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“The Ulster rugby trial proves why women are scared to report rape”

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Elle Griffiths
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The Ulster rugby rape trial confirmed our worst fears about reporting sexual assault, says freelance writer Elle Griffiths.

During the furore over the growing #MeToo movement a few months ago, one thing that struck me was how often people would belligerently ask why the legions of survivors “didn’t report” their sexual assaults to the police.

For anyone still perplexed by this, you can find the answer in yesterday’s conclusion of the trial of two Irish and Ulster Rugby stars accused of rape. After following the spectacle for the past two months, I find it hard to believe that anyone, anywhere, ever would report a sexual assault to the police and willingly go through the ordeal of a trial. Indeed, the charity Women’s Aid have said they are already receiving calls from people who no longer want to take their case forward in light of the trial.

The two aforementioned men, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were acquitted of rape while two others, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, were acquitted of exposure and perverting the course of justice, respectively. Of course, as the prosecution did not convince the jury ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that what occurred at a Belfast house party in the early hours of 28th June 2016 constituted rape, I must, legally and journalistically, respect this decision. 

Paddy Jackson outside of court on 1 March

But here are 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. 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”. The woman’s soiled, bloody knickers were passed around the court for all to see, handled and pored over by members of the jury.

It is also a fact that the woman, who is now a 21-year-old student, spent 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 contrast, the accused spent an average of just half a day each being interrogated before the courts.

It is these irrefutable facts that leave me asking who was really on trial here, and why the bar for acceptable sexual conduct and consent is so disturbingly low.

After the not guilty verdict set Twitter alight yesterday, the hashtag #IBelieveHer quickly began trending. But while the hashtag was largely used to express solidarity with the anonymous woman, it was also occasionally co-opted by trolls and ‘men’s right activists’ who demanded that the woman’s identity be unveiled and that she face criminal charges herself for bringing a ‘false accusation’ against the men.

This is a wilful misunderstanding of the legal system. A verdict of ‘not guilty’ is not synonymous with ‘innocent’, and if there was the slightest scrap of evidence that the woman had fabricated this story then she would face the wrath of the law. But there isn’t, so she won’t.

It was also telling that the men did not mention any plans to further clear their names or bring about defamation suits as they left the courts. While Olding maintained that they had not committed a crime, he expressed “deep regret” about the evening. This is, I believe, because he knows he has just benefited from a system that places the burden of proof overwhelmingly on the alleged victim, while giving the accused the get out clause of “presumption of consent”. After all, this is a system in which only 5.7% of reported rapes, which is already a tiny fraction of all rapes committed, result in a conviction.

That the men “presumed” they had consent may be true, but the fact they didn’t think to double check if they did, let alone to see if the girl was even remotely enjoying herself, shows at the very least how deluded so many men still are about sex. The case also saw a frustrating reinforcement of rape myths that went largely unchallenged, with one of the defence barristers asking incredulously why the woman didn’t scream for help – despite the overwhelming evidence from studies that show numerous rape victims “freeze up” when being assaulted. 

Stuart Olding outside of court on 5 March

For survivors, the whole charade has been a murky and upsetting reminder of their own experiences, and for many it has simply confirmed the reasons they didn’t report their own experiences. After the strides of the #MeToo movement and the baby steps it made towards progress for change, the trial feels like both a slap in the face and a reminder of how far we still have to go. Yesterday was an incredibly tough day for a lot of women.

So to Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, I say this: you may have been found not guilty of the charges brought against you, but you are all guilty of being utter scum. You are damned by your own words. “Spit roasting” women with your friends and later laughing about them as “sluts” and “flutes” doesn’t make you “top shaggers”. It makes you pathetic, inadequate misogynists who see women as nothing more than mere masturbatory receptacles. If you think leaving women bleeding, torn and crying is normal then you should not be having sex. I hope and expect that no woman will ever want to touch any of you after this case. You should not be wearing the jersey of any national sports team, regardless of the verdict.

And to the brave, anonymous woman, I hope you see the throngs of people on the streets of Belfast, Dublin and other Irish cities today. And that this helps you feel a tiny bit less alone. 

If you, or anyone you know, wants support or information regarding rape or sexual assault, please visit the Rape Crisis website here or the Women’s Aid website here.

Images: Getty