Normalisation of 'rough sex' in pop culture has led to “culturally approved script” for men who kill women

For many years we have called out media, advertising, marketing and elements of popular culture that sexualise and objectify women and contribute to normalising, eroticising and glamourising violence against them. For example, see this piece by Movement Director Melinda Tankard Reist You look so good in blood! Violence is, like, so hot right now

Now, new research out of Birmingham City University in the UK has found that the normalisation of BDSM had generated a “culturally approved script” for men who kill women.

Criminologist Professor Elizabeth Yardley conducted research on women killed in so-called “sex games gone wrong”, an increasing trend which often results in men being tried for a lesser crime such as manslaughter. She writes:

The normalization and mainstreaming of ‘rough sex’ in popular culture through films like Fifty Shades of Grey, and the way in which porn and women’s magazines present acts like strangulation as ‘play’ have created a culturally approved script for perpetrators of violence against women – regardless of whether or not they have an established relationship with a victim. Indeed, over half of the perpetrators in my sample claimed that the victim initiated the specific ‘rough sex’ act that led to her death. As such, abusers are using women’s sexual liberation to explain and justify their violence to those they have silenced.

We have previously campaigned against the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, which romanticises abuse and paints intimate partner violence as sexy and desirable. We participated in an international campaign encouraging people to boycott the films and instead donate to a women's shelter, where women like the female-lead Ana end up in real life. Earlier this year, our Campaigns Manager Caitlin Roper wrote an op ed on the glorification of violence against women in Netflix film 365 Days, arguing that the film portrayed male aggression against women as erotic and promoted the belief that women secretly desire and enjoy violence, and that even 'no' really means yes. 



We have argued that eroticising violence against women – treating acts of aggression as sexy and erotic, or as something women secretly desire and enjoy – has serious real-world consequences for women. This new research strengthens our case, demonstrating that the normalisation of this sexualised violence and domination of women has generated a “culturally approved script” for men who kill women.

Sex store Honey Birdette is a prime example of the routinisation of normalising ‘rough sex’ to shift product. The company – which repeatedly ignores the advertising code of ethics – both perpetrates and profits from presenting women as enjoying submission. We believe it is generating a “culturally approved script” for enacting violence against women and must be held to account for doing so.

Real-world consequences of eroticising violence against women

Women and girls are increasingly facing pressure to submit to violent, painful and unwanted sex acts that are normalised in pornography. A 2015 study of anal sex in young heterosexual couples revealed a “climate of coercion”. Some young men pushed their reluctant female partner to have anal sex despite believing it would likely hurt her.

A recent study from Indiana University School of Public Health found that nearly a quarter of women in the US have felt scared during sex, with a number of respondents reporting being unexpectedly choked by their partners.

UK-based campaign We Can’t Consent To This has documented sixty cases where women have been killed by men who have used “rough sex” or BDSM “sex game gone wrong” as a defence. In 45% of cases, this defence resulted in a lighter sentence, an acquittal, or a death not being investigated. This defence relies on the belief that women both consent to and enjoy ‘sex’ acts so violent and extreme that they result in their death.

In The misogyny of the so-called “rough sex” defence, authors Elizabeth Sheehy, Isabel Grant and Lise Gotell write:

Let’s be clear: the so-called “rough sex” defence is not gender neutral. The sex is “rough” for women, not men. “Rough sex” depicted in pornography and in practice is marked by gender asymmetry. It is overwhelmingly women who are on the receiving end of this violence and whose health and very lives are on the line. For example, women are two to four times more likely than men to report having experienced strangulation, a powerful predictor of intimate femicide. Yet with the cultural scripts provided by pornography, aided by liberal feminism’s championing of “sex positivity,” judges and juries can conclude that injuries, and even death, are simply accidental by-products of violent, but consensual, sex.

In a number of the cases documented by We Can’t Consent To This, women were killed by strangulation.


Ad Standards has given the green light to all of these Honey Birdette bondage-themed ads, most displayed to an all ages audience.





Honey Birdette and the eroticisation of violence against women

Honey Birdette claims to “empower” women, but portrayals of women headless, faceless, bound, chained and objectified convey the exact opposite - the sexualised subjugation of women.



From advertising imagery depicting models in BDSM-style lingerie brandishing whips, to sexualised images of women accompanied by words like “Cage” and “Bound”, Honey Birdette advertising not only promotes female submission, it is increasingly suggestive of violence against women.



Honey Birdette present violence and subordination as erotic and desirable, with images of women bound, chained and with collars and leads accompanied by text “blissfully bound” and “cuff me up, baby”.


Profiting from eroticising violence against women

Men’s violence against women is a serious, global problem – one that is fuelled by sexist attitudes and the sexual objectification of women. Yet Honey Birdette is permitted to display sexist and pornified representations of women in the public space, even those that sexualise violence against women.

Honey Birdette’s sexual objectification of women is enabled and endorsed by Ad Standards and corporate leaders of shopping centre companies Property Male Champions of Change. They are all complicit. By allowing the everyday objectification and dehumanisation of women, by justifying it, or turning a blind eye, these corporates are contributing to a culture where women’s object status is considered normal and unremarkable, a culture where men’s violence against women thrives. 

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See also:

Rough sex excuse in women’s deaths is variation of ‘crime of passion’ – study- The Guardian

Collective Shout responds to common pro- Fifty Shades arguments

"Blissfully bound”: Honey Birdette eroticisation of violence harms women

The sexist ads endorsed by Ad Standards

'Disrupting the system': New Male Champions report challenges workplace sexual harassment while Honey Birdette Male Champ landlords perpetuate it

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  • Caitlin Roper
    published this page in News 2020-11-20 16:44:27 +1100

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