LISA WADE feared she would die when she was brutally throttled during sex – yet when she reported the assault, her attacker claimed it had been consensual. Shockingly, this defence is increasingly being used to get away with sexual violence, discovers Anna Moore
When Lisa Wade allowed a man she’d known for four years into her flat late one night in April 2016, she could never have imagined that within minutes, she’d be fighting for her life.
This man was a friend and, at the end of drunken nights out, an on-off sexual partner – a ‘friend with benefits’. Since he didn’t live too far from her flat, they’d recently fallen into a bit of a pattern – if he was out late, he would text and ask if he could stay over. Lisa usually said yes.
On this night, he did the same. When he arrived, he was drunk – Lisa had only had one glass of wine with her dinner. She was wearing just a dressing gown. Still, she had no reason to feel vulnerable. ‘There was nothing to tell me that he was in a bad mood or that anything different would happen,’ says Lisa, who is now 30, an NHS manager and freelance writer.
‘The moment I shut the door of the flat, he hit me. I was stunned– he must have seen by my reaction that I wasn’t expecting it. I sort of stumbled away from him towards my bedroom and he hit me again. And that’s when the strangulation happened.’
This man was big. ‘He would have been one and a half times, maybe twice my weight,’ says Lisa. ‘My first instinct was to fumble for my phone to call for help but he knocked it out of my hand. I fell against the wall, I knocked my bedside lamp over. I put up a hell of a fight initially.’
The strangulation was prolonged. ‘It wasn’t just one period of strangulation,’ she says. ‘He was choking me with one hand, then I’d resist, he’d release then pull my head back and grab my throat again.’ (The next day, when the bedroom had become a crime scene, police noted the clumps of hair.) ‘I wasn’t screaming, I was wheezing,’ she says, ‘and the last time he did it, when I nearly passed out, I could feel the room disappearing around me. It was a blurring. I can just remember this feeling that I was possibly going to die, like the fire was going out of me. It’s really weird to describe but there was this feeling of calm, this peaceful acceptance.’
Then suddenly, her attacker let go of her and began to laugh. ‘Don’t you know I’ve done that before?’ he taunted. ‘Don’t you trust me to know what I’m doing?’ Once in the past he had put his hands to her throat during sex and she froze in horror, telling him to remove them immediately – which he did. Other than that there had been no ‘rough sex’.
The recent case of Sophie Moss, 32, from Darlington has put ‘rough sex’ in the news again. In September, her killer, Sam Pybus, received a four-year, eight-month sentence for manslaughter, after claiming that Sophie died by accident during consensual sex, and that Sophie ‘encouraged’ him to apply pressure to her neck. After a public outcry over the lenient sentence, the case has now been referred to the Court of Appeal.
While there are no thorough records kept on the ‘rough sex defence’ and how often it has been used in court, the campaign group We Can’t Consent To This has tried to keep count. According to their records, there has been a tenfold increase between 1996 and 2016. Out of 60 homicides where men used the ‘rough sex’ defence after killing women, 45 per cent resulted in the lesser charge of manslaughter instead of murder, or no charge at all.
In all these cases, of course, the victims were unable to confirm or deny the claims that they enjoyed and encouraged ‘rough sex’. They were dead.
But what about women who are not killed – and come forward to report the attack? When this happened to Lisa, she was in her mid-20s, with two degrees, one from Cambridge. ‘My life had been relatively limited,’ she says. ‘I knew about the fetish scene but I had no interest in that and, anyway, I thought that was supposed to include strict boundaries and consent.’
Back in her flat that night, when her assailant finally released her neck, she froze. ‘I was a wreck – I’d almost died,’ she says. ‘People have asked, “Why didn’t you get out then?” I think I made a split-second decision that I was not going to anger him or try to run. Maybe if I just stayed still and tried not to provoke him, I’d be all right.’ The man dragged her on to the bed and raped her multiple times in multiple ways – while also hitting her round the face and pulling her hair. Finally he went to sleep while Lisa lay frozen beside him, waiting for morning. ‘I was definitely in shock but I also knew I was going to the police,’ she says. ‘I knew that from the moment he put his hands on my throat.
There was absolutely no question. It was so terrifying, I never wanted anyone else to go through this.’ When her alarm clock rang, Lisa got up and went to her kitchen. She heard her attacker shower and leave the flat.
That day was spent in her local police station, then with the Met’s rape investigation Sapphire Unit. There was also a forensic examination at the specialist centre the Havens. She didn’t get home until 11pm.
‘I wasn’t crying,’ she says. ‘I was a zombie. Numb and confused.’ The next day, she had a two-and-a-half-hour video interview with the police. ‘It sounds stupid doesn’t it, but maybe because I knew him, I was worried about him,’ she says. ‘Was I doing the right thing? He’d done this terrifying, horrible thing to me, he could do it to someone else… but I was worried I was going to ruin his life.’
In fact, he was arrested and interviewed that day, and claimed everything that happened that night had been consensual.
‘I can’t understand how anyone could have looked at the bruises on me and believed I’d have consented,’ says Lisa. She had fingerprint bruises on both arms where she’d been held down. Red marks on her elbow. Her neck had a dark bruise under her ear on one side – very much like a handprint. (The police didn’t photograph her injuries.) She was wearing a scarf for two or three weeks afterwards to hide it, and was given painkillers for whiplash.
Over the next few months, the police and CPS worked on the case. Lisa was constantly asked to submit more information – about herself, not the case. ‘I had to give them my mobile phone twice, they wanted to see all my medical records which was so hard to organise because I’d lived in Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Cambridge, London and Australia. It felt like they were looking for any reason to drop the case. I wanted to ask, “Have you got his phone? Have you got his medical records?”’
In January 2017, Lisa was told that her attacker was being charged on counts of rape. ‘I asked, “Where’s the assault charge? What about the strangulation?” I couldn’t understand how such a violent attack could be brushed aside. The failure to recognise the strangulation, the hitting, the near murder felt like a terrible letdown. He got off on it – seeing me in pain and frightened drove him on. In my opinion, the evidence of assault was overwhelming but with rape charges, it’s your word against his. If someone commits rape, they’re more than likely to walk free. So that would leave me with nothing.’
This is exactly what happened. Even though, following the charges, another woman came forward to say she had also been raped by this person and her case was added to Lisa’s, in October 2017, their joint case was dropped before it had come to court. Lisa was told by police that there was insufficient evidence and the CPS were reluctant to proceed without her full medical records.
According to Fiona Mackenzie, founder of We Can’t Consent To This, this is a common pattern. ‘We often hear from women who were horribly, violently assaulted during sex and the small number who have gone to the police have been asked, “Are you sure you didn’t consent?” Even in cases where perpetrators are eventually charged, it is rarely for the assault – it might be for rape or something else – so it leaves this bizarre gap where women experience absolutely terrifying assaults which are never prosecuted.’
Mackenzie hopes that growing awareness of these attacks and the dangers of strangulation might lead to more prosecutions in the future. The recent Domestic Abuse Bill made non-fatal strangulation a specific crime with a possible five-year penalty, whereas previously it could fall under battery, the mildest assault possible.
Five years on, Lisa is still profoundly affected by that night and the lack of justice. ‘I’m on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I’ve got PTSD. I panic when somebody touches my shoulder.
‘I have dated, but only if somebody is introduced to me and knows my friends. I have to be absolutely sure about their background. I can’t put myself out there. I know too many friends who’ve had dodgy experiences with men they’ve met through apps and I can’t run the risk of anything awful happening to me again.’ Lisa is right to be cautious; one extensive study found that more than a third of UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted violence during sex, including choking, gagging, slapping and spitting. That’s the equivalent of 3.6 million women in the UK.
Lisa also moved to live closer to her family in South Lincolnshire, the area where she grew up. ‘I know this sounds insane but in London, I kept seeing him on the street,’ she says. ‘He wasn’t really there – it was just men who in some way resembled him. I still do that now. I see or hear something that reminds me and suddenly I’m back in the room with him.’
Yet she wants to speak out, here, on the record. Why? ‘I want to show the very human cost of rape and sexual violence,’ she says. ‘I want to show that I’ve got absolutely no reason to lie. I have no doubt in my mind that if I’d have died that night – like Sophie Moss died – he would have used the rough sex defence. He’d have said that I asked for it.
And would he have been believed? ‘It was luck that got me out of the situation alive and I feel this sense of responsibility that when he does reoffend, I should have prevented it. He’s got a very high potential to kill.’