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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:
It may feel like a common occurrence today, but if you cast your mind back to the first COVID lockdown, having whole families working and studying from home was a very unfamiliar situation. And it was one that had unfamiliar consequences.
For opposite-sex couples, lockdown disrupted the traditional gender division of household chores. In research that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that having both partners at home saw men increase how much of the domestic burden they took on, so that women’s typically greater share decreased.
We discovered this by analysing data from Understanding Society, a big longitudinal household panel study – the largest of its kind. The study follows a sample of UK households, periodically asking them questions to see how their lives are changing. Between April 2020 and September 2021, its participants were asked to complete web surveys every few months specifically about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
We looked at responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships that continued throughout this period of COVID surveying. This provided a final sample of just over 2,000 couples for us to analyse. Here’s what we discovered.
The couples were asked about the gender division of housework during the first lockdown, and we then compared this with information collected from pre-lockdown surveys carried out during 2019. The couples were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased. On top of this, we also compared the changes experienced by those with no children at home and those with children of various ages.
What we saw was that overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65% pre-COVID to 60% during the first lockdown. So initially there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work. However, by September 2020 the old gender divisions were being re-established. By this point, women were on average doing 62% of housework.
These changes coincided with changes in working behaviour. Overall, the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the spring of 2020 but had recovered by September.
And during the spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home. However, this had fallen to just under a quarter by September. Similarly, around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the spring, but this had dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September.
This seems to suggest that having both members of a couple at home, with less time committed to work, leads to the domestic burden being more evenly shared.
Having both family members spending more time at home also appears to have led to there being more housework to be done. Both men and women increased their weekly hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 12.5 to 15.5 for women and from 6.5 to 10 for men. Come September 2020, these figures had fallen again, though they remained above their pre-lockdown levels.
However, the rebalancing of work wasn’t consistent across the couples we looked at. The extent of the change depended on the number and age of the couple’s children.
When the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged.
For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the spring and continued to fall after the summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-COVID levels as 2020 progressed.
For those with children aged between six and 15, the drop in women’s share of housework had partially reversed by September, but it hadn’t fully bounced back. In the autumn they were still doing less than before the pandemic.
But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework had reversed completely by September. This was despite the initial drop in the spring having been greater for this group compared to the other two.
So what do we make of this? In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown may have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy with other tasks and whose children were not old enough to make use of online education.
One important reason for the division of labour changing during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours. Women with young children tended to reduce their paid working hours more as the pandemic progressed in order to take on the increased burden of care that stemmed from schools and nurseries being closed.
Our study shows that changes to family life during the pandemic were nuanced, with different family set-ups resulting in different changes to the balance of housework and the rebalancing of work changing over time. Indeed, there may be further nuances that we’re yet to fully identify.
In the future, it would be good to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families. We could also look at how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children, and it would be useful to see whether different countries’ lockdowns affected families differently as well.
“Substituted parenting” What does this mean in the family court?
We aim to be in a position to answer this question by the end of our 18-month project (April 2023) and are extremely grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for providing the funding and support that will enable us to do so.
Published family court judgments show that the expression ‘substituted parenting’ is often used during care proceedings in cases involving parents with learning disabilities and tends to result in the children being permanently removed from their families.
The term appears to be being used by local authorities when the support they have identified as necessary for the parents is extensive. They say the high level of support required equates to substituted parenting which is detrimental as it confuses children as to who is the parent. Since most parents with learning disabilities are likely to need long-term support, this approach risks becoming a discriminatory blanket policy.
Where has this term come from? What is the research evidence base for the concept and its conclusion that ‘substituted parenting’ or parenting by others is necessarily detrimental to a child’s welfare? What level of support is regarded as substituted parenting? Is it / should it be a matter of how much support is provided or, instead, should the question be how that support is provided?
Experienced family court lawyers are unclear how the use of this term has developed, ”… appears to be becoming an ‘orthodoxy’” or the ‘default position’ (Senior barristers – email).
“… the family would need … support throughout the children’s waking hours. That would be substituted parenting, not support.” A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) (Rev 1) .
“Whether the situation I have described could or indeed should be described as “substituted parenting” is a matter for others to decide… In the absence of a clear description of the dynamic that defines what substituted parenting is …” HHJ Greensmith in PQR (Supported Parenting For Learning Disabled Parents) (Rev 1) .
It is this absence of a clear definition – and the dire consequences that follow a finding of substituted parenting i.e. removal of the child – that prompted our bid for funding to clarify what social workers, lawyers and judges mean by the term ‘substituted parenting’ and how it is applied in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities.
Our project aims to establish clarity, consistency and transparency in the understanding and application of the term by the family courts and to highlight good practice, where it exists.
Background to the project
All parents are entitled to support from the state to carry out their parenting responsibilities. So say the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Care Act 2014 specifically includes parenting responsibilities as one of the eligibility factors for support and the central ethos of the Children Act 1989 is that children are best raised by their families, where possible, with local authority functions designed to provide support to the children and families.
The first edition of the Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (2007), published by the Department of Health and the Department for Skills and Education, emphasised the right to support, drawing heavily on the work by Beth Tarleton and colleagues in 2006, Finding the Right Support.
The 2016 and 2021 updates of the Good Practice Guidance by the Working Together with Parents Network did likewise.
And yet, despite this clear, rights-based foundation, cases were continually being reported where parents with learning disabilities were having their children permanently removed as they were unable to parent them safely without the right (or, in many cases, any) support.
In 2016, we started sending emails to the office of the President of the Family Division, highlighting published family court judgments showing local authorities’ routine failure to apply the principles of the Good Practice Guidance, when working with these families.
In April 2018, the then President, Sir James Munby issued guidance:
‘My primary purpose in issuing this Guidance is to bring to the attention of practitioners and judges, and to commend for careful consideration and application by everyone, the very important “Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability” issued by the Working Together with Parents Network and the Norah Fry Centre in September 2016.’ Family Proceedings: Parents with a Learning Disability | Courts and Tribunals Judiciary
Almost overnight, the right to support began to be acknowledged by local authorities and their proposals scrutinised by the family courts.
‘ …Following the court’s request for additional evidence from the local authority including evidence of how the guidelines in respect of parents with a learning disability had been followed and direct evidence from the independent reviewing officer (in the form of a statement confirming her position in the light of the new evidence), the local authority reviewed its position’.
‘…The court is confident that this package of support …meets the obligations of the local authority to follow the Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (2007) revised September 2016 (The Guidelines) (Recognising the Role of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO))  EWFC B71 (08 November 2018)
It was all going so well… And then, we started receiving reports of cases in which local authorities confirmed that the necessary support had been identified and could be provided, but went on to assert that, such support would amount to substituted parenting, which was detrimental to the child’s welfare and so the child needed to be permanently removed.
We began to look into this concept of ‘substituted parenting’. We tried to find out where it came from, what level of support was considered to tip the balance from acceptable to unacceptable, whether costs and timescales were factors. We checked the literature, and we asked the academics and practitioners. We couldn’t find the information. ‘Good question’, they said.
We scrutinised published judgments, looking for mention of any analysis of the risk that the proposed support would amount to substituted parenting, and any options considered to address/reduce/eliminate that risk. We couldn’t find that either.
This project started 1st November 2021 and runs until April 2023. The timing couldn’t be better for us as the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has just released his report on the need for greater transparency in the Family Court: Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts and has confirmed that transparency will be a key priority for him over the next three years:
‘… it is legitimate for the public to know of these judgments [family court cases], to provide a basis for trust in the soundness of the court’s approach and its decisions, or to establish a ground for concern in that regard.’
’It is the case that the Family Court is currently not sufficiently transparent even to those, in particular the judges and the social work professionals, who are working within it. Educational opportunities are thereby being missed.’
Since the family courts are not open to the public, we depend on published judgments for finding out how care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities are in fact being dealt with. Any move towards greater transparency, in terms of the number of judgments published and the level of information contained within them, can only lead to better and more consistent practices and thereby improved confidence in the fairness of the family justice system.
We very much look forward to speaking with the social workers, lawyers and judges involved in working with parents with learning disabilities in the care proceedings context. We look forward to being able to highlight good practices found in the course of the study and to establishing consensus, clarity, and consistency as to the meaning of the term ‘substituted parenting’, and transparency as to its application by the family courts.
We particularly look forward to working with our Advisory Group of parents with learning disabilities. They will help to ensure that the findings of our study can be made widely available to parents with learning disabilities and in such a way that parents will be able to understand what is meant by the risk of support being considered to be ‘substituted parenting’, the significance of such a risk and, most importantly, how to avert that risk, where possible.
Because, in the much-quoted words of Baroness Hale in a landmark adoption case, “nothing else will do”.
This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org.