Does our system stop women speaking up against sexual assault?
Women speaking up should not suffer the inequalities of our system
Women speaking up have always struggled to find justice in an inherently sexist system. We need to make sure that current social movements continue to support them.
The hashtag #IBelieveHer, an echo of the #MeToo movement, this time felt more like a hopeless consolation prize. Several Irish and Ulster rugby "lads" were pronounced 'not guilty' at the end of a nine week rape trial in Northern Ireland in March. The young men involved were accused of raping a 19 year old student at a party two years previously. There were various text messages between the men bragging about their sexual encounter with the girl in question and their attitudes to other women.
“Any sluts get f*cked?” and “Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her.”
What the verdict means for women
The hashtag highlights the disappointment felt by many. Despite the verdict, it was described by the Irish Times, “does not erase the horrific sexism of the players”. The whole trial was gruelling and invasive. The long nine weeks saw every detail of the night come under scrutiny, down to passing around the girl’s bloodied underwear in court. And it’s not an isolated case.
Earlier the same month in the US, a Yale student accused of raping a woman on Halloween was also acquitted of all charges. In court his lawyers grilled the woman on various subjects. How much she had to drink, if she had been flirting, and why she had worn such a provocative Halloween costume. Laura Palumbo, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center described the questioning as:
“Intentionally working to trigger victim-blaming and stereotypes and misconceptions about sexual assault.”
The question now isn’t whether the jury was right or wrong about the technical definition of rape. It’s in a case like this how can such a black and white verdict be drawn? The specifics of the Ulster trial don’t wipe away the deep misogyny and misconduct of the men involved. It highlights how much work there still is to be done regarding the innate mistrust of female victims. This includes the blurred lines around consent, as well as thinking there is an acceptable line that defines what’s up for the taking and what isn’t. What message are we giving to young girls that find themselves the victims of assault or rape? To stay quiet as no one will believe them? To think carefully as only certain levels of sexual harassment are taken seriously?
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Why do we blame the victim?
So why is this culture of victim-blaming hard wired into the system? When you ask a woman if she has been sexually harassed many women will say “no”. But when made to think about it, almost all of those women can still come up with at least one “well there was this one time” story. We are bred to view day to day harassment as a fact of life. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of the Guardian sums it up as:
“A kind of weary acceptance and sadness at the tedious inevitability of it all”.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that the trivialising of rape culture as a simple “boys will be boys” attitude translates into the courtrooms and into public opinion. The passive way stories about sexual assault are presented in the media also contribute to victim-blaming. Statistics are usually presented as however many women were victims of assault as opposed to how many men were the perpetrators of assault. This removes accountability and pressure from males.
Women speaking up is vital
That’s why now, more than ever, we need to show solidarity with women to speak out against sexual assault. We can’t let cases like what’s now been dubbed the ‘Rugby Rape Trial’ negate the growing movement against sexual harassment that was born from #metoo and the Hervey Weinstein scandals and subsequent #timesup. What the Aziz Ansari case showed us is that society is trying to redefine where it draws its line around consent. Despite the Rugby Rape Trial and the Yale case falling short of that line this time, we must not let it diminish the sentiment of the movement. It is still only just beginning.
Within 24 hours of the verdict being delivered on the Ulster trial, thousands took to the streets in Dublin and Belfast to protest in solidarity with the complainant. Women speaking up made an impact. This shows that public opinion is demanding change and that people have had enough. We need to keep growing the movement that fights against accepting sexual assault as a part of life. It is up to all of us to start holding people accountable. We need to make our system a place where women feel safe to speak out.
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