Opinion

Monday 17 December 2018

Rugby rape case reveals a tawdry culture where many polished young males see girls only as sluts

The way we investigate rape cases must be changed so more victims come forward, writes Ciara O'Connor

Acquitted of all charges last Wednesday: Stuart Olding
Acquitted of all charges last Wednesday: Stuart Olding
Acquitted of all charges last Wednesday: Blane McIlroy

Ciara O'Connor

I remember when the Welsh footballer Ched Evans was acquitted of rape in 2016 - I remember that it was a Friday, because I remember it was the next night, a Saturday night, that I, half-pissed and alone, was attacked by a taxi driver.

I had been reading the graphic vitriol being spewed about Ched Evans's accuser - the 'lying slut' the 'stupid little slag' who proved that 'drunk girls are cancer'. It was hoped across the internet that she was 'named and shamed and gets her life ruined'. It never crossed my mind to go to the police.

Since Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were acquitted of all charges last Wednesday, hundreds of women will have been sexually assaulted in Ireland. We know this statistically; I know this anecdotally. The vast majority of them won't have gone to the Garda. Regardless of the ins and outs of this particular case, regardless of the non-guilt of Paddy Jackson, hundreds of women have seen what happens when you bring an accusation of rape to court.

You are questioned for eight days in a row. Your blood-stained underwear is passed around to strangers. You are accused of lifting your experiences from things you've read. You are called a whore on the internet and illegally named.

Rightly or wrongly, the case became a test for rape cases generally. We saw ourselves in her story.

The cry of pain and horror that went up around the country in the days after the verdict, the thousands of people who took to the streets in cities all over the country to say 'I believe her', but the bit that a great many of them are not saying is, 'why won't you believe me'.

We heard ourselves in her when she said '"In that situation you don't scream or shout because you are so scared," when she texted her friends to say "I'd report it if I knew they'd get done but they won't. And that's just unnecessary stress for me. It's also humiliating...it will be a case of my word against theirs, not like they have CCTV in their house and because there's more of them and they'll all have the same fabricated story about me being some slut who was up for it, stupid little girl now regretting it". It was us.

Paddy Jackson has been found not guilty of rape. But he is far from innocent: he, along with his drinking buddies and their friends, are guilty of being a nasty piece of work. They're guilty of talking about women as if they were pieces of meat, of lacking the most basic human decency. Theirs is a world in which women 'get' f***ed', they are not active participants. Whatever excuses were given for those WhatsApp messages, it is abundantly clear that Paddy Jackson and co are vile.

Jackson and Olding treated a teenager like a bowl of popcorn to be passed around and sent her home crying, bleeding, and then laughed and boasted and met up for a post-mortem the next day. Whatever the accusation, based on the messages alone, they are not the sort of boys you'd want your daughter socialising with.

Some of the texts circulating between this wide group of men included lines such as: 'she was very very loose', 'any sluts get f****d?', 'there was a lot of spit-roast last night'.

Rape culture as a concept gets a bad rap. It's up there with 'triggering' as the very height of feminist snowflake notions. Some 21pc of Irish people think there are understandable reasons for having sexual intercourse without consent; and 23pc of Irish people believe women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape. They don't, really. This case has shown that there's absolutely nothing in it for them.

Regardless of whether you believe a miscarriage of justice has occurred; regardless of whom you believe; regardless of whether you have any opinion on the verdict at all - one thing that cannot be debated or denied is the anger that this case has caused. That anger means something. That is what we have to deal with now.

The protests are not designed to dismantle the rule of law and plunge Ireland into mob-ruled anarchy, as some people seem to think. People are protesting for better processes for those who proceed with sexual assault complaints. To challenge some judicial workings is not to challenge the whole concept of the law. They are protesting for better education and understanding around consent. They are protesting because they know that a 'not guilty' verdict does not mean that the complainant is a malicious liar and fantasist - and they want to her to know that.

It is possible to respect the process this time, but want to change it for the future. It is possible to believe this without believing that all men are rapists, and that all women are beyond reproach. The accused are entitled to a full and robust defence, and to test the complainant's story. That is inviolable, but there's more than one way to do it.

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre offered alternative models, like those in Spain and Germany, where the prosecution and the complainant bring the case jointly, so the complainant is an equal partner with the state. It gives them more authority, control and better resources. They have access to all the evidence, like the accused, because they are not simply a witness. Basically, our system puts the complainant on the back foot.

Rape cases usually come down to one story versus another story. The jury decides which story is most credible. The accused have full legal teams to help them tell that story in the best way. The accuser has no one. The accuser is open to interrogation over which grammatical person they choose to speak, as was the Belfast complainant.

Blackwell suggests an inquiry that gathers evidence, rather than the 'he-said, she-said' we saw in Belfast. There is an alternative system for cross-examination too, that is used for minors. Investigation happens by a trained interviewer in a neutral, non-scary setting, and the prosecution and defence can watch and put questions forward through the interviewer.

The length of time between a rape being reported, evidence being gathered and sent to the director of public prosecutions for a decision on whether to prosecute and a case going to trial can take up to three years. This is not acceptable. Rape is not like any other crime, it's not a robbery or fraud, and we need to stop pretending it is. The law exists for us as people and it needs to account for our humanity and trauma. Make it faster.

Consent is not just a millennial buzzword. It is no longer possible to pretend we don't need proper education about it. Consent is not an absence of screams - that's what the protesters are saying. We've got to do better.

Because with many of these cases, it is depressingly easy to believe her and also kind of believe him - when consent is so poorly understood, it's possible to believe that what a woman knew to be rape, the man genuinely thought to be good fun.

It is a fact that the woman was left with a tear inside her vagina, that a taxi driver saw her bleeding through her jeans. It is a fact that she was upset, even 'hysterical', 'inconsolable', leaving the house.

A sexual encounter that leaves one party bleeding and crying has not been a good sexual encounter. A sexual encounter that is described the next day as 'like a merry-go-round at the carnival' is not a good sexual encounter. An encounter that has her friend texting her to ask if she is feeling better the next day is not a good one. The behaviour they described and the way they talked to each other is appalling. It's wrong.

This language was explained away as bravado, and yet the complainant's language in cross-examination was on trial. I think we are turned off by any kind of language that alludes to larger structures at work. The worst crime you can commit in these things is being a smart-ass, over-intellectualising, showing off how many books you've read at college. But it's disingenuous to expect sexual assault victims to see their experience in a bubble, to say 'just you', 'just this instance', 'just this case'. Because once it happens to you, the proof of the political, social nature of it is everywhere. It's undeniable.

The Belfast complainant got some people's backs up. She seemed to have an agenda. She said: "The more I thought about it, rape is a game of power and control. They rely on your silence. The only way you take the power back is when you actually do something about it. I may be preventing it happening to someone else."

She spoke like an activist. She was too eloquent. Would she have been more believable, more pitiable, if her grammar had been worse, her turn of phrase more clumsy? Would she have been more sympathetic if she had pretended not to understand the larger system in which her accusation was operating?

She disrupted our notion of what a rape survivor should be like - a frail and broken shell, a pale trembling girl in a movie, rocking back and forth.

And she was clever. She used words like 'insinuating' and 'constituted' to the middle-aged Queen's Counsel. And clever girls don't drink with rugby lads and go into their bedrooms.

When she was explaining an inconsistency in her story from that first day when she visited the doctor, the woman said she was still trying to process what had happened. "You go into shutdown, it's incredibly hard to state what happened until you've actually processed it."

Arthur Harvey, QC for Blane McIlroy, asked why she used the impersonal "you" in this statement. "You've said this before. It's almost as if you're repeating something you've read rather than your personal experience."

This isn't whiney millennials throwing their toys out because they didn't like a verdict. I do not believe there would have been parties in the streets had a 'guilty' plea come back. There would have been little to celebrate, after what that woman had been through. The anger started well before a verdict was returned. I trust the jury.

I remember, before Paddy Jackson and before Ched Evans, when a nice well-educated middle-class rugby lad tried to rape me at a party in his house. I remember freezing. I remember not screaming, thinking of all his friends in the house. I remember thinking of all the life-long friends who would queue up to say he would never do that, of the small acts of kindness he had performed for others that would make what he tried to do to me seem so unlikely. I remember my sudden jerk into action, just in time.

Rightly or wrongly, I'm sick and sad, but mostly I'm furious. I've been so very angry - not at the verdict, but at the whole thing. At the process. At the fact that a girl was left with a laceration inside her vagina in the first place.

Paddy Jackson is not guilty of raping that teenager. But he left her crying and bleeding - that is a fact - and I, along with hundreds of thousands of Irish people, am stunned and moved by her tenacity and strength in going through the trauma of the legal process. It was more than I did.

Please God, something begins to change now, so that it won't be more than the next girl does.

As for Paddy Jackson and his buddies, the undisputed facts of the case are enough to end their careers. "There was a lot of spit-roast last night". They're not guilty, but I hope it haunts them.

Sunday Independent

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