Research Recap: Is Bad BDSM Letting Men Get Away with Murder?

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A woman's hand outstretched as if to stop someone.

Is the normalization of BDSM in the media connected to the use of the “sex games gone wrong” defense in murder trials of men who have killed women? New research attempts to answer this question. Here’s what you need to know.

What was the study?

Elizabeth Yardley, a professor of criminology in England, examined cases of femicide, which she defines as murders of women committed by men, in which the men blamed what happened on “sex games gone wrong.” Yardley posits that this defense has become more popular due to the normalization of BDSM in the media. The findings were published on November 4, 2020, in the journal Violence Against Women. 

How was the research conducted? 

Yardley compiled information about 43 femicides that male perpetrators claimed were caused by rough sex. All of the cases resulted in a homicide conviction and took place in Great Britain from 2000 to 2018. Yardley compiled and performed statistical analyses of a variety of  attributes of the cases.

What were the findings? 

The findings that Yardley highlighted as being particularly relevant to her claim were as follows:

  • Age: There was a wider age gap than in most couples—on average, perpetrators were 5.7 years older than their victims. And victims were most commonly in the 25–34 age range. 
  • Occupations: A quarter of the victims had “caring, leisure, and other service occupations,” such as hair stylists or classroom assistants. About 15 percent of victims were sex workers, while another 15 percent were students.
  • Criminal History: Three-quarters of all the perpetrators had a history of abuse of women, coercion, or stalking. Criminal conviction information was only available for 26 perpetrators, but of those, more than half had been convicted of violent offenses in the past, and nearly two-thirds had been convicted of property offenses. 
  • Location of Murder: Nearly half of the murders occurred in the perpetrator’s home, and nearly a quarter happened in a home shared by the victim and the perpetrator.
  • Murder Method: In 60 percent of cases, perpetrators strangled their victims to death. In another 20 percent of cases, blunt instruments were used. The rest were killed via asphyxiation or a sharp instrument.
  • Nature of Sexual Relationship: Over half of the perpetrators said that the victim initiated the sex act that caused her death. In two-thirds of cases where the people involved were partners or ex-partners, the perpetrator claimed that he and the victim had a history of partaking in consensual BDSM prior to the murder.
  • Case Outcomes: Over three-quarters of perpetrators were convicted of murder, while a little more than 20 percent (9 people) were convicted of manslaughter or culpable homicide. Manslaughter cases increased as time went on, with 5 occurring between 2015 and 2018.
  • Sentencing: Men convicted of murdering their partners were sentenced to shorter terms in prison (about 15 years on average) than men who were convicted of murdering women who were not their partners (about 19–27 years).  

According to Yardley, these findings paint a picture of a patriarchal culture that has allowed men to feel entitled to turn women’s sexual equality and liberation against them and use it to mask long-standing abuse and misogyny. To support this claim, Yardley highlights that the majority of the perpetrators in these 43 cases had a history of abuse of women, and many had criminal convictions for violent offenses. Yardley also argues that mainstream acceptance of BDSM and rough sex in porn and popular culture—choking in particular—have “created a culturally approved script for perpetrators of violence against women.” By claiming that the victim initiated the rough sex that resulted in death (as more than half of perpetrators did), these men “are using women’s sexual liberation to explain and justify their violence.”  

Yardley argues that the “sex games gone wrong” defense seems to work best in cases where the victim and perpetrator were partners, as evidenced by the shorter sentences for men convicted of murdering their partner. Yardley attributes this to the idea that victims who did not know their attacker are more likely to be seen as blameless in comparison to victims who were in a relationship with their murderer.

What were the study’s shortcomings?

The most obvious problem in Yardley’s research is the sample size. She studied 43 cases that used the “sex games gone wrong” defense, but many of her data points deal with subsets that are even smaller. For instance, only nine people were convicted of manslaughter. Yet Yardley asserts that it’s worrisome that the bulk of these convictions (five) took place in more recent years, indicating that this defense may be “gaining traction.” That seems like a stretch given the tiny sample size.  

One reason for the small sample size is that Yardley focused only on cases where there were convictions. She opted to do this because she knew she could access more publicly available data about such cases than ones where there was no conviction. However, even she acknowledges that had she studied cases that didn’t result in prosecution or conviction she might have found more evidence to back up her argument that “sex games gone wrong” defenses are working in the perpetrators’ favor. Examining only convictions makes it impossible to say this defense was successful, especially when the majority of those convictions were for murder. 

Finally, Yardley’s argument hinges on the idea that the popularization of BDSM in media has enabled the “sex games gone wrong” defense to flourish. But as people in the BDSM community are all too aware, there’s a huge difference between proper BDSM and bad BDSM. And, unfortunately, bad BDSM is often what is shown in porn and mainstream media like Fifty Shades of Grey. Yardley does acknowledge that a lack of judicial and forensic understanding of BDSM combined with nonexistent testimony from expert BDSM witnesses can lead to a lopsided view of what BDSM is. But she stops short of making the point that it’s not the normalization of BDSM that’s problematic so much as the normalization of bad BDSM.   

What’s the main takeaway?

Although Yardley’s research raises some interesting questions about bad BDSM’s influence on certain types of homicides, the sample size is too small to conclude anything definitive. To study this correlation in greater depth, researchers would need to increase the sample size to include cases from other countries that have equivalent legal systems and/or include cases that did not result in a conviction.

Overall, Yardley’s research reads like she had a bone to pick with BDSM before she even began this study. She seems to be arguing that the widespread portrayal of BDSM in porn and other media is literally allowing abusers to get away with murder. But since everyone in her sample was convicted, this connection is tenuous. That said, everyone can likely agree that if education about consensual BDSM was as prevalent as bad BDSM, the line between BDSM and abuse would be much brighter for many people. 

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