Paddy Jackson, who was acquitted of rape. Photo: Getty
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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. 

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.”

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. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.