Grace Millane was just shy of 22 years old when she met Jesse Kempson on Tinder. The pair hit it off, with Millane texting a friend that she just “click[ed] with him so well”. She went back to his hotel room, and never came back out. Police would later testify in court that she had injuries consistent with being choked for between “four and five minutes”, resulting in her death.
Kempson’s legal team argued that her death was nothing more than a ‘sexual misadventure’, with the prosecution labelling her affinity for rough sex as a contributing factor to her untimely end. Known as the rough sex defense, this argument has been employed in several criminal cases, chalking strangulation up to a sex game gone wrong. Since 2010, a study has found a 90% increase in the use of this defense when death by strangulation has occurred.
In cases where this defense has been used, the law did not seek to protect the rights of the victim. Their court case couldn’t play out as a case of ‘he said, she said’, because the victims weren’t there to speak on their own behalf. It poses the question, is it the woman’s fault for trusting a man with her life, or is it the man’s responsibility to know when to stop? The grey area grows greyer still, but one thing is certain – if you play in this space, the person who harms you may not be responsible for the fallout.
Although Kempson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 17 years in prison, the case — and Kempson’s argument that it was consensual rough sex gone wrong — raised questions on the ethics of sexual choking.
The existence of the rough sex defense is proof in and of itself that we value women’s lives less than men’s. A UK campaign titled, ‘We Can’t Consent To This‘ is passionately fighting for more women to recognize the dangers of sexual choking, sharing the stories of 60 women who have lost their lives while partaking in a sex act which was deemed consensual in the eyes of the law. It’s a spine-chilling reminder not only of the dangers associated with erotic asphyxiation, but the ways in which the law continues to fail to protect women.
Meagan Tyler, a senior lecturer at RMIT University who specializes in gender inequality and feminist theory, says that this defense has an undeniable, misogynistic underpinning.
“It shows you how far we haven’t moved away from patriarchal norms in law because it’s just another way of excusing men doing horrible things to women,” Tyler told ELLE Australia. “Are we saying that we value young women so little that they can be killed, and we can say that they wanted it? That they had consented to their own killing? Is that really where we’re at? It shows, unfortunately, how much work we still have to do.”
With these harrowing cases ringing in our ears, it’s any wonder we’d continue to partake in this at all, yet we still seem determined to dip a toe in its murky waters. It begs the question, why do we keep doing it?
Choking during sex has become more and more popular in recent years. A 2021 study of more than 4,000 university students in the United States found that more than a quarter of women (26.5%) and more than one-fifth of trans and non-binary students (22.3%) had been choked during their most recent sexual encounter. And while it’s easy to point the finger at porn more broadly (almost 8,000 videos are tagged as ‘choking’ on PornHub alone), young adults who are choked during sex report finding out about it from everywhere: porn, magazines, social media, friends and partners.
“We were having sex and all of a sudden his hands were around my neck. It was the first time we’d slept together and we never had a conversation about it. I was too scared to say anything so I let him carry on,” a 25-year old woman told ELLE Australia.
“I allowed a casual partner to try it on me, and when I woke up in the morning, I had burst blood vessels in my eyes and bruising on my face. The scariest part is that it didn’t feel bad in the moment, so I didn’t tell him to stop,” another woman, who is 23-years-old, said.
Choking has become so normalized that safety guides are even being published. Some sexual wellness experts have suggested people “gently press on either side of the esophagus” while avoiding pressure on the front of the throat.
Despite the existence of these guides, Tyler argues that they are merely trying to draw a line between erotic play and violence where there isn’t one.
“Whatever you might want to call it, erotic asphyxiation is still strangulation in terms of what is physically happening to the body,” Tyler explained. “This terminology is really unhelpful, because it’s trying to draw a line where really there isn’t any. Even if it’s not intended to harm, putting pressure on anyone’s neck, even for four seconds, can cause loss of consciousness. Once you have loss of consciousness, you have a degree of brain damage – that’s just not up for debate,” Tyler said.
She then went on to explain that choking isn’t even the correct terminology for what we’re actually doing.
“I think it’s interesting that choking has become the terminology, because it’s actually the medical term for having something stuck inside your throat,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with someone putting their hands on the outside of your throat, which is strangulation. We’re now stuck in this vortex of not realizing what harm actually is. Maybe 0.00001% of people out there are going to be able to do this safely and enjoy it, but should we risk that at the cost of 10 other women’s lives? It’s not a fair trade off.”
Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman whose disappearance made international headlines, was later found to have been strangled to death by her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. According to experts, strangulation is the biggest sign that abuse, particularly at the hands of an intimate partner, will eventually turn deadly. In fact, a woman who suffers a nonfatal strangulation incident with her intimate partner is 750% more likely to be killed by the same person with a gun. This increasingly popular sex act is blurring the lines between violence and consent, and the more we normalize it, the more dangerous it becomes.
She suspects the rise of choking — otherwise known as squeezing, neck compression, or breath play — is correlated with male anger.
“We have created an outlet of violence against women by saying that there are certain forms of aggression, dominance and violence that are okay, and this is one that we have somehow decided is okay,” she said.
“Instead of saying, ‘this can potentially cause some form of minor brain damage’, we’ve instead said, ‘this can be fun and healthy.’ I think it’s become a culturally acceptable way to channel anger for men, which is just horrific.”
It’s impossible to talk about choking without also acknowledging that some women will request this willingly during intercourse, and it isn’t always carried out in a non-consensual, abusive manner. On the flipside, we also need to consider the possibility that women are engaging in certain sexual acts for the sole benefit of men. If that’s the case, how far have we really come in the women’s sexual liberation movement?
“What good sex is or what sex is supposed to be, is still mostly defined on male terms,” Tyler explained. “There are definitely more freedoms and more open discussion of sex and sexuality, but have we really made space for women to talk about what they want on equal terms, or to define which sexual interactions are most pleasurable for them? I really don’t think we’ve made that space. We also can’t separate it from the pornography industry. If you’ve been watching this from a really young age, how can you separate what you want sexually from what you’ve always been trained to want?”
Regardless of the context in which sexual strangulation is taking place, we can’t ignore the risks involved. More women should not have to lose their lives in order for this to be taken seriously.
When you place your body in the hands of someone else, and they place their hands around your neck, how much can you actually trust them? With your life? You’d better hope so, because the stakes really are that high.
If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service or contact Full Stop Australia.
Source Credit: Lucy Cocoran, ELLE Australia, link to original article