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“Why #IBelieveHer is the only positive to be found in the Ulster rape verdict”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Male codes of silence may frequently win out in cases such as the Ulster rape case – but, this time, there’s one big difference.

The Ulster rape trial opened on 30 January, with the prosecutor Toby Hedworth telling jurors that the case involved “a young woman going to an after party with other females at the home of a well-known sportsman, Patrick Jackson, the first defendant…

“The night ended, we say, with the first two defendants [Jackson and Stuart Olding] engaging in sexual activity with a young woman against her wishes. The third defendant, Blane McIlroy, was hoping to join in.”

Over the following nine weeks, Hedworth attempted to prove that Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were guilty of raping a female student at a house party two years ago.

Jackson allegedly pushed the woman down on his bed and vaginally raped and digitally penetrated her, said Heworth, before Olding allegedly walked into the room where the woman was forced to perform a sex act on him. Blane McIlroy then allegedly entered through the bedroom door, naked and holding his penis, triggering the woman’s “fight instinct” and prompting her to run out of the room.

It was at this point, claimed the prosecution, that Rory Harrison “tried to cover up or manage” the woman, and took her home in a taxi – a fact which was seemingly corroborated by the taxi driver’s testimony.

“The young woman definitely seemed very upset,” he told the court.

“She was crying/sobbing throughout the journey. She did not really talk very much at all, bar telling me where she needed to go.”

Of Harrison, the taxi driver said that the rugby player had been “trying to comfort” the woman, before talking in “code” on the phone.

“I recall him saying to the person on the phone, ‘She is with me now. She is not good. I’ll call you in the morning’,” added the driver.

The complainant later arranged to get the morning after pill because, she said, she did not know if a condom was used during the alleged assault.

She also underwent a forensic medical examination and, ultimately, decided to go to the police.

However, the defence had a different story – one which fell upon that tired old “boys will be boys” narrative. They claimed that the woman at the centre of the case had made a false allegation of rape because she regretted consenting to group sex and feared that she may have been filmed, with the images then potentially ending up being posted on social media.

And, when Jackson took the stand, he alleged that the woman had followed him to his bedroom on two separate occasions for consensual sexual activity. Indeed, he repeatedly denied he had forced the girl to perform sex acts against her will.

Finally, on Wednesday 28 March, a verdict was delivered. After deliberating the case for three hours and 45 minutes, the jury of eight men and three women unanimously cleared Jackson and Olding of rape.

McIlroy and Harrison were also, similarly, found not guilty – McIlroy of exposure, and Harrison of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

However, as stylist.co.uk’s Elle Griffiths previously pointed out, while the men denied any charges of rape, there were some facts that were never disputed by either legal team throughout the trial.

“The complainant, a teenager at the time, left the party in hysterical tears, bleeding profusely after a sexual encounter with two of the men,” points out Griffiths.

“A subsequent medical examination discovered her to have a tear in her vagina. The men exchanged joking messages in a WhatsApp group the next day, referring to her as ‘loose’ and a ‘slut’, while commending themselves for being ‘top shaggers’ and remarking that whatever happened that night was like ‘a merry-go-round at a carnival’.”

In sharp contrast to these jovial messages, though, comes those sent between the young woman and her friends in the hours after the alleged attack.

“Thing is I would report it if I knew they would get done. But they won’t,” one of the messages read, as reported by Irish News.

“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 they’ll all have the same fabricated story about me being some slut who was up for it. It will serve no purpose for me but be embarrassing.”

When asked by her friend about DNA evidence, the complainant answered: “They’ll say it was consensual. [That] I was up for it, [a] stupid little girl now regretting it.”

Tragically, it seems as if her fears were entirely founded: the young woman – now a 21-year-old student – was forced to spend a total of seven days on the stand being cross examined by each of the men’s separate barristers, as well as her own defence lawyer.

In sharp contrast to this, the accused spent an average of just half a day each being interrogated before the courts.

To make matters even worse, many have misinterpreted the “not guilty” verdict for Jackson and Olding as a “guilty” verdict for their accuser (despite the fact that there are no signs that the complainant is about to be charged with perverting the course of justice). As such, she has been subjected to a barrage of abuse online, with many damning her as a “fame-chasing bitch” – despite the fact that the identity of this so-called “fame-chasing bitch” was withheld from the public, in a bid to protect her anonymity.

It’s a story we’ve seen played out in the public eye, time and time again: men accused of rape are, solely for their ability to throw a rugby ball, deemed victims of a cruel hoax (and, indeed, the defence team for Jackson and Olding have attempted to use this to their advantage, complaining about lives being blighted by “false claims”).

The women who accuse sportsmen of rape, on the other hand, are forced into the role of the villain of the piece.

Ched Evans, who spent two and a half years in prison after being convicted in 2012, following a complicated trial, of raping a young woman, was acquitted of the crime four years later. He is now playing for Sheffield United as a free man.

In 2016, Brock Turner, a 20-year-old student from US-based Stanford University was given a prison sentence of just six months with probation after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus.

She had been unconscious, so no, she didn’t try to fight him off – yet her “passive” response to his manhandling her was allegedly mistaken for consent.

“I was too drunk to speak English, too drunk to consent way before I was on the ground,” she wrote in a powerful victim statement. “I should have never been touched in the first place.”

The headlines that followed the case described her rapist as an “All-American swimmer”.

His victim, as she recalled in her letter, was described as an “unconscious intoxicated woman, 10 syllables, and nothing more than that.”

In 1991, Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a then-18-year-old woman and sentenced to six years in prison, plus four years probation. He served just three years and was released in 1995, before going on to resume his boxing career and appear in films such as The Hangover.

And, in 2003, basketball player Kobe Bryant was accused of rape by an employee of a mountain resort in Eagle County, Colorado. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant “first said no sex had taken place, then said it had, saying repeatedly he thought it was consensual”. Investigators later discovered blood in the young woman’s underwear – and her blood was also found on Bryant’s shirt.

The case never made it to court, as the criminal charges were dropped once the accuser decided not to testify. It’s arguably not surprising that she made the choice not to proceed, given that her sexual history and mental health had already been shredded in the press and a highly-publicised preliminary hearing. Bryant continued with his sports career – and won the award for Best Animated Short at this year’s Oscars.

This time, though, it seems as if the world is not prepared to forgive – and fewer and fewer people are prepared to defend the disgusting, degrading and dehumanising pack behaviour of men just because they happen to be good at a sport.

Shortly after the not guilty verdict was issued at the Ulster rape trial, the hashtag #IBelieveHer quickly began trending on Twitter. 

And, across both sides of the Irish border, thousands of people have marched “in solidarity with the complainant”.

In Dublin alone, more than 4,000 protesters – men, women and children – gathered outside City Hall, waving placards with the words “stand with survivors” and “overhaul the system” as they marched to the Irish Department of Justice.

And, in Belfast, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside City Hall in an event organised by the socialist feminist organisation Rosa.

According to The Independent, there were chants of “two, four, six, eight, consent is not up for debate”, as well as “my black dress does not mean yes” and “whatever we wear, yes means yes and no means no”.

People also waved banners reading “#IBelieveHer” and “#MeToo” – and, while this in no way suggests that the spectre of false allegation which dogs the reporting of sexual violence has been exorcised, it does offer a glimmer of hope for the future.

It shows us that people are more willing to listen to victim testimonies. That they won’t just blindly hero-worship famous men. That attitudes around sexual assault cases are finally – albeit slowly – changing.

And in a world where we still struggle to nail sexual assault convictions, this has very real implications for women at threat everywhere, every day.

If you have been subject to sexual assault, call 999 to report it to police.

Information and support can be found at nhs.uk, gov.uk and rapecrisis.org.uk.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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