Long Reads

“Why I stand with the unnamed woman at the centre of the Ulster rape trial”

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Sarah Arnold
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As Paddy Jackson apologises for his treatment of the woman at the centre of the Ulster rugby trial, freelance writer Sarah Arnold explains why she stands firmly with her.

The not guilty verdict of the recent rape trial in Northern Ireland involving two international rugby stars has led headlines for the week since. Everyone has a strong opinion on the trial, and on how these boys have treated women generally.

The #IBelieveHer movement that swept across Ireland shows many women will no longer stand for what society sees as the norm, which is the treatment of women as second-class citizens.

I look back to (ancient) times when women were unable to stand as a witness in court unless there was a man to corroborate her story. Isn’t it great how times have changed for the better?

Oh, wait…

In this case, the complainant spent nine weeks watching as her blood-stained clothes were passed among jurors. She was cross-examined on the most personal aspects of her life. She received questions about her alcohol intake and because she had spent time with the Northern Ireland football team, asked whether she was obsessed with celebrity culture.

On the other hand, when the four defendants took to the stand, they were able to discuss their hobbies, which included rapping and sketching superheroes. It didn’t add up.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding outside of court

But why are women treated differently on the stand? The complainant says she suffered what is one of the worst incidents that can happen to a woman.

And it isn’t that uncommon.

In England and Wales, it is estimated that 85,000 women are raped each year, along with 11,000 men. In addition, half a million people are sexually assaulted every year.

Four thousand people make calls to Rape Crisis every week: of these, 93% are female. Estimates show that between 5% and 15% of rapes are reported to the police. Some say it’s crazy that so few people report being raped, but why would they, when neither the system nor society believe them?

The reasons behind rape culture are buried deep within the patriarchal system that has existed almost since the beginning of time. For as long as anyone can remember, the wants and needs of men have been prioritised. As women, we have been taught to see our needs as secondary compared with the men in our lives. This unhealthy mindset has been passed from generation to generation and although it’s being slowly weeded out, it is still there.

Even among females, our subconscious thoughts lead us to question whether another woman did anything to aid her rape. Had she been drinking? Was she wearing something revealing? Did she lead on her rapist?

These are questions that inevitably arise any time there is a trial or discussion of this nature. Many people won’t report a sex crime because they blame themselves for getting into the situation.

In this case, the complainant took an incredibly brave stand by reporting her attackers to the police and taking them to court, but the legal system in our country isn’t there to support women. The burden is on the complainant to prove that she didn’t give consent, rather than on the defendants to prove there was any form of consent.

Frank O’Donoghue, the barrister for Stuart Olding, made some disgusting comments when he was cross examining the complainant.

“Why didn’t she scream? A lot of very middle class girls were downstairs, they were not going to tolerate rape or anything like that. Why didn’t she scream the house down?”

I’ll tell you why. Having your body attacked in such a way is one of the most horrific ordeals a woman can go through. To be invaded in the most intimate of ways is cruel, and when you are no match physically for your attacker, it’s easier to not fight. It’s easier to give in, to submit, to switch off and pray your ordeal is over soon.

“Many people won’t report a sex crime because they blame themselves.”

I know, because that’s how I dealt with it when I’ve been attacked. By men who claimed to love and care for me. I found it easier to submit, to stop fighting, to zone out and look at the ceiling or cry into a pillow.

I never once considered making a report on any attack on me. The thought didn’t cross my mind. I understood that the burden to prove consent wasn’t given was down to me. I was all too aware that, as with most rape cases, there was an element of “he said, she said”. It would be my word against his.

I’d be the person suffering the gruelling questions about whether or not I was sober, and being grilled about my previous sexual history. The person I’d be accusing wouldn’t have these questions put to him. I’d be cross examined and asked why I put myself in a situation where this could happen, or what I did to lead my attacker on.

I know the drill – it’s how every rape trial goes down. But my experiences aren’t unique. Quite the contrary. A close friend of mine was attacked by two different men when she had been drinking.

“Reporting it never even entered my mind,” she tells me. “I knew deep down that something was wrong but because I was so normalised to the notion of people getting blackout drunk and having sex, I just blamed myself.”

When she did tell a family member about what happened she was told “it was my own fault for how drunk I was. It drove home all the things I had thought before – that I was to blame and not the men.”

As women, it’s programmed into us to blame ourselves rather than men, and to take responsibility for their actions. Sex and relationships education at school was always an interesting class. I remember being told that, as females, if we dress inappropriately, it will lead to men doing things to us. Now, we are told that being drunk leads men to do things to us. We are told that flirting with men leads them to do things to us.

We live in a culture in which women are blamed if they are raped, or told they could have done more to stop their assailants. Boys aren’t taught to ask for consent – they’re not told to stop if a girl is drunk or incapable of sex. They’re not told that if their wife or girlfriend says she doesn’t want sex, they need to stop – that they don’t own the right to that woman’s body at any time they please.

They’re not taught to respect women.

“We live in a culture in which women are blamed if they are raped.”

In addition, many males also play along with ‘lad culture’, joining in on degrading discussions about women. All four defendants in the recent trial attended a ‘rugby school’, in which girls are encouraged to adore the boys who are good at sport.

The boys would have been placed on a pedestal at school and treated like royalty in comparison with their classmates. Their talent at certain sports means they could have received special coaching, additional tutoring and even a special diet.

When I was at school, I sometimes travelled to other parts of the country to support the rugby team, especially when they were successful. But when the girls team became the best in the country, were the boys there to celebrate with them? Not really.

The achievements of the boys were seen as much better than anything the girls could muster. This imbalance may start in school, but it carries on through all aspects of our lives.

In turn, this means many women do not fully give themselves the respect that they deserve. It’s why many women may not think they have been taken advantage of in certain situations. So many women don’t realise that their happiness and pleasure is as important as that of all men.

Men need to put a stop to the toxic side of masculinity. If they see a peer treating or talking about a female poorly, they need to call that out. They need to know that it is not acceptable and that it should never have been acceptable.

This dangerous masculinity came more to the forefront when the solicitors for Paddy Jackson said they would consider suing anyone who mentioned #IBelieveHer. The response on Twitter was tremendous. The hashtag picked up and even #SueMePaddy began trending, with many tweets that brought hope (and hilarity) to this situation.

Men have a big part to play, but we women can do so much as well.

We have been viewed as second class, and this needs to stop. We need to realise our value. Realise that we are on par with any man. We need to understand that our wants and needs are as important.

And when a friend tells you she has been raped or sexually assaulted, we need to listen and support her. Most importantly, we need to show her that we believe her.

Images: Getty, iStock