The Belfast Rape Trial – A Pyrrhic Victory

In the immediate aftermath of the Belfast case, the Irish Government announced plans to roll out consent classes in primary and secondary schools, and develop a new system for ‘vulnerable victims’ in sensitive cases. Underlying the well intentioned, albeit belated, proposals is a tacit admission: what happened was wrong: this should not have happened like this. The penny has dropped that consent is something that has to be taught earlier, the sooner the better, as evidently the legal definition of consent has not yet resided in the minds and bedrooms of those who learnt too late. 

Although they were dealing with the same judge and jury, the alleged victim and the named men toyed with opposing ideas of consent.

The defendants reached for the narrative we’ve heard before; the drunk ‘slut’, who regrets what happened, and subsequently calls rape, torn from the playbook of victim blaming.

She made eye contact earlier.
You did it to them, why not me?’
Why didn’t you scream?

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Did Jackson ever expressly ask her if what was happening was ok, if she consented? No, but as he told the court, the reporters, the whole country, he assumed she did.

This is where the trouble lies: he assumed. These men practiced the world’s default position; that consent is given, rather than assuming it is not and ensuring it is, before continuing.

But these are good guys, we are told, law abiding, respectful men, they’d have stopped had they known she was uncomfortable. And it’s believable, maybe even true. But consent for these men was a shared, passive activity; her silence, her clothes, her initial permission, her inebriation all signals that she wanted this, her consent to do one thing a ‘one size fits all’.

Her definition was more nuanced, more varied, a story never before heard: one’s environment can prevent verbalising their consent or lack thereof. That the context of the alleged consent can be built out of fear; what would happen if she said no? Men forget that sex is a power play, and their physicality always inadvertently threatens the potential of violence.

Allegedly her consent didn’t extend to the details of what happened.

We know she went into a state of shock, that it’s common for rape victims to do so, physically unable to express how they are feeling in that moment.

However these men are not mind-readers, how could they have known? She wasn’t screaming, remember? It can’t have been that bad. Yet, if they’d asked, if they’d cared enough about her sense of dignity, and less about their ‘manliness’, they’d have noticed, if their definitions of consent allowed active affirmations to trump assumptions, things might have been different.

Oscar Wilde once said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and in this case it seems to me that both are true: that she felt violated, and was raped, and that the men didn’t know this, didn’t realise their behaviour as to trespass on her private property. How could a jury definitively call guilty when there’s a good chance neither were in the eyes of the law?

But therein lies the danger. He is just another nice boy who the system failed, who didn’t know how to treat women. It just so happens that this time, the consequences are long term for him, traumatic for her.

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For everyone has a Paddy; a nice lad, who is funny on social media, who is attractive, and praised by friends and family, who ticks the boxes, who is a good guy. That same Paddy is the guy, who we like, but who is talking about Belfast sluts and spit-roasts with his friends. The one who didn’t realise the seriousness, the crudity, the vile nature of his words until they became evidence, who didn’t realise the repercussions that would come with having so little respect for women that you can laugh about it in groups chats. The one who didn’t realise that how he spoke about the woman in question was inherently wrong.

We also, all know a her. We in college, are armed with experiences – both our own and shared – know that rape and sexual assault aren’t perpetuated by strangers down dark alleys where screaming would have helped, we know it’s the ‘nice guys’, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the guys who don’t understand, that silence doesn’t mean yes, that sex isn’t an entitlement, that can say no at any stage.

This is a case without a happy ending; a pyrrhic victory for all. That much is clear, despite the photographed smiling faces of the men involved.

Although no jail time, PJ will never play for Ireland or Ulster again. Despite not being convicted, their names will be remembered as guilty, twitter flooded with new stories; thinly disguised threats from rejected strangers about women having to watch themselves cause ‘Paddy and his mates are out tonight’.

Although no convictions, or justice, this one woman will never know the definitive numbers of the people she’s helped, people who it could have been, but will hopefully no longer be after the consent classes, and the new rules for vulnerable witnesses are implemented. But the country’s collective victory has come at this one woman’s expense, a woman whose story was ridiculed, who was named on social media despite promises of anonymity, whose blood stained underwear was passed around a courtroom, and whose teenage trauma was raised as the evidence needed to improve the country.

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