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5 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

In the Belfast rape trial, I’m haunted by the man who couldn’t stand up to his friends

How the trial of four rugby players exposed a deep seam of misogyny. 

By Helen Lewis

Sometimes, a cold recital of the facts has more force than yards of the most thunderous polemic. After a night in which a group of rugby players had a sexual encounter with a woman at a party, one of the men sent a volley of messages to the friend who took her home.

“What the fuck was going on? Last night was hilarious… Really fuck sake. Did U calm her and where did she live?”

The friend replied: “Mate no jokes she was in hysterics.”

Soon after, another bloke weighed in to a WhatsApp group to catch up on the gossip: “Any sluts get fucked?” The same day, the first man had this to say: “Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her.” He asked: “Why are we all such legends?”

The woman’s recollections have a different tone. The day after the incident, she texted the man who took her home: “what happened last night was not consensual”. (Shortly after dropping her off, he had texted her: “Keep the chin up, you wonderful young woman.”) To her own friends, she sent the message: “So I got raped by 3 Ulster fucking rugby scum brilliant fucking night.” She would not report the rape, she said, because “I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work.”

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Reading all this, it is not hard for me to see why the trial of the four men – who were all found not guilty at a Belfast court on 28 March – has prompted protests both in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It took a jury less than four hours to acquit two of them of rape, one of exposure, and the fourth (the man who took the complainant home) of impeding the police investigation.

The Irish Times’s coverage highlighted the difference in the conduct of rape trials on each side of the Irish border. In the Republic, defendants cannot be named unless found guilty, and such trials do not admit the public. In Northern Ireland, defendants can be named from the point of charge, and the public is allowed into court. The latter point, inevitably, led to the woman being identified and named on social media. In Belfast but not Dublin, defendants are also allowed to call character witnesses.

Rape complainants, of course, get the opposite of character witnesses: under certain circumstances, their previous sexual history can still be raised in court. In the case against the footballer Ched Evans – whose conviction was later quashed – the claim that the woman involved had used the phrase “go harder” with a previous sexual partner, as well as with Evans, was used against her. We laugh now at the Lady Chatterley prosecutor asking the jury if it was a book they would let their wife or servants read, but really? What kind of sex are England’s finest legal minds having, if the phrase “go harder” seems unusual or shocking? In the Ulster case, the woman’s presence at a bar and her decision to go to the house of one of the defendants – gasp! – were raised in court.

Many of the protests about the Belfast trial used the hashtag “#IBelieveHer”. It’s a phrase that’s always bothered me – as a journalist, I think belief is irrelevant; facts are what matter. But it encapsulates an important truth, because what those protesters are really asking for is the removal of kneejerk disbelief. We don’t assume that people who report a burglary probably made it up; so why is that the default position for so many when it comes to sexual assault?

As those text messages show, the woman in the rugby trial feared talking to the police because she sensed a power difference between her and the sports stars. The defence case rested on the idea that she was a fame-hungry tart, who spent the evening eyeing up the men in a bar. The line of reasoning then flows: how could such a woman later change her mind about having sex with celebrities, or even contest the circumstances in which that might take place?

The men involved were always entitled to the presumption of innocence, and have now been acquitted of the charges against them. What they are undoubtedly guilty of, however, is misogyny. They are guilty of treating sex as an arena in which they luxuriate in their dominance over “sluts” for whom they have no respect. 

It was “hilarious”, after all, to one of the men that the complainant was left in a state that another described as being “in hysterics”. The man accused of vaginal rape saw that the woman was bleeding, and told the court he assumed – he did not bother to ask – that she was on her period. Women are there to be “pumped” and “roasted” – pornified descriptions of sex which leave no room for the idea that female pleasure might matter, too. The living, breathing woman in the room that night was undoubtedly less important to these men than the blokey bonding of discussing the experience afterwards. (Really, it would be safer for everyone concerned if the players just cut out the middlewoman and had sex with each other next time.)

This case leaves me feeling dispirited about the way that some men see sex – even if they believe it to be consensual – in such degrading, dehumanised terms. I’m not particularly interested in their explanation to the court that it was all just boasting and immature banter. So what? It’s still gross.

I salute the bravery of the complainant in this case, but with respect, she isn’t the figure whose behaviour most interests me.

No, that would be the fourth man, accused only of covering up for his friends. He wasn’t a member of the banterous WhatsApp group. His texts show he knew something bad had happened, whether it met a criminal standard of proof or not, and getting the woman home safely shows that he, at least, saw her as a human being. I don’t hold out much hope for the men who think of sex as pumping a slut, but that guy… what is he thinking today? He knew he had seen something awful and wrong, but couldn’t stand up to his friends. 

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This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire