This week, Dr Natasha Mulvihill, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and researcher at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research in the School for Policy Studies, is launching an anonymised online survey to investigate experiences of ‘rough sex’. She introduces here the context and aims of the research.
‘Rough sex’ refers broadly to aggressive physical or degrading acts during sex. In recent public and popular discourse in the UK, the term has been used commonly in two contexts. The first is to refer to consenting sexual practices following the Fifty Shades trilogy, published by E.L. James over 2011-2012. The second refers to instances of death, usually involving a female victim and male perpetrator, and commonly following asphyxiation, beating or injuries through penetration. In the second case, ‘rough sex’ is an inaccurate euphemism, as such acts represent sexual violence, manslaughter and homicide.
Beyond these two examples, lived experiences of ‘rough sex’ may be better understood on a spectrum, with the line sometimes misjudged between consensual rough sex and sexual violence and abuse.
In a research project commencing this week, I am seeking to understand individual experiences of unwanted ‘rough sex’ – however defined by participants – which occurred within the context of consensual sex, but which the participant felt at the time or later was non-consensual, harmful or upsetting. The research invites participants across different identities of gender, age and sexuality and recognises different contexts of sexual relations, including one-off encounters and short-, medium- and long-term relationships. It recognises too, and welcomes comment on, the limitations of the term ‘rough sex’.
The impact of Fifty Shades is disputed. It is celebrated by some for catalysing popular acceptance of, and engagement in, consensual BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, submission, masochism); and by others castigated for promoting unsafe practice, commodifying and mass-marketing kink, and sexualising an essentially abusive relationship (see, for further discussion, Bonomi et al, 2013).
Downing (2012) argues that the non-sexual behaviour of one of the book’s protagonists, Christian, is far more “sinister” (2012, p.99) than the exposition of what happens intimately between the couple. She is concerned here to separate sexual practices from normative assessments of character: a fair concern given how, historically, society has stigmatised sexual activity which falls outside of a heteronormative and reproductive template. Yet from a coercive control perspective, it could be argued that the protagonist’s sexual behaviour is entirely consistent with his wider techniques of emotional, psychological and physical control. So, the insight here is that it is not what happens within a relationship or encounter, so much as what it means to each of those involved – albeit recognising from inside when behaviour is harmful, rather than as an external observer, is not always easy.
The second context relates to where the defendant in a criminal trial claims that a victim’s death occurred through sexual ‘misadventure’ or ‘accidental injury’. The campaigning group We Can’t Consent to This and the Centre for Women’s Justice have been at the forefront of documenting the stories of victims, and seeking a change in the law to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence cannot retrospectively represent their harmful actions as consensual ‘erotic play’. Campaigning and research led to specific amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (England and Wales), namely:
- Section 70 of the Act makes non-fatal strangulation an offence in its own right
- Section 71 of the Act states that “it is not a defence that the victim consented to the infliction of the serious harm for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification”
It remains to be seen how effectively these offences will be enforced in practice or whether sexual violence packaged as ‘rough sex’ (or the threat of repeating previous episodes of rough sex) is sufficiently recognised by police and prosecutors as part of the repertoire of perpetrators of coercive control (Weiss and Palmer, 2022).
It is likely that experiences of unwanted rough sex broadly are reasonably common and under-disclosed. Indeed, in 2019, a BBC survey revealed high prevalence, particularly in the female under 40 age group, and low police reporting. In common with other sexually harmful experiences, disclosure may be inhibited by embarrassment, shame and confusion about what happened, especially when it occurs within what began as a consensual encounter.
While there is some evidence to suggest that exposure to sexually explicit material online is associated with either a desire to, or an engagement in, ‘rough sex’, the directionality and nature of the relationship continues to be disputed (see, for example, Vogels and O’Sullivan, 2019), as does the assumption that individuals will, through ongoing exposure, come to conflate consensual rough sex and sexual violence. The consumption by young people of sexually explicit material which mainstreams rough sex practices is thought to be a more compelling concern, since their sexual scripts are still in development (see, for further discussion, Wright, Herbenick and Tokunaga, 2021), including their understanding of active and ongoing consent.
Using an anonymous online survey, this research study therefore aims to understand:
- The experiences and contexts of unwanted ‘rough sex’, where study respondents feel, either at the time or subsequently, were harmful to them, physically, sexually or psychologically
- The impact of that experience(s)
- Whether, why (not) and how respondents sought support, advice or justice for what they had experienced and what happened next?
- The respondents’ broader feelings about ‘rough sex’, its nature and prevalence
- What respondents would like to see in terms of, for example, political, media, criminal justice, cultural or educative interventions, to both prevent future harmful experiences of unwanted ‘rough sex’ and to secure accountability or recognition for what happened to them
It is hoped that this work will inform work with police and criminal justice professionals and practitioners working in support services, including with young people and the production of free online briefings to raise awareness and improve practice.
Participation in the survey is entirely voluntary and can be completed by anyone aged over 18, although participants may refer to experiences under 18. It is open from Monday 7 February 2022 to Friday 29 April 2022.
Sources of support: