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After rape trials, is the court of public opinion now trumping the law?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Sarah Ditum

Why should women respect the law, when the law was written by and for men who have no respect for women? It’s a question that the suffragettes dispatched briskly when their agenda of arson and bombings was attacked: if men refused to let women make laws, women had no reason to obey laws. And while men were deploring the damage to their property, women themselves were being damaged by men: denigrated, abused, assaulted and sexually exploited. For Christabel Pankhurst, one of the strongest arguments in favour of votes for women was that “when they are citizens, women… will have the power to enact laws for their protection”.

A century into female suffrage, the law still isn’t working for women. That’s not to say that the situation hasn’t improved vastly since the 19th century. Men can no longer call on the “nagging and shagging” defence when they murder their wives and girlfriends. (If a man could convince a court that his victim was “disobedient” or unfaithful, the court would often decide that he was justified in killing her.) Marital rape is now recognised as a crime, not merely men exercising their reasonable sexual entitlement within the marriage contract. Coercive control is understood, finally, as a form of male violence. But still many women look at the legal system and know, instinctively, that it wasn’t made for them.

Take the words of the complainant in the recent trial of two Ulster rugby players for rape. “I’m not going to the police,” she texted a friend the morning after her encounter with the players. “I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yeah because that’ll work.” To say it didn’t work is not to question the outcome but raises a wider issue. The players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were both found unanimously not guilty (as were their friends Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, who had been charged with lesser offences relating to the same events). So Jackson and Olding are not rapists. Yet reading the court reports, it’s difficult to believe that what happened was justice for women.

An act can fall short of criminal and still be a deep and awful wrong. WhatsApp messages and texts introduced as evidence during the trial revealed that these men, these non-rapists, spoke about women with the deepest, most dehumanising contempt. “Any sluts get fucked?”; “Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her. Then another on Tuesday night”; “Love Belfast sluts”. The jury settled the legal formality of their guilt, but, as with myriad other men, the case to answer doesn’t end with an acquittal. That’s why women were protesting outside the Ulster Rugby grounds on Friday. That’s why Jackson and Olding have been sacked from Ulster Rugby.

a man wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera: Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last month, are to leave the club. © Provided by Guardian News Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last month, are to leave the club. Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last month, are to leave the club.Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

This makes some men twitchy, imagining an encroaching dystopia where men will lose their livelihood simply on a woman’s say-so. (The fact that women live in a very present dystopia of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination is, unsurprisingly, of less concern to these worried men.) Jackson and Olding are not guilty, so why should they be punished? What if #ibelieveher means that men can never be presumed innocent? The case of the man known only as Nick, whose lurid allegations of a child sex ring in Westminster proved to be spectacularly unfounded, shows that testimony is only one kind of evidence and, like all evidence, it may be misleading.

But what #ibelieveher answers is the tendency of the legal system to fail to respond to the painful experience of women. For centuries, women’s stories have been discounted, dismissed and ignored. John Worboys was able to rape scores of women because police chose not to believe his victims. Then, when Worboys had been convicted, the parole board repeated the mistake: it failed to consider his wider offending, referring only to the sample brought to trial, and released him early. It was a decision that showed utter contempt for victims of sexual violence, and one that, thanks to the work of the Centre for Women’s Justice, was rightly reversed.

Jackson and Olding’s sacking, in any case, is not about #ibelieveher. It’s about #ibelievehim. The words were not evidence of rape, but they’re certainly sufficient for us to make our own casual judgments about what kind of men they are. They’re the kind of men who think women are “sluts” to be “pumped” and “fucked”. If women really are to be citizens, and not objects, then such misogyny should be an absolute bar to acceptance in society.

You only have to look at the president of the US to see how rarely men face any kind of consequences for their woman-hating. But it’s in these consequences, such as those faced by Jackson and Olding, that the world begins to change. Their sacking represents a communal decision that women shouldn’t be treated as they treated women. It tells other men that they no longer have the licence to make such comments, to commit such acts. It tells women that we do, after all, matter, and we will – eventually – be listened to.

That change needs to go much further than these two men losing their jobs. And the law needs to go further still to catch up. The justice system was not made for women and women have every reason to be suspicious of the police, the CPS and the judiciary. But pressure from feminists has led to the partial reform of all those institutions and with determined work from groups such as the Centre for Women’s Justice, Christabel Pankhurst’s vision of women enacting laws for their own protection can, finally, become a reality.

• Sarah Ditum is a freelance writer on politics, culture and lifestyle

Protesters demonstrate outside Kingspan stadium in Belfast on 13 April. The ‘Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby’ protest follows the acquittal of players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding following a rape trial. © Getty Images Protesters demonstrate outside Kingspan stadium in Belfast on 13 April. The ‘Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby’ protest follows the acquittal of players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding following a rape trial.

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