Long Reads

Grace Millane’s murder exposed a disturbing trend for putting women’s sex lives on trial

The reporting around Grace Millane’s death put her sex life on trial – rather than her killer. The way her death was reported should shame us all.

In the summer of 2015 I spent three months travelling around New Zealand, alone. I was single, had bought a bike and was cycling around the two islands, visiting my family, swimming, eating ice cream and, of course, having sex with people I’d just met and hardly knew.

I met a man who had climbed up a volcano in a Hawaiian shirt; I went up north to stay in a beach hut with a man who went spearfishing at the weekends; I went home with a man who happened to have once spent a year in England attending my upper school; I drank white wine and ordered room service while visiting an older man in his hotel room. I had a wonderful time.

That is not luck; that is my right. Young women have the right to have sex and to have adventures without fear for their safety or their life.

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So, it is with horror and repulsion I now realise that, had I died while having sex with one of those near-strangers, the weight of the British media might well have circled my corpse. They might have breathlessly picked over the most salacious details of my sex life and appetite, while barely even bothering to question the evidence of the man I’d died beside. 

Grace Millane's father at a press conference in New Zealand.
Grace Millane's father at a press conference in New Zealand.

The tabloids may have printed photos of me pulled from Instagram, CCTV stills of me standing in a lift, a picture of the patch of earth where my body had been discovered, perhaps even my graduation photo. They may have printed these under the sort of headlines, captions and stand firsts that practically salivate over the details of how, and with whom, I choose to have sex.

The message is clear: die as a young woman away from home and it may well be your sex life that overshadows your whole life.

The death of Grace Millane is, of course, awful. She is somebody’s child; as a baby she was held and winded and had her nose wiped. She had friends, she went to school, she probably went to recorder lessons and had framed photos on her windowsill. She also had a body that she used to travel, to have new experiences, to find pleasure. I am truly sorry for her loved ones that she is no longer here. I really hope that they can one day find some solace, some sense of justice and some comfort.

But, as a journalist and a woman who has travelled and had sex, I am also angry. I am angry that the British media is once again pushing their noses down the grubby seam of someone’s sex life, instead of using their language and their power to remind us of that person’s humanity. That they plaster the internet with words like ‘sex games’ and ‘naive’ and ‘kinky’ instead of forcing us to remember that we all have a private life, that we all deserve respect, that we can all fall victim to pain and fear and death, and that we all deserve justice and truth and honour. I am also furious that once again, a young female body is being blamed for the acts that are wrought upon it, rather than interrogating the person who committed those acts.

A vigil is held for Grace Millane.
A vigil is held for Grace Millane shortly after her murder.

Innocence is a state of law, before it is an expression of sexual experience. We are all innocent until proven otherwise. But when someone is choked, their body is forced into a suitcase and then buried, they are not just innocent but also deserving of our sympathy and grief. This is what happened to Grace Millane. 

The 27-year-old man who killed her has now been convicted of her murder. This man had sex with Grace, failed to call the emergency services when she died, and tried to hide her body, yet he has had his identity protected and still cannot be named in the press. I only wish that such respect, such privacy, had been afforded to the woman who died at his hands.

When I read this story I, of course, asked myself: could that have happened to me? Has the choreography of porn become so ubiquitous and unquestioned among young people, that what was once considered dangerous is now expected? How much control do we really have over our safety? Are young people with particular sexual appetites more readily seen as vulnerable by those who may seek to cause harm? Has the commodification of the female body under capitalism caused us to see women’s necks, legs, vulvas, anuses, mouths and breasts as objects of sexual pleasure, rather than the physical evidence that they are people, just like you and me? Is a single woman travelling in a new country really taking a greater risk than a man? For some people, is sex just a disguise covering a true hunger for violence? And do we, the reading public, really find it so hard to pick apart the two?

These questions cannot, of course, bring a young woman back to life. They cannot force the truth to the surface, and nor can they bury a family’s pain. I wish this story didn’t exist to write about. I wish it had never happened. I do not know how to make it better. But I do know that when somebody dies, we should search for more than just titillation. I do know that the way this young woman’s death has been reported should shame us all.

This article was originally published on 20 November 2019

Images: Getty