Sex Shouldn’t Equal Death: How the “50 Shades” Murder Defense Misrepresents the BDSM Community

No one can consent to being murdered.

Trigger warning: murder, sexual violence

People have been trying to blame murders on Fifty Shades of Grey.

Convicted killers have been using what's come to be known as the "Fifty Shades" defense, claiming that sexual violence that lead to death was consensual, and some have received reduced manslaughter sentences. While this has been going on for decades, it's seen a spike in recent years, with several high-profile killers employing this strategy in order to soften their sentences.

This happened in the case of Grace Miller, a 21-year-old backpacker from New Zealand who was murdered after a Tinder date gone wrong in December 2018. During the trial, while the man's anonymity was preserved thanks to a suppression order, Miller's sexual history was widely publicized, as the man who killed her pinned his defense on Millane's preference for "rough sex." In February of this year, her killer received a life-sentence.

Grace Millane

According to the killer's testimony, Millane requested he put her into bondage and suffocate her; he said he discovered her body the next day. Instead of calling the police, he deposited her corpse into the woods.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Another woman testified that she had a similar experience with Millane, who she said nearly suffocated her until she "played dead."

The BDSM Community Hates Fifty Shades

Whatever is causing these men to kill, it isn't their partners' interest in BDSM.

Most people don't understand the nuances of what the BDSM community actually believes, and Fifty Shades shapes many people's entire perception of sadomasochistic power dynamics. This is also why the "Fifty Shades" defense is dangerous; it implies a connection between BDSM and actual deadly violence, often spurred on by rage or psychosis. Speak to anyone in the BDSM community (or do the tiniest bit of research into this widely misunderstood world of BDSM), and you'll find that the vast majority of participants dislike Fifty Shades of Grey—and outright reject the validity of the "Fifty Shades" defense.

The entirety of the "Fifty Shades" defense, and the franchise it takes its name from, misrepresents the BDSM community's emphasis on consent and caution, sometimes with tragic consequences. "Christian Grey's initial seduction of Anastasia breaks every rule in the BDSM book," wrote psychologist and sex educator Susan Quilliam. She argues that the relationship is exploitative "on both sides and therefore emotionally unsafe and not sane."

"The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context," writes Emma Green for The Atlantic. "Sometimes, [Anastasia Steele] says yes to sex she's uncomfortable with because she's too shy to speak her mind, or because she's afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn't prevent her from being harmed."

In Fifty Shades, Grey "touches [Ana] to the point of unwanted pain, she's uncomfortable but doesn't want to say so, he pushes her limits, and she ends up in tears," continues Green. "This is not how experienced members of the kink community have sex. Because BDSM and other kinds of experimentation can be risky, and because it pushes people's comfort limits, people who are interested in these kinds of activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent."

While the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has brought kink out of the darkness and into the harsh glow of the mainstream, letting a lot of mommies know what they've been missing, it's been deeply troubling to the established BDSM community and to sex educators at large. The connection between Fifty Shades and murder may be surprising to some, but to experienced BDSM practitioners, the relationship in Fifty Shades has always been flawed and dangerous.

Fifty Shades "perpetuates the ongoing idea that people who do this are broken in some way," said Emily Prior, a BDSM, kink and fetish coach and the director of the LA-based Center for Positive Sexuality. "And this is not true."

Consent and Communication: The Cornerstones of Every Relationship

One of the most ongoing misperceptions about the BDSM community is that BDSM is intertwined with some form of mental illness or trauma. This is completely untrue, and actually, repressing one's true sexual desires can have immensely damaging effects on the psyche—whereas people who embrace BDSM (or whatever their true sexual desires are) are often able to embrace other aspects of themselves, leading to an improvement in overall health.

Contrary to popular belief, BDSM is not about violating boundaries. If anything, most BDSM practitioners focus on clear boundaries, proper training, and preparation far more than the average vanilla partnership. Every BDSM practice requires "self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying," continues Green. BDSM requires communication and consideration—the same sorts of practices that most people will tell you defines any long-lasting relationship.

"When two people want to get involved, their negotiation is up front," said Robert Dunlap, a Californian sex educator. "They are going to have a safe word: 'When I say, it ends. Period.' Most use a stop sign. Green means 'go.' Yellow means 'caution' and 'red' ends it. Play is also negotiated," he added. "For example, if you are doing flogging or whipping, 'Tell me during the process if you want to be hurt. Is it too hard? Is it too soft?'"

Victim-Blaming: How the "Fifty Shades" Defense Shifts Blame onto Dead Women

Since 1972, at least 60 women in the UK have been killed during supposedly "consensual" sex. (Men can certainly victims of sexual violence as well, though the statistics are murkier). In Canada, one researcher discovered over 100 cases, including non-fatal assaults and homicides, where men claimed their female victims consented to violent sex.

In most cases, the "Fifty Shades" defense turns blame onto the victims, while excusing their killers' actions and, in some cases, preserving the murderers' anonymity. "In every case, the woman's sexual history, alleged sexual history, is presented in court as part of the justification for her killing ... the victim-blaming and reporting on it is the same wherever you go," said Fiona Mackenzie, founder of an activist group called We Can't Consent To This.

"Women are blamed for their behavior," said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "Their sex lives are always questioned—whether or not they are sexually active, and what kind of sexual activity do they participate in, and were they drinking–these things that have nothing to do with what's happened to them."

"There's no emphasis on the men, and the male behavior. Where is their sexual history, where is their history of violence against women, were they drinking, were they stalking, have they been in jail for this before? The emphasis is that she deserved it, because she enjoyed or had pleasure from sex," Van Pelt added.

"You can never have sex. Sex equals death," says Randy in the classic 90s slasher flick, Scream. In horror movies, the "final girl" trope is well-known—as is the idea that having sex equals dying, at least when there's a fictional mass murderer about. While this trope has been magnificently upended and critiqued by many films in recent years (such as It Follows), these real-life horror stories prove that sometimes, Randy's adage holds true.

No one ever consents to dying during sex. Consent needs to be revisited and re-established periodically throughout sexual activities, no matter what kind, and it should never be an excuse to inflict nonconsensual pain or serious injury.

In England, Labour MP Harriet Harman wants to amend the Domestic Abuse ban so that consent (and anything along the lines of the "Fifty Shades" defense) can't be used as a defense against murder. The criminal justice and prison systems are corrupt in many ways, so maybe cracking down harder in the courtroom isn't the ideal answer.

Ideally, change would start before a murder—accidental or not—happens at all. Maybe if people were more willing to talk about BDSM and unique sexual desires at large, and if they were more willing to learn about what these relationships entail, then we'd see fewer cases of this kind of violence in the first place. Maybe if there were less shame, repression, and denial, and better communication and honesty, things would be more pleasurable (or safely painful, depending on your preferences) for everyone.

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