LOUISE O'NEILL: Ulster rape trial: Toxic masculinity culture must not win

Media swarm around Paddy Jackson as he leaves Belfast Crown Court yesterday afternoon. Picture: Alan Lewis

For generations in Ireland, women’s sexuality has been seen as a dangerous force that needed to be controlled, says Louise O’Neill

My phone lights up, not once, but twice, and then again and again and again.

“Found not guilty”, a friend texts into one Whatsapp group. “Not guilty” a different group fires up. “All defendants not guilty.”

No, is my reply. No, No, No. My friends don’t need to explain any further. They don’t need to tell me what trial they are talking about. I know. I text back and I say that I am shocked, that I cannot believe it.

But I am not shocked and I can believe it, I can believe it with devastating ease. For I knew this would happen.

I am a woman living in Ireland and I have seen Not Guilty verdict after Not Guilty verdict, sure women are liars, aren’t they? They regret having sex the morning afterwards so they decide to ruin some poor young man’s life by crying rape.

We do not want to listen to their voices cracking in two, repeating over and over — I said no, I said no and they just kept on going, I said no, please believe me.

For what did these women expect, dressing like that, and going to parties, and trying to live in this world on their own terms? They should have known what to expect.

They should have been more careful. (Careless women, so many careless women. Limping home with shoes in hand and bruised thighs and broken hearts. Telling themselves what happened to them was their own fault.)

I’ve had a complicated relationship with the Ulster Rugby rape trial. Not a day went past without receiving a text message or a tweet from someone drawing parallels between my novel, Asking For It, and the case itself.

The similarities are uncanny. A young girl, a party, members of a sports team, an alleged gang rape. After Asking For It was released, an older gentleman approached me and told me it was a ‘good read’ but ‘implausible’. That just wouldn’t happen in Ireland, he said.

I thought of the Listowel case in 2009, when a local priest stood as character witness for a man accused of rape, and then 50 people lined up inside the courtroom to shake the hand of that same man when he was convicted.

I thought of how women have been treated by this State for generations, their bodies policed, their sexuality seen as a dangerous force that needed to be controlled at all costs. Thrown into Mother and Baby homes and Magdalene laundries, forced onto boats and flights to claim their right to make decisions about their own bodies. Desperate, scared, and alone.

That’s how Irish women have been raised. We carry our mother’s trauma in our bones, and her mother’s before that. We drag our limbs behind us, heavy with secrets that don’t even belong to us.

“Did you know,” I wanted to tell that man. “That in this country, only one in four victims of sexual violence report the crime. Of those one in four who report, only 10% will end up in court. Of that 10% who end up in court, less than 5% of cases will see a conviction. What do you mean, you don’t think this could happen in Ireland?”

But I didn’t say anything. And today, when I heard that verdict, I wish I had. I wish I had told him that I would love to live in his Ireland. I would love to know what it’s like to feel safe.

I know women. I know women, and they share their stories with me. A night stolen from you, whispered pleas that go unheeded. A night that you can never get back. (But they’re fine, of course, the people who did this to us, their futures unfold before them as if nothing ever happened. Women have pasts that must be held up and scrutinised in court, picked apart for proof of wrongdoing, but men have futures that must be protected at all costs.)

I’ve watched my friends hold their baby daughters closer to them, hoping the world will have changed by the time they grow up, that those little girls with pigtails and lisps won’t have to take their first steps with rape held as a constant threat above their heads. Don’t walk home alone, don’t drink too much, take care of your friends. (Don’t get raped. You will be ruined. You will be destroyed. And they will call you a liar and a slut while you beg for help.)

The young woman at the centre of the Ulster Rugby trial was reported as taking part in a text message exchange with a friend two weeks before that fateful night in which they discussed what they would do if they were subjected to sexual violence, with her friend saying she wouldn’t go to the police but would deal with the matter herself.

I was bemused to see commentary marvelling at the prescience of this. The truth is that women have these kinds of conversations all the time because we are resigned to the fact that sexual assault, from unwanted touching in a nightclub to waking up at a party to find someone raping you, is the price that we might have to pay to exist in female bodies in public spaces.

These two women were discussing the inevitability of being raped, but they were really, in fact, planning how they would survive it. Stay quiet, keep your head down.

“The thing is,” the complainant texted her friend the morning after, “I would report it if I knew they would get done. But they won’t. And that’s just unnecessary stress for me. It’s also humiliating. It will be a case of my word against theirs.”

Her word against theirs. Vaginal laceration, a woman in the back of a taxi weeping, bleeding. Texts between the accused that forced bile up my throat, made me look at all the men I know and think — you don’t do this, do you? You would never talk about me like this, would you? But never mind that. Boys will be boys. It’s just a bit of banter.

And they’re such good boys, don’t you know? Such promising sporting careers. It would be a shame to see that taken away from them because of one woman’s claims.

And now, on 28 March, 2018, they have been found not guilty which is not the same as innocent.

I believe her. I wish I could tell her that. I wish I could tell her how brave she was, and how grateful I am to her for that courage. I hope she has good people around her, and a support system to take care or her. I believe you. I believe you. I believe you.

It’s been difficult watching this case play out across national media. Listening to people discuss the case, dismissing it with a casual “well, none of us were there, were we? How do we know what went on?”

And every victim of sexual violence in hearing distance, male and female, watching and thinking — and what would you say if you heard my story? What would you do if I told you of a night that I was broken in two? Would you say “I wasn’t there, was I? How am I to know the truth?” Would you call me a liar too?

People used to tell me that Asking For It started a ‘national conversation’ about rape culture and I would much rather we have those conversations as a result of a fictional novel than on the back of a young woman’s lived experience.

Nevertheless, this is where we are now and whether or not you believe that a rape took place, it cannot be denied that this case has raised issues that urgently need to be addressed.

Between the line of questioning the victim was subjected to, the intense public scrutiny, and now this verdict — how can we even begin to measure the impact that this will have on other victims disclosing their stories?

How long can we continue to allow our judicial system to erect barriers that discourage victims from coming forward?

What are we going to do to bridge the gaps in a collective knowledge around how victims react to sexual violence? (The witness who opened the door into Paddy Jackson’s room that night said the woman didn’t seem in distress, and we as society still expect victims of sexual violence to scream and struggle, despite the fact that a common response to trauma is to freeze.)

What effect has the pornification of culture had on our young people, when women are being sexualised and objectified without their permission, and young men might think a threesome with a reportedly unresponsive woman is in anyway acceptable?

How are we going to tackle toxic masculinity that encourages this kind of aggressive sexuality in young men? And how are we going to dismantle the Old Boys’ network that protects its members, shrugging off this kind of behaviour with a casual “well, boys will be boys.”

The system is failing us for it is poisoned at its very roots. My heart is broken for that young woman and for all the other young women who watched this case so closely, fearful and hopeful in equal measure; women who will go to bed tonight wondering why this country hates them so much.

I stand with you all.

Louise O’Neill is an award-winning author and Irish Examiner columnist

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