Recently, I came across a campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, which purports to be ‘a response to the increasing use of “rough sex” defences to the killing or violent injury of women and girls’. But when I browsed the campaign’s site, it seemed somewhat familiar, and I started to suspect that the campaign was not what it claimed to be. British radical feminist campaigns tend to fit a particular pattern – a pattern with which I became familiar when I observed it over a number of years for my book Porn Panic!
For several years, a small, active (and hateful) radical feminist group called Object was a key driving force behind claims that pornography was harmful, and made repeated calls for porn to be censored. Additionally, Object was behind a number of other pop-up anti-sex campaigns. These included Stripping the Illusion (a campaign to get strip club licenses revoked by councils), Lose the Lads Mags (which attempted to stop supermarkets selling magazines such as Zoo and Nuts), and Rewind and Reframe, which called for the censorship of “sexist” music videos. Object may also have been influential in the No More Page 3 (NMP3) campaign, which called for the Sun newspaper to end its iconic daily topless model on page 3. The same groups of people are also behind anti-sex work campaigns such as Nordic Model Now. At times it seems there are more radfem campaigns than there are activists.
Each campaign had a set of common features, most obvious of which was the shallowness of their arguments. In place of evidence that porn (or lads’ mags, music videos, …) was harmful, the campaign would resort to fear-mongering and the vague insinuation that erotic imagery caused ‘objectification’ which in turn (somehow) caused men to harm women. The campaigns rarely, if ever, attempted to provide evidence of the alleged harm, and with good reason: there was none to be found. Instead they relied on moral panic, scary anecdotes, and the endless repetition of the word ‘objectification’, as if this alone was all the justification they needed. In the rare cases when the campaigns provided statistical evidence, it was often false or misrepresented. One such case was the use of the ‘Lilith Report’ to demonstrate that strip clubs contributed to the prevalence of rape in the local area. This report was mercilessly dismantled by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who showed that the Lilith result had been falsified by cherry-picking only the evidence that matched the claim and ignoring evidence that contradicted it. This did not prevent Object from quoting Lilith for years after it had been discredited.
These campaigns had a number of other things in common. First, they all received uncritical backing from the Guardian, sometimes in comment pieces and occasionally via editorials and planted ‘news’ stories. Second, they all drew their arguments from a small number of unreliable sources: often the leading anti-porn radical feminist activist Gail Dines. And third, they were supported by small numbers of MPs, generally from the Labour Party, and often including the veteran Labour MP (and radical feminist) Harriet Harman, who regularly lends her name to anti-porn and anti-prostitution lobbying efforts. The Guardian, Dines and Harman reappear regularly in support of anti-sex campaigns. All three appear in conjunction with We Can’t Consent to This, with the Guardian publishing a supportive piece, rich in anecdote and panic, on the subject.
We Can’t Consent to This makes the central claim that, increasingly, men accused of murder are using the defence that the death occurred during ‘sex games gone wrong’. It does provide some statistics in a briefing document. However, the statistics quoted by WCCTT themselves seem to suggest that the use of such a defence is extremely rare, and that in any case it doesn’t appear to be taken seriously by the courts. WCCTT’s own data suggests that the defence has been used in the killings of 57 women and girls since 1972 (a timeframe of 47 years), and never more than five times in any year. Furthermore, in almost all cases (51), the defendant was found guilty of either murder or manslaughter. One case has yet to reach court.
WCCTT is a strange campaign: not only is the problem it identifies (the use of a ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence) extremely rare, but the defence it complains of rarely, if ever, works. The briefing document does suggest that the defence has helped reduce charges or mitigate sentencing, but provides no evidence to support this. Most of the site is dedicated to the individual, harrowing, stories of women who have been brutally murdered. So given that murder and manslaughter are already illegal, what exactly is WCCTT trying to achieve?
The direct goals of the campaign are not stated clearly anywhere on the site, but are hinted at: “We do not believe that women can consent to their grievous injury or death, and will campaign until claiming this is no longer a useful defence”. WCCTT asks supporters to write to their MPs calling on their support for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The content of the amendment is not on the WCCTT site; to find out what it actually says, one must visit Parliament’s website, and now we can finally see what the campaign’s true mission is.
There’s a subtle difference between this amendment and the wording on the WCCTT website. While the campaign refers to death and serious injury, the amendment also includes a third category: actual bodily harm. But ABH is defined as follows:
Actual bodily harm is a criminal offence in which someone gives another person a minor injury
ABH refers to bruises, scratches and so on. So this law is primarily designed to stop people causing minor injury to each other. It’s likely that 99% of injuries sustained during sex are both minor and consensual. And so here, apparently, is the big con: We Can’t Consent to This talks loudly about murders and horrific injuries, but actually is campaigning for consenting BDSM, fetish and kink sex to be criminalised.
Is this deliberate, or naive? Fiona Mackenzie of WCCTT contacted me on Twitter after I tweeted about the issue, and denied that the campaign was anti-kink.
I pointed out the campaign seemed to be linked with well known anti-sex campaigners.
Mackenzie is right. According to legal precedent, one cannot consent to being injured. In 1993, during the trial of R vs Brown (aka the Spanner case), a group of gay men were convicted of “unlawful and malicious wounding” after participating in a sadomasochistic sex party, despite the fact that all participants were consenting. However, the case was seen to be deeply homophobic as well as an intrusion into people’s private sex lives. It is unlikely, these days, that police would choose to arrest people for going to an S&M party. And yet, this is what Mackenzie, Harman and their supporters seem to want. I thought I should clarify this point:
She didn’t reply. I tried again:
Again, Fiona Mackenzie failed to reply. I have contacted her again, asking for comment, and will update this article if she responds further.
So We Can’t Consent to This is actually acting to prevent pro-dommes and lifestyle kinksters from enjoying perfectly consensual and (barring the odd bruise) harmless sex lives. The campaign should perhaps be renamed to We Don’t Approve of You Consenting to This.
If you are a pro-domme, or enjoy a fetish lifestyle, and would like to support my work, you can make a contribution here.
(Photo credits: photos courtesy Hyena Photography and Red Heaven Media)