If you say no, you're a prude. If you say yes, you're a slut. If you like bondage and choking, you're to blame for your own death. Kirsty Johnston reports on what the Grace Millane trial tells us about a world awash in prejudice.
In the first week of the Grace Millane murder trial, my friend came to me and said "I never want you to go on Tinder again."
She had been reporting on the opening arguments in the case from the High Court at Auckland, sitting just metres from the accused. She was disturbed not only by his behaviour - how he killed Grace and then calmly stuffed her body in a suitcase and buried her - but that they met on a dating app, the same one we'd both used. Their date and Grace's death had happened just down the road from my office. It was so close.
But even worse, my friend said, was that the man felt unnervingly familiar. "You know the type, hyper masculine, staunch. Lies about things like his past or his job to sound cooler than he is," she said. "Everyone knows a guy like that, a loser."
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The next week I went to court to see for myself. He was exactly like she'd said. The type of man who if he approached you in a pub, your friends would immediately intervene or make excuses to leave. The type of man I'd never date, I said. Never. There were so many red flags - the overly-familiar touching, the bravado, the macho walk. It was so sad, I said, that Grace hadn't yet learned to read those signs. That she went home with him on the first date. I mean, I'd done it, I said. But I was 10 years older. I knew better.
Almost immediately, I began to feel ashamed. How had I so quickly moved to blame Grace for what happened? Automatically, I had bought into the narrative that women are taught to believe from birth: You must be careful. Your safety is your responsibility. And if something bad happens, it is your fault.
I had stupidly hoped that in 2019, in the #metoo era, and particularly after writing so many stories about sexual violence, I would have trained myself to avoid the trap.
But if Grace's death can teach us anything, it's that the false, damaging societal prejudices about women and sex - usually termed rape myths - are still ingrained deeply in our minds.
Lawyers for the defence both fed into and fed off these myths while making it's case that the death was not murder but an accident, consensual sex gone wrong.
In his opening, for example, lawyer Ron Mansfield said the trial was not about "blame and shame". Grace was a "loving, bright, engaging, intelligent and well-liked woman," Mansfield said. "I want to be very clear that no one is trying to shame Ms Millane or her family."
He then proceeded to bring forward witnesses designed to both blame and shame, all while trying to normalise the behaviour of the accused.
The defence first brought up how much alcohol Grace drank. Next they moved on to her sexual history, her dating behaviour, her willingness to engage in bondage and choking, her alleged penchant for BDSM.
They called multiple prior sexual partners, including one who seemed to have no bearing on the case. He could barely remember their encounter. It did little but remind the jury that Grace regularly had sex.
It is the oldest trick in the book, little more than a more sophisticated version of the argument: "She wanted it, your honour. Look what she was wearing." But in this case - not a rape trial but a homicide - where does that argument end up? The defence appeared to want us to accept that in consenting to choking, Grace had consented to her death. Worse, that it was her fault.
For years, feminists have argued that no matter what women do in relation to sex, it will be used against them. If you say no, you're a prude. If you say yes, you're a slut. Even the newfound sexual freedom of the 1970s was but a brief respite from the usual narrative.
To quote Guardian columnist Van Badham, in the intervening decades, sexual empowerment has instead been reframed by patriarchy as "sexual availability for men". Our liberation, their gratification.
And so with Grace. She liked choking, the defence said. She'd done it before, so she must have sought to do it again. She wanted it, your honour. In the ultimate expression of rape culture, her sexual liberation - something that should have been powerful, beautiful - was instead twisted and used by the defence to gaslight her in her grave.
The danger of being a woman
Ten years ago, there was another trial about the death of a young woman, killed by a man, which felt just like this one.
Sophie Elliot, 22, was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend Clayton Weatherston just as she was about to move cities and start a new life. Weatherston, a narcissist, argued Sophie had "provoked" him into killing her, allowing the defence to, effectively, put Sophie's character on trial.
The case resonates for two reasons. One, it has also felt like Grace - not the accused - was the one on trial. Her personal life has been exploited, her motivations questioned, her most intimate moments spilled to the court. Secondly, the Elliot case also showed a fundamental misunderstanding by a patriarchal society about the way in which women run their lives.
During the trial over Sophie's death, the defence questioned, why, if Weatherston treated Sophie so badly, did she continue to stay with him? And, by painting her as undermining and nasty, they implied she somehow played a part in her own murder.
In reality, Sophie died because she said "no". She broke up with Weatherston, rejected him. As Sophie's mother went on to teach thousands of students in the years after her daughter's death, that point of rejection is the most dangerous time in a relationship - where a huge proportion of domestic or sexual violence occurs. It is a danger that most women, instinctively, understand - but one that men appear oblivious to.
In the Millane case, the key witness for the Crown was a young women who also went on a date with the accused. She told how while she was giving the accused oral sex, he climbed on top of her. He held her forearms down with his hands, and when he couldn't get his penis in her mouth, instead suffocated her with his body weight, sitting on her face.
"I couldn't breathe. I started kicking ... kicking violently ... he would have felt me fighting against his arms," she told the court. The ordeal lasted for close to a minute, and the women believed she would die. Afterwards, the accused had acted like nothing bad had happened, she said. The woman, shaken and upset, didn't want to see the accused again, but kept text messaging him anyway. She said she was scared of him, and if she rejected him wholesale she was worried what might happen.
The defence argued that the fact she kept messaging meant she was lying. It was inconceivable that she wouldn't cut him off altogether, they said. Watching the exchange, I wanted to scream. Every woman I've spoken to inherently understood that woman's actions, in the same way we understand why other women don't go out alone at night, why we carry keys in our hands in dark car parks, why we have secret signals to let bartenders know we are in trouble.
We know there's a need to let men down gently, to keep them at arm's length. In part, it is the way we are socialised, to soothe and serve the male ego. But also, it's about safety. Sexual violence expert Professor Nicola Gavey, who attended the trial, described the woman's behaviour as "a form of self defence".
It was but one example in a trial that frequently felt similar to watching aliens make sense of mankind. The understandable actions of young women were repeatedly twisted through a masculine lens until they looked insidious, suspicious. Grace's sexual behaviour had to be explained and justified to meet some invisible criteria from this same audience. It was, at the heart of it, unjust. Grace's motivations didn't need to meet male standards. Her motivations - to enjoy herself - were pure.
If only we cared more about consent
What about the motivations of the accused?
At best they were purely selfish. But if we believe that, then we are being asked to believe that the accused was so caught up in his own gratification, he didn't notice Grace was dying. How is it plausible that someone wouldn't notice their sexual partner was unconscious, let alone dead?
As researcher Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw said this week, that is based on an unscientific idea of sex that says, "men can't control themselves when aroused". It's the same idea that says, men inappropriately touch women because they "can't help themselves", or that if men have an erection they have to have sex because otherwise it's painful. It is yet another rape myth perpetuated to excuse the accused's behaviour.
At worst, you could argue that the murderer's motivations were worse than selfish. He was obsessed with dominance as much as he was obsessed with porn and sex. As the witness who was previously suffocated said, there was no way he couldn't have known what he was doing. Pathologists argued it could have taken up to 10 minutes for Grace to die. The accused, though a compulsive liar, is not a stupid person. It is unfeasible that even if drunk he was ignorant to Grace's plight.
Those should have been the facts that mattered - not Grace's sexual history, not his whimpering excuses that he "panicked". The most salient point is that he put his hands around Grace's neck and squeezed until she was dead. But under our system, a woman's sexual history is still considered relevant - and despite pending changes to sexual assault trials - it will continue to be relevant next time a woman is murdered.
In terms of the accused, more weight was put on his behaviour after the fact. He Googled violent pornography. He interfered with Grace's body so he could take photos of her. As prosecutor Brian Dickey said "he eroticised her death". It is sick, disgusting behaviour, bordering on sociopathic.
But it is also a convenient distraction. The matching narrative to the "women must keep themselves safe" myth is that when they do get hurt, the perpetrators are always "monsters". We tell ourselves that it's only the fault of individual men, and the way to change things is to lock them up.
But the accused is not a monster. He is just an extreme version of the type of man who doesn't understand consent and doesn't care. He's not an anomaly, he's on a continuum, albeit at the most toxic end.
That is why this case has struck such a chord with women. That's why the accused feels so familiar. We've all been on dates with guys like him, gone home with guys like him, we've all had sexual experiences - or our friends have - where we felt hurt or used or afraid.
That kind of terrible sexual behaviour is everywhere. During the trial, a male witness for the defence provided yet another example of neither knowing nor caring about consent. He said he often choked women during sex. Did he ask them first, the prosecution questioned. "No".
The most important message we can take from this trial is that we could save lives if we cared more about consent.
Think about this: What would have happened if the first victim had felt comfortable enough to report her experience to police? Would have the accused already have been locked up? Would his escalating pattern of behaviour have ceased, if he got a warning and some education?
Now think about why she didn't go to the police. We know that only six percent of sexual assault cases get convictions. We know that women are frequently told their rapes are "too hard" to prove. We know that even those working in the area of sexual violence say they would be reluctant to encourage friends or family to go through the court system.
What message can we take from that? To me, it says, we care so little about the lives of women that we can't be bothered to make the changes we desperately need. That in the 10 years since Sophie Elliot died, during which her heatbroken mother endlessly travelled the country educating young people about healthy relationships and sex, we have learned nothing.
We still live in a society that doesn't understand or value consent, to the point we can blame a young woman for her own death. Despite the guilty verdict, we have been reminded: Women are still expendable. Disposable. Second best.
Rest in peace, Grace
One night after court, a friend and I went for drinks in Auckland's centre city. We talked about Grace, about her life. We sat at a bar across from the Mexican cafe, with its twinkling coloured lights, one of the places Grace went for cocktails with the accused. It was a beautiful, warm evening, just like when Grace went on her date.
We said, how would she have felt, on that last night? She was a young woman with everything in front of her. She was excited, drunk, happy. We said to each other "this is what she would have been doing if she was still here. This is what she should have been doing."
As I said goodbye to my friend, I stood in the SkyCity courtyard for a moment, where Grace first met the accused, and shut my eyes. I wished she was there.