Julie Bindel

Women don’t ‘consent’ to their own deaths

Women don't 'consent' to their own deaths
A family photo of Sophie Moss
Text settings

A ruling by the Court of Appeal last week has further enshrined the notion that women can consent to their own death if the man responsible puts forward a defence that she died during ‘rough sex gone wrong’.

In February this year, Sophie Moss, an extremely vulnerable woman suffering from a range of mental and physical health problems, was choked to death during sex by Sam Pybus. Although some press reports described the pair as ‘lovers’ there was nothing romantic about the relationship between the two. Pybus would occasionally visit Moss for sex, leaving his wife Louise Howitt asleep. There were no illicit candlelit dinners, no walks in the park, just sex with a woman often so drunk when Pybus turned up at her door that she would have been incapable of speech.

The night she died, Pybus had drunk two dozen bottles of larger before driving the six miles to her home. Had he knocked over and killed a pedestrian during that journey he would likely have been given a longer prison sentence than the four years eight months handed down by the judge. After all, no court in the land would accept that a person would consent to being run over by a car, but apparently, some women do ‘ask for it’ when it comes to being strangled to death.

Pybus’s sentence for manslaughter was reviewed after the Attorney General agreed that the sentence may be unduly lenient. But the court rejected the appeal as well as a joint application by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) and We Can’t Consent to This (WCCTT) to intervene on a public interest basis. Pybus was sent back to prison to serve the rest of his derisory sentence, of which he will serve approximately half.

WCCTT says they are ‘horrified’ that the court accepted Pybus’ claim that Moss had consented and was a willing participant in what was described during the Appeal hearing as a ‘risky sexual practice’.

In evidence submitted to and rejected by the Court of Appeal, WCCTT identified that claims of ‘rough sex’ in order to explain violence against women — both non-fatal assaults and homicides — were being made in an increasing number of criminal cases. Often these claims are successful. In particular, strangulation was a feature of the majority of ‘rough sex’ homicides, at a rate three times that of femicides as a whole. 

Strangulation of women in sex has become increasingly normalised, probably because it features so widely in easy to access pornography. Research has shown that 38 per cent of women under 40 have experienced violent assault in sex: particularly strangulation. These claims that women enjoy strangulation during sex has resulted in men who have admitted extremely serious violence receiving lighter sentences, lesser charges, or in some cases no charge at all. 

In 2020, following a cross-party campaign, the ‘rough sex defence’ was abolished as part of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, making it clear that consent to sexual gratification is no defence to serious harm. But nevertheless, Pybus’account was considered so plausible by the CPS that he did not even go to trial.

As the criminologist Jane Monckton Smith has explained in her book on domestic homicide, non-fatal strangulation is frequently used by men as a tool to exert power, control women and instil fear. It sends the message that ‘if you do not comply this is how easily I can kill you'. As a result the victim often becomes compliant and passive towards the perpetrator. Pybus's ex-wife Louise Howitt tells me that she feels, ‘incredibly upset and disappointed that our campaigning for Sophie did not result in an increase in my ex-husband’s sentence. This is a huge injustice for Sophie and her family. I am heartbroken for them.’

Howitt is determined to continue the fight to absolve Sophie of blame for her own death and to prevent the same from happening to other women. When arrested, Pybus told police that ‘his hands were hurting’ as a result of him strangling Moss. He left her either dead or dying in bed whilst he sat in his car outside the flat, wondering what he should do. He did not call an ambulance. That his ex-wife has chosen to go public with intimate details of her relationship with Pybus should have convinced the court that a jury needed to hear the evidence before deciding whether his actions amounted to murder or manslaughter. But it would seem that, according to man-made law, some women’s lives are deemed worthless.