Blame, Shame and the Murder of Women

Grace Millane

Violence against women is one of New Zealand’s most significant and pressing social issues. Every day police respond to hundreds of family violence incidents, and women continue to die as a result of men’s violence. In December 2018 New Zealand recognised the severity of a specific offence – strangulation – and implemented legislative reform to address its pervasiveness. Five arrests for strangulation were reported a day in February 2019 . I mention all of this because of the Grace Millane murder trial.

On 21 December 2018 she was strangled to death while visiting New Zealand. Her body was later found in a suitcase, buried, in the Waitakere ranges in Auckland. The man accused of her murder claimed her death was the result of consensual rough sex that had “gone wrong”. After a three-week trial, a jury of five men and seven women found him guilty of murder after less than six hours of deliberation.

While a guilty verdict has been established, this does not detract from the distressing nature of this murder trial – distressing for myriad reasons: distressing because a young woman lost her life in a country where she should have been safe; because it quickly became a trial about a young woman’s sexual history and interests instead of the actions of a violent man; because while the defence said Millane was not to blame for what happened that night, the case it built suggested she was somehow blameworthy.

Millane was violently murdered by a man who strangled her, took intimate photographs of her, lied to police and buried her in the bush. It is these actions that should have been the focus of the trial. Unfortunately his despicable actions seemed to get lost in a sea of interest in her sexual history. None of this should have happened because the issue this case is actually about is men’s violence against women. Women’s sexual histories have no place in a murder trial.

As the trial progressed, the world became privy to some of the most intimate aspects of Millane’s life in a way that no woman would ever wish to experience. There were many aspects that felt like a rape trial. In rape trials victims report feeling blamed and shamed for their experiences of trauma and violence due to gruelling cross-examinations by defence lawyers. Women’s sexual histories are carefully dissected in ways that allude to the type of woman she might be. Women are asked about the clothes they wore, who they had previously had sex with, and why they allowed themselves to get drunk.

The experience in a rape trial is so traumatic that some women report it feeling like a second rape. Is it any wonder that only a minority of sexual violence cases are reported to police, fewer result in charges, fewer again make it to court and a dismal number result in a conviction?

The same issues of blame, shame and harrowing cross-examinations were present in Millane’s murder trial. They should not have been. The defence’s cross-examination of a brave young woman who had previously had sex with Millane’s murderer was shocking. She was accused of being “melodramatic” and it was suggested she was making up her disclosure of his sexually violent behaviour. All of this was to discredit her evidence and to help shape a version of Millane’s murderer as a good guy who just “panicked”.

The treatment of Millane’s sexual life was just as disturbing. The defence heard evidence from Millane’s long-term ex-boyfriend, a previous sexual partner, and men she had connected with – but never met – on dating sites. Millane’s sexual history was dissected in public for everyone to see, but she had no ability to respond. The jury heard about Millane’s supposed interest in “rough sex” or BDSM. The jury was told about Millane’s presence on dating sites such as Tinder, Fetlife and Whiplr, as if to suggest her presence on the latter two was evidence of her rough-sex interests.

Millane’s sexual history, her dating life and her use of dating apps should not, and will not, be used against her. Whether Millane liked rough sex or not is irrelevant because nobody can consent to murder. The jury confirmed this in their delivery of a guilty verdict. Yet Millane’s sexual history remains deeply embedded in online and print media coverage, serving as a painful reminder of the problems involved in the “rough sex gone wrong” defence. While removing Millane’s digital footprint is now impossible, what we can ensure is we remember that women are not the ones responsible for violence they experience at the hands of men.

Dr Sam Keene is a Teaching Fellow in the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was published in The Guardian, 24 November 2019. She also published a related piece in The Spinoff, 22 November 2019.

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