If men keep hands to themselves, there will be no dire consequences

Aggravated or straightforward, they’re variations on the same malfeasance. One isn’t benign. Both are bad, writes Terry Prone

If men keep hands to themselves, there will be no dire consequences

I’d be prepared to bet you have been involved in a version of a particular and topical conversation. That’s the conversation that starts with the latest news about Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding and Ulster Rugby and then moves into three distinct sections.

What might be called the first act of the conversation deals with Jackson and Olding being fired, and how inevitable it was. That’s the consensus, anyway: Once tough letters had been received from major sponsors such as Bank of Ireland, Ulster Rugby had few choices. The WhatsApp exchanges created a question for sponsors that was brutally easy to answer, the question being: “Do you want your logo across the chest or back of one of the lads who exchanged this filth?”

The second act of the conversation involves the personal views of the talkers, and — particularly over the weekend — it’s been fascinating to witness not just how angry male rugby fans are about the episode, not just how angry they are at the players involved, but how even much older male rugby aficionados are angry at them.

“These apologies saying ‘this is not who I am’,” one rugby fan in his sixties said to me this weekend. “That’s bullshit. It’s precisely who they are. It’s evidence provided out of their own mouths. Of course they’re probably lovely lads in their family contexts. No problem believing that. No problem knowing about the work they’ve done for charity, either. But to say what they said about those girls among themselves — how could they claim that their own words in some way fail to represent their reality?

“They didn’t have to WhatsApp. Any one of them could have abandoned the to-and-fro the first time they saw that question about sluts. They stayed in and chose to boast. I boast a lot in all of my communications on social media and in person. That’s who I am. But my ego doesn’t depend on describing women in that kind of way. And never did. That’s the important thing. Never did.”

At this point, people tend to speculate as to whether sponsors of rugby in France or other countries to which, possibly, Jackson and Olding will now take their skills, will want their logo carried by either man. Opinions divide on this one, with some talkers stating their hope that sponsor rejection does not pursue them overseas, because they should be given a go at redemption, and preventing them playing is unlikely to be helpful in that regard. The person expressing this view is usually quick to say that its expression does not mean they agree with Willie John McBride. At which stage half the people present shake their heads in a baffled, what-was-he-thinking way and the other half do an eye roll.

Nobody condemns Willie John. He is too deeply admired for that. But those (like me) who didn’t hear the Sean O’Rourke interview with him last week find ourselves being assured that it was car-crash stuff, with the rugby great outlining the sort of stuff the lads get up to, and have always got up to, on tour. It is agreed that the timing and tone of the interview were equally off: Way too soon to have even so loved and admired an elder statesman of the game suggesting it was time to close down the story and let the lads get on with what they do best — play rugby.

Willie John McBride
Willie John McBride

Only time or an equally enthralling news story will close down something as fascinating as this saga. And in this sorry saga, the nearest to getting the communications right was Olding, whose statement, the day of the verdict, displayed empathy for the complainant and was not self-serving.

Jackson said nothing at the time, which was a mistake, while his legal team got aggressive with people because of stupid tweets. By the time he got around to apologising, his hands-up statement was devalued by the length of time before its issuance and the level of noise within that interval, some, but not all of it, generated by his own team.

The final act in the conversation is about the implications. Someone points out, with genuinely puzzled timidity, that putting a hand up a skirt is not the same as rape, quickly adding that of course the guys were acquitted of the latter, anyway. Someone else mentions TV personality Laura Whitmore, who recently told the story of being at some “do” where a guy unequivocally put his hand up her skirt and when she indicated that this wasn’t something she accepted, laughed and walked off. People agree that it was unacceptable that the guy should have done it, but wonder aloud if we’re not making the mistake of treating all bad behaviour as if it was the same.

Which calls for the response: “Who’s this ‘we’, Kemo Sabe?”

The curious thing about the question is that it’s usually asked by people who would never in a million years WhatsApp disrespectfully about a woman or women, and who similarly would never in a million years put a hand up a skirt. And yet they are anxious at what they see as a dangerous conflation of unrelated actions. Serious sexual assault has nothing to do with more minor misbehavior, they suggest. To which the answer has to be “define what’s a serious sexual assault?”

The feeling seems to be that while the guy who invaded Whitmore’s person is to be heavily criticized for it, we need in some way to create clear blue sky between that action and anything more serious.

This is intriguing. We all know that any crime can be simple or aggravated. If a bad guy decides to invade your gaff and nick your telly or your computer, that’s burglary. Straight burglary. If the bad guy decides to invade your gaff carrying a knife and a gun, that’s aggravated burglary, and the bad guy, if apprehended and convicted, will receive a sentence which matches the level of aggravation. But — aggravated or straightforward — they’re variations on the same malfeasance. One isn’t benign. Both are bad. One is just nastier to experience than the other.

Same with sexual assault. Nobody is suggesting that Whitmore is going to die of the assault, but why the anxiety to separate such assault from more serious attacks? Why the reluctance to view them as a continuum?

This seeking to differentiate between differing levels of assault seems to have an underlying fear that if a clear line is not drawn between rape and criminal sexual assault on the one hand and icky-but-not-permanently-traumatic on the other, an unfortunate man who expresses appreciation of a nearby female form by gently laying a hand on its arse will end up suffering dire and disproportionate consequences.

Not to belabour the obvious, but here’s the key. Guys keep their hands to themselves and they’re safe from such consequences. Guaranteed.

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