Content warning: Sexual assault
The media circus that has taken place during and after the trial of the now infamous Northern Irish rugby stars has been costly. Though it was the rugby players that were officially on trial, the young woman at the heart of the case has suffered a trial of her own.
Something which will never leave my imagination is the idea that her bloodied underwear was passed around the courtroom for all to see. The implication being that she was promiscuous, but had also lied about the source of the blood – she must have just been on her period.
The trial has been public. Most people in my life have their two cents on events. I don’t think just because we weren’t there means we can’t understand what occurred, most of the evidence has been made public, and was heavily reported on.
We are not the jury but we are entitled to our own response. We can certainly discern the misogynists who came out of the woodwork on Twitter and in our newsfeeds to gloat as soon as the “not guilty” verdict was released. Whatever your belief about the guilt of the defendants, making rape jokes isn’t edgy.
One point that people seem to be missing is that not guilty is not the same as innocent – not even close. The amount of evidence needed to convict in a rape trial is staggering and is simply not likely to be there because of the circumstances of rape.
In this case she followed the steps we are told – get forensic evidence, report it, tell the police, then you will be safe. But there is not always safety in the law.
The law is not some ideal that can determine who is wrong and right. It is not flawless in its process or delivery of justice. It is a deeply normative, conceptual framework that has historically done more to oppress women than it has to help them.
The law, and the jurors not guilty verdict, should not and does not end the conversation. The law reflects the norms of society and is up for debate. It is my right and yours to express disgust with how it is carried out.
Northern Ireland is quite possibly one of the worst places to have a rape trial. As reported by the Irish Times, there were queues out the door for seats in the large courtroom. She was interrogated on the stand for eight days.
She was accused of being attracted to celebrities (does that mean you want to get raped by them?), and of simply regretting an embarrassing event (why would you ever bring it to such a public trial?).
The woman was to remain anonymous but the reality of her being shown on camera in the courtroom means she will not remain so. Her name has been shared on social media in recent days.
The #IBelieveHer movement is a response to so much more than one case. The rallying women on O’Connell Street and Dame Street have long felt disbelieved. Ireland has a long, long history of punishing women.
We locked them away for having sex and now we abandon them at the departure gates awaiting a flight to England. The conviction rate for rape cases is damningly low but the rate of those who experience such crimes is terrifyingly high.
The interest in the trial is a reflection of the new discourses available to women to fight events like these. The recent salience of issues like consent and sexual harassment have started a conversation, and it’s a conversation where women and all who suffer sexual violence are listened to and believed, even if sometimes only by each other.
The plot of Louise O’Neills book, Asking For It, seems to have eerily come to life in this trial. Before this book came out, or these movements started, I had little to articulate my own experiences with. There is a huge power in simply having a vocabulary which includes slut shaming. It’s a power I didn’t have and that many still lack.
I wish that I believed at the time that someone would believe me. I still wish I believed that. When I was raped, I did not report it because I believed I was at fault and I didnt want any trouble, despite the fact that I had passed out and had lost any capacity to give consent early on in the night.
I carried the weight of this shame inside me with stark consequences for my mental and physical health for a number of years. It was not the first or last incident of “sexual misconduct” I experienced.
Sharing these burdens is hard to do and it is important that we respect those around us who choose to do so but also those who don’t. I don’t have to see my perpetrator in day to day life but I do have to see people everyday who I know actively not believe the woman at the centre of this trial to the point where they would rather believe she is an attention-seeking slut. The deeply embedded victim blaming culture in Irish society is shown in the desire to protect any losses in the men’s lives at all.
A friend recently shared something which expressed the need to “pass the mic” in these situations. If we can pass the mic in the coming weeks to people around us it will help in acknowledging the gravity of what this verdict means to people in Ireland, and Irish society as a whole.
We need to pass the mic to the wide range of people who may experience sexual discrimination and/or violence, and that includes transgender people and women of colour who probably wouldn’t experience the wave of support this woman has had.
We need a shift in how we respond to sexual violence as a society, both north and south of the border. We don’t need Paddy Jackson suing those who dissent.
If you have been affected by the issues raised of this article, support is available from the following services:
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 77 8888
Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900
Samaritans: 116 123
TCDSU Welfare Officer: [email protected]