The Belfast rape trial is damning indictment of lad culture

In this case it felt as though the woman, not the international rugby stars on trial, was in the dock. 

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Pumped a bird with Jacko last night”.

There are lots of euphemisms for sex. “Pumped.” “Rammed.” “Roasted.” “Fucked.”

Women get pumped. We get fucked. We get roasted. 

Meanwhile, the “lads” doing the pumping praise themselves as “top shaggers”. 

These were the words used by Blane McIlroy in a WhatsApp message sent the night a young woman said she was assaulted by two of his friends. This week, McIlroy was cleared of exposure, and international rugby stars Paddy Jackson (Jacko) and Stuart Olding were acquitted of rape. A fourth man, Rory Harrison, was cleared of withholding information.

Following the not-guilty verdict, crowds of women and men gathered together to protest the trial’s outcome. In Belfast, more than a  thousand people joined an impromptu Reclaim the Night rally to show support for victims of sexual violence and encourage women to report crimes to the police. 

Let’s be absolutely clear: the four defendants were found not guilty. That was the court’s decision. 

However, the trial raises vital questions about the issues women face when accusing men of rape. It also exposes the problems of a lad culture which positions consent from a male perspective – where women are mere “sluts” to “pump”. 

Let’s start with the first point. 

During the trial, the woman was cross-examined by four defence lawyers over eight days. From questioning the consistency of her story, to passing her blood-stained underwear around the courtroom, it was hard to avoid the feeling that it was she, not the men, who was in the dock. This feeling was strengthened when the defendants had the chance to talk about their sporting careers, and brought forward character witnesses, including one who praised a defendant for helping an old lady carry a suitcase. 

The treatment of the woman in court highlights why so many choose not to report rape. 

In fact, she initially told her friends that she wasn’t going to report the incident to the police. When questioned on this in court, she said it was “because of what’s happening in this room. It’s daunting, quite horrible and you get blamed. It’s a distressing process”.

Of course, the lawyers were doing their jobs. 

But the truth is, the prevalence of rape myths in society means the way we view women and men in rape cases is unequal.

Women are afraid of what happens when we report rape. We’re afraid that the impact of trauma – imperfect recollection and shame – will be used to discredit us. That our sexual history will be used to make us “un-rapeable”. That any small action – be it “staring” at the defendant in a bar or touching the arm of a man (both of which the woman was accused of and denied) – will be used as proof of consent. That our right to anonymity will be ignored and our decision to accuse our alleged assailants will lead to threats and abuse against us. 

These fears risk being strengthened by the behaviour in that Belfast court room – and the subsequent outing of the woman on social media. 

It’s not just myths around rape that are the problem. 

There is something fundamentally warped about the way lad culture – as displayed by the messages between the four defendants that emerged during the trial – treats sex and sexuality. 

In lad culture, sex and consent is seen wholly from a male point of view. Women are nothing but objects to pump, roast and fuck.

Can we really talk about consent in a meaningful way, when our culture is happy to frame sex as something a man does to a woman? When a laddish culture decides that sex is when a man pumps, smashes or fucks a slut? What are the implications for justice for women, when we see consent not as an enthusiastic yes but the absence of a no?

“She didn’t scream so we’ll scream for her,” read a protester’s placard on Thursday night. So, what happens now? What can we learn from the sorry situation of this trial? 

Firstly, this trial cannot become a reason to put women off reporting rape. As a society, we have to do more to support women. No woman should have to fear approaching the police as a “distressing process” where they “will be blamed”. 

Secondly, we have to tackle the rape myths that prevent women from feeling listened to, believed and supported. Every woman has the right to report a crime to the police without fearing that her alcohol use, sexual history, history of assault, mental health, outfit, job, ethnicity, sexuality, or social class will be used to discredit her. 

Thirdly, we should not listen to calls to anonymise defendants in rape cases and naming alleged victims. Time and time again, it has been proven that anonymising defendants obstructs women’s access to justice. Meanwhile, naming defendants has been instrumental in convicting serial rapists and abusers including John Worboys and Stuart Hall.  

And finally, we have to encourage education about consent and respect. 

Because, let’s face it, what happened in Belfast wasn’t good enough.

The men have been found not guilty of rape. But lad culture has been found guilty of encouraging a view of women as objects. Lad culture has been found guilty of treating sex as something men are entitled to do to women — even if that woman is left crying and bleeding. 

Lad culture has been found guilty of being dangerous to both women and men. It’s time for this view of women, sex and sexuality to stop. 

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.