Anna Reed. Charlotte Teeling. Christina Abbotts. Lesley Potter. Laura Huteson.
These are the names of British women killed by men in 2018 and 2019, whose killers claimed they died in “sex gone wrong”. In Anna Reed’s case, early reports suggest that the cause of death was suffocation; her body was also covered in small cuts and fractures. Reed is the 50th British woman to be killed in this way; the full list is online. These women are among a larger number of British women killed by men: 126 in 2012, 144 and 149 suspected in 2013 and 2014 respectively, documented here.
As Olivia Utley points out, the media tend to frame such stories around the man’s point of view. He was just playing a sex game, and things went wrong. How terrible for him. Meanwhile, she is written out of the narrative, even though she is the one who ended up dead. This is a classic case of what Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, which she understands as “the flow of sympathy away from female victims toward their male victimisers”.
Defenders of the “sex game gone wrong” defence might try to assert that the women involved with these men consented to the activities that posed a risk of injury and even death, and this justifies the media’s sympathetic telling of these stories. After all, if a couple agree to engage in a risky activity—like skydiving—together, and something goes terribly wrong with the woman’s parachute, that really is bad luck, and we really should extend our sympathy to the man left behind.
In the philosophical literature on consent, one common view is that to consent to something a person must have a certain sort of intention: she wants the thing; she feels positively toward the thing; she has no complaint against the thing. Another type of view is that she must both have a certain sort of intention and she must do something to make it clear to the other party that she has that intention. For example, if a woman propositions me for sex, I must not only feel positively toward having sex with her, but I must also communicate this to her. For example, I might say ‘sure, let’s go back to my place’.
Consent is a very important power that a person has, to turn what would otherwise be a wrong against them into something permissible. One interesting question that arises when thinking about consent is exactly what, and how much, we assume a person consents to with a particular verbal or physical action. In this case, the question is how we should think about the possibility of a woman’s consent to sex that comes with a risk of death.
Obviously, sex itself is not an activity like skydiving, which ordinarily comes with a risk of death. People have sex all the time without one of them ending up dead. There’s obviously something about the way these men are treating the women who they have sex with that has produced fifty dead British women in nearly as many years. So we’re not simply talking about sex, we’re talking about rough sex, or something that actually has very little to do with sex (even though it involves sex) like domination or abuse of power. Remember that Anna Reed’s body was covered in cuts and fractures.
In the BDSM community, where we might expect to find more rough sex than elsewhere, consent is incredibly important. Indeed, it is not uncommon for parties to draw up informal contracts, detailing what they do and don’t want to happen during sex. It is also commonplace for there to be ‘safe words’, which, when uttered, bring all activities to an immediate end.
Under patriarchy, men (male people) have more social power than women (female people), and this can interfere with the possibility of genuine consent. Women are socialised to care about male feelings, and this can lead them to couch their objections in softer terms, which gives men an opening to read ambiguity or indecision where in fact there is none. Women fear male violence, which gives them reason to pose their rejections in overly complicated or avoidant ways. So the mere fact of a female sexual partner failing to say ‘no’ to certain activities does not mean that she consents.
This tendency in many women interacts in a particularly dangerous way with men’s attitudes of entitlement to women’s bodies. Women are relentlessly sexually objectified in the media, in advertising, in films, and in pornography (sometimes in violent ways). There is a culture of male violence against women, in the form of domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, strangulation, rape, and sexual assault (all most commonly inflicted by people known to their victims); and all of which tend to be under-prosecuted.
In a world where a woman is an object, what does it matter if she is treated roughly? In a world where a woman is not her own person, but a mere object for a man to extract pleasure from, what does her life matter?
Men need to start being much more vigilant about ensuring that their partners genuinely consent to sex and to the activities that are a part of sex. It would be highly unusual for a woman to consent to a serious risk of death as a part of sex. The fact that fifty UK women are dead and their partners have claimed “a sex game gone wrong” reveals an egregious failure of respect and care on the part of their male partners.