Who was really on trial in the Ireland and Ulster rugby rape case?

Whose guilt, morally if not legally, have we really been trying to prove? Watching the trial progress, it seemed to me the question was never ‘are these men rapists?’, but always ‘is this woman a liar?’

Wednesday 28 March 2018 17:30
Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding found not guilty of rape

There’s a commonly quoted statistic regarding rape allegations. Of all those reported to the police, only 7.5 per cent result in a conviction.

That’s not to say that more don’t lead to guilty verdict, at least in the minds of many. It’s just that this verdict tends to fall on the head of the woman making the accusation.

Today saw Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding found not guilty of raping a woman in June 2016. To some, such a verdict is instantly flipped: not guilty for them must mean guilty for their accuser. In legal terms – and in terms of pure logic – this isn’t true (and there are no signs that the complainant is about to be charged with perverting the course of justice).

This hasn’t stopped the men’s lawyers from complaining about lives being blighted by “false claims”, nor held back the Twitter mob. “I hope this bitch gets locked up for trying to ruin the lives of these lads” declares one commentator, while another bemoans “another career ruined by some fame-chasing bitch” (clearly oblivious to the MRA rules which state one must be in favour of a complainant’s name being made public).

The response is disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. After all, who has really been on trial here? Whose guilt, morally if not legally, have we really been trying to prove? Watching the trial progress, it seemed to me the question was never “are these men rapists?”, but always “is this woman a liar?”

Such a framing of the situation – both inside the courtroom and beyond – matters a great deal, if not for the verdict itself, then for the future wellbeing of the accuser and any woman who wishes to make a similar complaint. If our focus is not on men’s propensity to commit acts of sexual violence, but on women’s propensity to lie, we perpetuate a culture in which women’s testimonies are seen as unreliable before a word has been said.

Of course, many words were said at the trial of Jackson and Olding. According to the defence, the complainant only took the morning after pill in order to “run the lie of the classic rape victim”. She may have said she froze when the attack took place, but as Brendan Kelly QC put it, “what does frozen mean? Is it one of the lies? Is it a lie deployed to explain what happened?” (No, Mr Kelly. “Frozen” means not being able to move because you’re terrified or in shock. Happy to help).

It’s not that Kelly’s questioning of the complainant’s account tells us anything about whether the final verdict was correct or otherwise. Nonetheless, such a wilful dismissal of the potential effect of trauma reinforces the sense that we’re not supposed to see the complainant as a potential victim at all. On the contrary, she’s the suspect.

In Down Girl, the philosopher Kate Manne argues that when a woman is cast as “playing the victim”, it’s not just a case of her not being believed. For women, even claiming the status of victim is a transgressive act: “What she’s doing may stand out not because she’s claiming more than her due but because we’re not used to women claiming their due in these contexts. Women are expected to provide an audience for dominant men’s victim narratives, providing moral care, listening, sympathy and soothing”.

This argument makes sense to me in relation to the treatment of women in rape trials. Rationally we must know it is ludicrous to cast women who accuse famous men of assault as money-grabbing and fame-hungry (where are these fame-hungry accusers? Usually in hiding). But still they are suspected of something. It can’t just be that rape is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law. It can’t just be that beliefs about consent and entitlement differ and need updating. No, we must cast the accuser in the role, if not of outright villain, then of transgressor.

According to Claire Waxman, London’s first victims’ commissioner, more and more rape complainants are withdrawing from prosecutions due to demands for information held on computers, mobile phones and social media. While some information can clearly be relevant, other details – such as childhood histories of mental health problems – are being sought out in what can only be an attempt to discredit the complainant as a person.

When we reach this point, we need to ask ourselves who is really being put in the dock. Is our response to a rape complainant – not just during the trial, but afterwards, regardless of the verdict – really based on any certainty of what happened? Or are we indulging in fantasies of retribution against women who step out of line by speaking up in the first place? If so, we need to take a step back. No one was found guilty today. Those railing against “false accusers” may need to look closer to home.

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