Women and young people demonstrated in their thousands last month after Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a young woman at a party. In Dublin and Belfast, socialist-feminist group ROSA was central to these #IBelieveHer protests. People were protesting not only the outcome of the trial, but also the sexist attitudes pervading the legal system and the entrenched victim-blaming that the defence built its case upon. It is little wonder that only 6% of reported rapes in Northern Ireland end in convictions, a far lower rate than for other types of crime.

Victim-blaming central to case

While the verdict may have been not guilty, it’s hard to call the accused innocent. What we can say at least is that they are guilty of being deeply misogynistic. The comments made by the players in a group chat highlight a toxic sexism which is all too common. This sexism permeates society and is evidently also intrinsically built into the legal system. The defence launched a full-frontal character assassination of the victim, hoping to play on the prejudices of the jury. The victim’s underwear was passed around the jury and they were told to inspect them for signs of tan, implying that what she was wearing was an indicator as to whether or not she consented to sex. The victim was asked, “If you didn’t like him, why were you kissing him?” – suggesting that consenting to one act means to consenting to another and that you can’t be raped by someone you find attractive.

The defence barrister also argued that the “very middle-class girls” at the party would have prevented rape if only the woman had cried out for help. This outlandish and inherently classist comment implies that working-class women would have tolerated it. This exemplifies that there isn’t just an issue of gender here, but class. This is reinforced by other comments that the defence made, such as attesting to the “good backgrounds” of the accused, as if their middle-class upbringing is evidence of their innocence. Not only has the conduct of the trial thrown a spotlight on rape culture and victim blaming, but the reactions of some sections of society has also shown that we live in a society saturated with sexist ideas. Many called for the woman to be “named and shamed”, others calling her a “slut”, and arguing that “it was her own fault”.

Consent is key

The issue central to the trial and to rape cases generally is the issue of consent. Paddy Jackson’s words when asked was consent given were, “I presume she wanted it to happen.” This is not only evidence of his total lack of understanding of consent, but also has brought to light that this misunderstanding is common. Part of this problem is sex education. In Northern Ireland, 70% of students receive their sex education from the evangelical Christian organisation Love for Life, a group that preaches abstinence rather than teaching about contraception and which perpetuates outdated views on sexuality, relationships and reproductive rights that are driven by religion. Sex education needs to be factual, secular and inclusive.

A bill put forward by Solidarity TD and ROSA activist Ruth Coppinger that would prevent schools from using their religious ethos to avoid giving factual sex education to students recently progressed to the next stage in the Dáil, despite planned opposition from Fianna Fáil. Protests from students and the wider public against “dinosaur politics” caused many of of the party’s TDs to leave the chamber as the vote was called. Due to this pressure, the bill will now go to the Education Committee.

The protests in the wake of the trial – which forced the sacking of Jackson and Olding by Ulster Rugby and have prompted a review into the conduct of such trials in the future – are the beginnings of a movement against misogyny, against victim blaming and against rape culture. We can link this to the wider movement against sexism worldwide, in particular across South America with the ‘Ni Una Menos’ movement and in Spain, with tens of thousands protesting across the country after the recent clearing of the ‘manada’ (wolf pack) of the gang rape of a young woman. It is imperative we continue to build this movement to win the fight in ending sexism, misogyny and oppression worldwide.

By Lucy Marron