There are plenty of people who have experienced non consensual sexual activity. I don’t consider myself one of them, although I know I’ve been lucky. There but for the grace of the gods…
There’s been an infamous trial in Belfast the past nine weeks. 3 elite rugby players were accused of various forms of sexual assault, another one of preventing the course of justice. The rugby players are well known. Despite anonymity for the prosecution witness, her name was mentioned in court and shared on social media. I don’t know her name, but I know more about her than I should.
Having been initially reluctant to go to the police, the woman ended up enduring 9 days of cross examination. Four defendants = 4 defence teams = 4 sets of questioning. I know about her unshaved legs, her blood stained clothing. I know about her friends and her internal injury. Her very underwear was presented to the court and passed along to the jury. The woman had no lawyer. She was not on trial, not accused of any offence, but the adversarial trial system made it seem so.
I also know that an international rugby player likes to sketch and babysits for friends. Apparently that’s all I need to know. The men sent each other texts and WhatsApp messages after the event, some of which were deleted and unrecoverable. They sent crude, misogynistic messages displaying a lack of respect for women and an “aren’t we the greatest lads?” attitude. What we’ve seen demonstrate appalling behaviour and world views. Worryingly, social media tells me that’s how young men talk to each other, and that I’m simply being old fashioned and prudish. This is simply the sort of locker room talk that Mr Trump enjoys, so what could possibly be unacceptable about it?
Yesterday, all the men were cleared of all the charges. And lots of (mostly, but not only) chaps began to demand that the woman be tried for perjury and/or sentenced for as long as the men would have been, had their guilt been proved beyond reasonable doubt. I’m to feel sorry for the guy who apparently missed out on winning a Six Nations medal and a Grand Slam ‘unnecessarily’. As if investigations and the legal process were something carried out on a whim, out of spite.
Those men have been feted their whole sporting careers, privileged and garlanded since school, because they are better than most at a game. I don’t imagine they understood the sexual activity as rape. But they were clear that there was no explicit, agreed consent. They admitted to presuming consent. The defence approach was ‘They’re the good guys, they didn’t attack a woman in a dark alley, she didn’t scream, so how could that be rape?’ They may not be able to bring themselves to doubt their drunken decisions and actions.
In some jurisdictions the difference between murder and manslaughter is the intention. Death is caused by recklessness or criminal negligence, rather by a deliberate act of killing. I hope somebody, somewhere, with a legal mind is considering what happens when there’s no clear intention to rape, but that through recklessness or negligence, harm has occurred amounting to rape. (I know nothing about the law; I’m suggesting this is an area worth exploring.)
We need to better support those women and men who report sexual assault. We need to move beyond effectively putting those people on trial.
We need to ban reporting on these trails until they are over. The media soap opera of this trial will have been traumatising for hundreds apart from the woman at its centre.
We need discussion on what consent actually is, beyond ‘no means no’. What if one is unable to speak or remove oneself from the situation? None of know in advance how we would react. ‘She didn’t scream’ should not be an acceptable argument.
The local press are having a great time after the verdict. Stories of sisters, coiffured mothers with expensive handbags, middle class respectable families, brave men and all they had to endure. Men being rewarded for the fact that their poor behaviour turned out not to be criminal. Woo hoo.
So today I went with thousands of others to a support rally. We stood outside the courts in Belfast, together. There were speeches I couldn’t hear. And a surprisingly emotional few moments of chanting I believe her.
I want to fix the world. I want to make so many things better for so many people. But oddly, I can’t do all that I want to. Still, my keyboard activism is being reignited.
Title from Eton Rifles