:

I cannot be sure that Natalie was not capable in fact of consenting, notwithstanding her extreme intoxication, and I will proceed on the basis that she did indicate her consent to being beaten by you with a shoe and with your hand. . . . Natalie’s need for medical help arose in part, and I stress only in part, because you had unlawfully injured her.

This takes us uncomfortably close to an unspoken taboo. “Rough sex” is not merely a fictitious excuse invented by men. It is also a fantasy bought and sold by women. In reference to another abusive relationship, Theodore Dalrymple — in his review of Out of the Darkness by Tina Nash (helped by a ghostwriter), whose boyfriend gouged out her eyes with his bare hands — tackled this head on. He wrote:

It is impossible not to sympathize with someone who suffered as Nash did. Her description of waking up to find one of her eyeballs dangling by the side of her face, as if it were some soft, damp, alien object, is as horrific as anything I have ever read or hope to read. Her conduct might have been foolish and irresponsible, but nothing she did could possibly have deserved a minimal fraction of so awful a consequence. As for the perpetrator, no punishment could have been too condign to be just; and the severity of his punishment was limited only by our need to remain civilized ourselves.

But merely to sympathize with Nash would not be an adequate response to her story. It would amount to an evasion — intellectual, moral, and emotional. In the circumstances, it is comfortable to sympathize; it is uncomfortable to have to think and to judge.

Dalrymple’s point was that there were warning signs at every stage of Tina Nash’s relationship with her attacker, yet she evidently was titillated by his aggression and, forgoing prudence and good judgment, continued in a relationship that endangered her and her children. The questions we are not supposed to ask: What was it that attracted her to this man? What does it say about her values? What does it say about the values of the society in which she lived?

I have the same questions about Natalie Connolly, whose killer, John Broadhurst, got off with a maddeningly light punishment.

These days, anything goes so long as you’re deemed to have consented to it. You can consent to being in or consuming pornography, that which is violent and degrading — displaying women (some of them underage or trafficked) being choked, strangled, beaten, and sodomized. You can consent to erotic fiction, marketed mainly toward women — series such as Fifty Shades of Grey or an offshoot, The Billionaire’s Rough Sex and Milking of the Virgin Maid (described as containing “sexual scenes of a rough nature, involving a virgin [18 years old], primarily involving BDSM, oral, impregnation leading to pregnancy, and other related themes”). But because this logic can lead to unpleasant ends, we have decided that we must draw an ethical line somewhere.

And so, the one thing you cannot consent to — in this enlightened world of ours — is being brutally injured or killed. Well, pucker up, girls — how’s that for liberation?


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