Belfast Telegraph

Vilified and shamed, no wonder women are not keen to speak up

By Colette Browne

In the wake of the not guilty verdicts that were handed down in Belfast Crown Court this week, there is a real danger that victims of sexual violence will opt not to report those crimes.

According to Women's Aid Northern Ireland, it has already had numerous calls from victims of rape "who have stated that they will not report to police or engage with the criminal justice and court system because of what they have seen the woman be put through during the course of the trial".

Those who have followed the case over its gruelling nine weeks have seen the complainant's right to anonymity be attacked; learned of voyeurs turning up to court in the hopes of hearing salacious details of that infamous night in June 2016 first-hand; and heard details of a seven-day cross-examination in which four senior counsel robustly tested the complainant's evidence.

"What other woman would ever put herself through that?" is an alarmingly ubiquitous reaction, now that the four accused men have walked free from court.

However, there is a danger, given the saturation coverage of this trial in the media, that the legal process in Northern Ireland and the Republic will become conflated - with women too fearful to come forward.

For a start, in the Republic, those accused of rape are not named in advance of a conviction - and are only named afterwards when their victims agree to renounce their anonymity.

Further, members of the public are not allowed to turn up and enjoy a day out in the court, sitting in the public gallery and listening to the prurient details of sexual offences, because trials are held in private.

These two differences alone would have hugely impacted the coverage of this case, as the celebrity status of the accused rugby stars would never have been revealed and the complainant's right to anonymity would have been better protected.

That said, as a society we must do more to support those women who take the brave step of coming forward and reporting sexual crime. Because rates of prosecution, and conviction, are incredibly low.

In an article in 2010, Mr Justice Peter Charleton and Stephen Byrne examined Irish law, and criminal procedure, when it came to sexual offences.

In an analysis of all of the rape and attempted rape cases that had come before the Central Criminal Court between 2003 and 2008, they found that a prosecution only went forward in less than 20% of cases that were reported to gardai.

Even more worrying was the fact that the chance of obtaining a conviction, when the accused contested the charges, was consistently below 20%. In 2008, just 10.8% of cases in which an accused had pleaded not guilty resulted in a conviction.

Mr Justice Charleton and Mr Byrne also pointed to the impossibly exacting standards that are expected of, often traumatised, victims who come forward to testify in rape trials, where there is an expectation that they will give confident testimony and remain entirely consistent in their account of the alleged crime.

"Witnesses who have been sexually attacked are rarely completely consistent, few witnesses are. A mugging or a bank robbery is upsetting, but is it upsetting in the same way as a violent sexual attack?

"If any of us were called upon to speak of the details of our sexual conduct into a microphone, in front of about 30 strangers, we might possibly exhibit the kind of hesitancy and nervousness that could be taken as the mark of a liar," they wrote.

While more should be done to support vulnerable complainants in court, these extremely low rates of convictions cannot just be a consequence of the law and of criminal procedure.

They point to something more fundamental at play, about the way victims of sexual crime are viewed in society.

Depressingly, attitudes to women alleging rape don't seem to have advanced very much since Lord Hall examined the issue in 1678. Back then, he outlined what the 'ideal victim' should look like and how she should behave in the wake of an attack. "If the witness be of good fame, if she presently discovered the offence and made pursuit after the offender, showed circumstances and signs of injury…if the place wherein the fact was done was remote from people … if the offender fled, these and the like are concurring evidences to give greater probability to her testimony".

In short, Lord Hall was only prepared to give credence to those women who were violently attacked by strangers, and that is a pernicious view that has stubbornly persisted in the intervening 340 years.

In a Eurobarometer poll in 2016, 21% of Irish respondents thought that having sex without consent was acceptable in certain situations, 11% thought being drunk or on drugs justified sex without consent, while 7% thought that walking alone at night justified an attack.

While Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison have now been acquitted of the charges against them, a verdict which must be respected, their boorish attitude to women was revealed in the text messages they exchanged after the alleged assault.

Perhaps the most revealing of these was not a message that related to the complainant at all, but rather the caption Blane McIlroy attached to a picture of three other women who had been at the party on the night of the alleged rape.

"Love Belfast sluts" was how he referred to the young women - who had simply gone back to the home of Paddy Jackson to have a few drinks before getting a taxi home - in a WhatsApp message to his friends.

This denigration of women, or what Donald Trump would call "locker room talk", is indicative of a culture of entitlement - where men have come to view women as sex objects, which exist for their gratification.

Some young men, who are growing up in an era when women can be ordered online like a takeaway meal by swiping right on dating apps, and who are exposed to extreme pornography from an early age, seem incapable of empathising with women.

This demeaning attitude to women is something that is, regrettably, going to be much harder to reform than our adversarial legal system.

Colette Browne is a columnist for the Irish Independent

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