The rise of “choking”

‘When the musician Andy Anokye was accused of assaulting a number of women—committing acts that included strangling them, waterboarding them, and holding a gun to one woman’s head—he offered a simple explanation for his behaviour: it turned him on’

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Andy Anokye performing in 2016: in March this year, he was convicted of 21 rapes, after claiming that his accusers consented to various acts of violence he inflicted. He will serve at least 24 years in prison (© Ollie Millington/Redferns)

When the musician Andy Anokye (he performed under the name Solo 45) was accused of assaulting a number of women—committing acts that included strangling them, waterboarding them, holding a gun to one woman’s head, and a cloth soaked in bleach to the face of another—he offered a simple explanation for his behaviour: it turned him on. Anokye told Bristol Crown Court that he was interested in dacryphilia, a fetish for terrified sobbing, which had motivated him to seek out victims to sexually terrorise. Anokye’s defence team claimed that the five women who gave evidence against him had all consented to the acts of violence he inflicted, but—thankfully—the jury were not convinced by this narrative. In March, he was unanimously convicted of 21 rapes, five counts of false imprisonment, two counts of assault by penetration, and two of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. He will serve at least 24 years in prison.

Anokye is not alone in attempting the so-called “rough sex” defence. I work for We Can’t Consent To This, a campaign group that documents cases in which defendants facing charges of homicide or non-sexual assault claim that their victims consented to violence as part of “rough sex”. We have found that the use of this defence tactic has become increasingly common within the last few decades and it is also increasingly likely to meet with success.

In July, the Domestic Abuse Bill was revised by the government to include a clause making clear that “consent for sexual gratification” cannot be relied upon as a defence in cases of serious injury or death. Case law from 1994 had already made clear that any injury that was more than “transient and trifling” could not be legally consented to, but the We Can’t Consent To This campaign found evidence that this case law was not being consistently applied, and that statutory provision was therefore essential.

A further amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, still being considered, is designed to address a form of violence that is all too often dismissed as “transient and trifling”, despite its terrifying effects: non-fatal  strangulation. According to the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), although Crown Prosecution Service guidance “indicates that non-fatal strangulation and suffocation offences should result in a [more serious] charge of ABH rather than common assault
. . . in our experience this does not take place in a great many cases”. Most cases of non-fatal strangulation, if they are prosecuted at all, are prosecuted only as common assault, and punished lightly with a maximum sentence of only six months imprisonment. The amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill therefore proposes a separate offence of non-fatal strangulation, carrying a more severe punishment.

There are two reasons to consider non-fatal strangulation as a unique form of violence. The first is its unusual effect on the body. Dr Helen Bichard, a clinician at the North Wales Brain Injury Service, has recently published an alarming study on the range of injuries caused by non-fatal strangulation, which can include cardiac arrest, stroke, miscarriage, incontinence, speech disorders, seizures, paralysis, and other forms of long-term brain injury. Dr Bichard tells me that the injuries caused by non-fatal strangulation may not be visible to the naked eye, or may only become evident hours or days after the attack, meaning that they are far less obvious than injuries like wounds or broken bones, and so may be missed during a police investigation.

The second factor that differentiates non-fatal strangulation from other forms of violence is the startlingly gendered nature of the crime. Strangulation is overwhelmingly committed by men against women, and only very rarely by women against men. One study in San Diego found that, of 300 forensic records reporting strangulation, 298 involved a man strangling a woman.

Non-fatal strangulation is very often suffered by victims of domestic violence. The UK charity Refuge reports that 48 per cent of women using their services report having been strangled, choked, or suffocated, and women who have previously been strangled by their partners are eight times more likely to be killed by them. The CWJ, along with other feminist campaigners, hope that if the UK were to follow the lead of countries like New Zealand and introduce a separate offence of non-fatal strangulation, there could be an increase in the number of prosecutions, harsher sentences, and a greater awareness of the harms of this form of violence, particularly within the criminal justice system.

But one group pushing back against this effort is, somewhat surprisingly, a sub-section of feminist women. Specifically, “sex positive” feminists who argue that, although non-fatal strangulation may be a form of violent abuse for some, for others it can be a source of sexual excitement. Last month, Men’s Health magazine ran a feature titled “Breath Play Is a Popular Form of BDSM. Here’s How to Do It Safely”, which was criticised by several prominent feminists, including Laura Farris MP, a key actor in the campaign against the “rough sex” defence within Parliament. Farris was met with a huge backlash on Twitter, largely from young women who insisted that consensual strangulation or “choking” can be a harmless form of kink. Gigi Engle, for instance, a sex writer for Men’s Health, tweeted “Nope. Laura, sweetie, choking can be a very fun Sex act when done safely and consenually [sic].”

There’s no doubt that, within the last several decades, strangulation or “choking” has been normalised to the point that,  particularly among young people, it is now widely considered to be an expected part of sex. Research conducted by ComRes in 2019 found that over half of 18-to-24-year-old UK women reported having been strangled by their partners during sex, compared with 23 per cent of women in the oldest age group surveyed, aged 35 to 39. Many of these respondents reported that this experience had been unwanted and frightening, but others reported that they had consented to it, or even invited it. This point is emphasised by “sex positive” feminists such as Engle: yes, it can be a form of abuse, or even murder, but it can also be a “very fun Sex act”.

It’s a claim that Dr Bichard rejects on medical grounds, describing the idea that strangulation can ever be done safely as an “urban myth”. “I cannot see a way of safely holding a neck so that you wouldn’t be pressing on any fragile structures,” she tells me. And, given the possible consequences of non-fatal strangulation, until recently only partially understood, Dr Bichard argues that the vast majority of laypeople are not capable of giving truly informed consent to it.

Jessica Masterson, a Philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, is also sceptical about the idea that consent negates the harm of strangulation. Masterson’s research is focused on the ethics of consent to BDSM, and she tells me that the influence of porn has an important role to play in the normalisation of strangulation:

The image of peak desirability has shifted through pornification, with the emphasis now being on the emulation of porn trends . . . The porn industry is a competitive market, and every producer or production company wants to have an edge on the competition—this is being achieved by being the most extreme, the most graphic, the most violent.

This is the context within which young women are coming of age, and many are influenced by the ubiquity in porn of sadistic painful sex that includes strangulation, and the ability to endure, and even enjoy, this kind of sex is now, as Masterson describes it, “an integral element of the female sexual ideal”.

This is also the context in which Andy Anokye perpetrated his crimes. During their investigation, detectives used video discovered on Anokye’s phone to track down other women who had been subjected to his violence. Several of these women gave evidence for the prosecution, but one did not. Detectives described the videos featuring this woman as “violent” and “brutal”, but she rejected that characterisation, telling the court, as a witness for the defence, “it wasn’t a rape—I consented to this behaviour and the activity”. Other women interpreted their experiences differently, with one victim insisting that Anokye’s abuse had been so bad that at one point she had “wanted to die”.

Many “sex positive” feminists would have us believe that what matters is not what Anokye did, but what his partners wanted. The fact that one of the women who experienced his “violent” and “brutal” behaviour consented to what was done is, according to this argument, enough to make it right. On that basis, they would also insist that any law against non-fatal strangulation must permit consent as a defence.

But do we really want to leave this defence tactic available for the perpetrators of a crime committed against almost half of domestic violence victims? Strangulation typically takes place in private, almost always committed by a man against his female partner. If she later insists that she did not consent, no witness can back her up. It is her word against his. And, in a culture in which strangulation is widely regarded as a “very fun Sex act”, it is not difficult to imagine what the court’s verdict would be. If “sex positive” feminists won the day, we could see a situation in which non-fatal strangulation cases were no longer rarely prosecuted, but instead never prosecuted. And men just as dangerous and sadistic as Andy Anokye might therefore walk free.