When the verdict came in, nobody in the women’s movement was especially surprised. There was consternation at the length of time the jury deliberated, certainly. But the verdict itself was not surprising. Rape is a serious crime and it carries a high burden of proof, requiring certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict. In practice, this means that convictions are hard to come by absent something like CCTV evidence or a confession of guilt. We all knew this. The trial of Jackson, Olding, McIlroy and Harrison was not procedurally unusual, as far as how these kinds of trials go, and after all conviction rates are dismally low.
So, we weren’t especially surprised at the outcome. Many people have, however, been shocked at the levels of rage among the general population, at the protests and rallies hastily organised all over the country, at the #IBelieveHer and #SueMePaddy hashtags that accumulated tens of thousands of tweets in a short time. For detractors, this rage is misguided at best and an attempt at mob justice at worst. But it is neither of these things; it is a howl of rage at a system that repeatedly denies justice to the wronged and that needs to be tackled right now, while the fire is in our collective bellies.
At the rally in Belfast, just 24 hours after the verdict, emotions were heightened. After some speeches in which the details of support services were read out and the 5 demands described below were read verbatim, there was silence, broken eventually by individual voices in the crowd crying out “I believe her”, until it spread, and almost everyone was shouting, many in tears. Somebody held aloft a sign that said “I believe her…and her, and her, and her, and him, and her, and him…” I watched women, men and children tie yellow roses and messages of solidarity to the courtroom railings, a reference to the Kerry Babies case three decades ago, and the social attitudes that have barely dimmed with time.
This is about much more than this trial and about more than this verdict, these men, this woman. It is an expression of frustration at the fact that the same scenario plays out again and again in our courtrooms and in the administrative shuffle that precedes it, ensuring that again and again that justice is frustrated. Beyond that, it is about the toxic culture that allows so much violence to begin with, and shrugs nonchalantly at the fact that most perpetrators are never held accountable.
In the days before the verdict was delivered, various organisations that make up the women’s movement in Northern Ireland collaborated on a list of 5 demands. In the reporting, this has gotten sidelined and inaccurately dismissed as a call to overturn the verdict, and so I will outline and explain them now below.
1. Our criminal justice system is not fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes. Victims are re-traumatised and are treated like they are on trial. The system is designed to defend the rights of the accused with little regard for the victim.
The accused deserve legal representation, of course, but when the “beyond a reasonable doubt” hurdle is in place it only takes a competent defence lawyer (or four) to sow such a doubt in a jury. When complainants face an extremely adversarial style of interrogation, and all without any legal counsel, it seems fair to say that we need to examine how trials are conducted.
The goal of the justice system in trials of this nature must surely be to find as many actual rapists guilty as possible, but the conviction rates in Northern Ireland stand at less than 2% – and only a small number of those reported ever make it to trial to begin with. This leaves us facing an uncomfortable reality; either the overwhelming majority of alleged rapes are entirely fictional and justice is working smoothly, or the vast majority of reported rapes actually happen, and most of the perpetrators never see a courtroom or, if they do, walk free.
This is a discomforting thought, and for many people, acquittal is therefore seen as evidence that the allegation was false to begin with, the better to sleep at night. This is despite the fact that the Home Office estimates that only a tiny percentage of allegations are fabricated, and that most of those fall away as soon as police begin investigating, let alone before reaching a courtroom. We want to believe that the system is as close to perfect as possible, and that if we were ourselves a victim, we would see justice. But the reality is that we probably wouldn’t.
2. The media reporting of rape trials is intrusive, salacious and biased towards undermining the victim’s testimony. It serves to increase the distress of victims and survivors of sexual abuse and rape. Cases should not be reported on until after the jury has given its verdict.
Let’s remember that many, many people are survivors of rape; men, women, and children. Every one of them will have seen the way this trial and its most sordid details was splashed across newspapers, television news and social media. Certainly, this is damaging to those survivors in a very obvious way, but it also has proven to be damaging to society’s understanding of the issues behind it all, and to any victim’s faith in the system to deliver justice.
3. The criminal justice system’s treatment of the victim and media reporting of this trial will deter victims from coming forward and reporting in the future. The rampant culture of victim blaming and shaming needs to be addressed.
Many of us were shocked by the nature of the defence counsels’ arguments, the way the jury were asked to decide if one of the accused “looked the type”, the examination of the fake tan marks on the complainant’s clothing, the “very middle class girls” comment.
Despite two expert witnesses stating that rape victims rarely fight back or scream and commonly comply, this was ignored in closing arguments. There were questions as to what the complainant expected to happen in the accused’s bedroom, why she went to a house with people she didn’t know well.
Online, this is all amplified; the WhatsApp messages between the accused normalised as “banter” and “bragging” by the very same people who believe that the complainant was so shamed by being “caught” having consensual sex that she went to criminal lengths to hide it – the latter claim being the essence of the defence case.
The fact that defence counsels use these arguments as a matter of course is telling. They know their job is to sow doubt about the complainant’s credibility, and they know also that victim blaming and slut shaming are sewn into the very fabric of society, as is a general belief that rapists are monsters, never the guy you work with or socialise with, never a rounded person with hobbies and a family and an entirely ordinary appearance. It is vital to understand this is not a special feature of this trial; this is common practice. It cannot continue because it harms justice, and it harms society as a whole as well as victims in particular.
4. We urgently need to have a compulsory comprehensive relationship and sexuality education programme in all schools which includes consent and toxic masculinity.
Our sex education tends to be rudimentary, focusing on the biological aspects of heterosexual sex and reproduction. This simply is not good enough. It is far too little and usually far too late. There must be compulsory and standardised education about consent, about relationships generally and about sexuality, pleasure and desire across the broad spectrum of human sexuality. Presuming consent is not good enough, we must expect better for and from ourselves and our partners.
The myths that make victim blaming and rape culture pervasive part of our social environment can be broken down, but only with concerted effort and only by approaching it at its root, in childhood. This would go a long way to dispelling the toxic masculinity that exuded from the WhatsApp messages in this trial, for example, and which many people defend as normal, and the widespread belief that women are regularly ashamed and distraught after having entirely consensual sex.
5. We need adequately resourced support services for victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse.
There is no longer a single dedicated rape crisis centre in the whole of Northern Ireland, where 823 rapes were reported in the last administrative year alone and the number of rapes reported has increased by 40% in the past 5 years. This is neither sustainable or acceptable. Inevitably some victims simply will not be able to access the services that are available via Nexus NI, and inevitably those services are under increasing pressure. We deserve better than this, and we must ensure that our elected representatives deliver on this.
Two years ago the world was taken aback by the paltry sentence handed to Brock Turner after his conviction for sexual assault. The outrage was palpable, and people like myself made sure to use the sudden interest in this type of trial to hammer home the fact that his short sentence was not unusual. Similarly the arguments used by his defence and the dismissive attitude to sexual trauma seen in the “twenty minutes of action” his father alluded to are standard in this type of crime in a way that we simply do not see in other criminal trials.
Something vital about this case, of course, is that the arguments fell flat against the unavoidable fact that Turner had been caught red handed, his victim unconscious, fled the scene and was chased down by two witnesses. That doesn’t happen too often. Without the happenstance of their chancing upon the crime, it is probable that we would never have heard of him, that he would have moved on with his life untroubled and that, even if his victim did report her assault and somehow identify him, with no witnesses, who’s to say she didn’t consent? It doesn’t take much to introduce an inkling of a doubt in the mind of a jury.
We cannot want to live in a society like that. We cannot want it for ourselves, for victims generally, for future generations. These protests are not agitation to overturn a legal verdict. They are a concentrated effort to channel a general sense of anger into something positive; the creation of a society in which rape is understood, consent and mutuality is central to relationships, and victims have a decent chance of seeing their rapist convicted.
Is that not something we all want?
Comments have been turned off for this post. Discussion of the specifics of the trial are still currently out of bounds for legal reasons, as ordered by the Judge. A legal hearing on Monday will rule on whether reporting and commenting restrictions are to be lifted.