Belfast Rape Trial – three small steps to change

I tried really hard this week to write about something else, something other than the verdict from Belfast last week and the subsequent reaction. But I couldn’t. Truth be told, I’ve thought about little else since the verdict.

I won’t dwell on the verdict; it’s been done to death by the amateur lawyers on Facebook. However, it has rightly been acknowledged that “not guilty” does not equate to “innocent”; and in a complex case like this, proof “beyond all reasonable doubt” always felt like a bridge too far. The only positive outcome – if there is one – is the conversations that have been started, but the time for conversation has long passed.

No occurrence or event happens in isolation. They are enabled by a culture; a culture that any of us can contribute to changing and improving. The sickening reporting of this trial was enabled by a culture that deems it acceptable for every salacious, stomach-churning detail of a traumatic encounter to be aired for the media vultures and baying crowds to feast upon. The circumstances of the night in question were enabled by a culture that, at a wider level, deems it acceptable for “lads” to behave like animals towards a woman; shame her in texts, laugh at her distress and pat themselves on the back for being “legends”. The reality that the well-being of a survivor of a sexual assault is the very last concern during a legal process is enabled by a culture that assumes by default, that when a woman claims to have been sexually assaulted that she is lying. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Every one of us in some way contributes to the culture in which these events unfold, which means that we are not powerless to change it. If you felt dismayed, upset or angry about any aspect of this trial, there are some small – but important – things you can do.

Firstly, if you have children, you can talk to them about the concept of consent. Help your daughters from an early age to understand that what they do with their bodies is their decision, not that of a partner, and empower them with the confidence to say no, assertively. Teach your sons to ask for permission, and emphasise that unless they are receiving very enthusiastic consent, to take a step back. Teach them that women are people, not playthings, and that women’s bodies do not exist for their visual or physical pleasure. Teach them to respect the word ‘no’. Dads, have these conversations with your sons, and start taking some responsibility for the way the world treats your daughters. And it will also protect your sons.

Lads, if you’re in company and one of your mates makes a crude joke about a woman, man up and call him out on it. Dinosaur behaviour went out with the dinosaurs and really, isn’t it time you grew up? So if your mate is trying to be the big man, maybe remind him that women actually prefer men who respect them.  Incidentally, what has been heartening about the week’s events is the amount of men who have stood up and empathised publicly with survivors of sexual assault and the toxic “macho” culture that enabled four privileged young men to congratulate themselves for their derogatory attitudes and juvenile antics. So thanks for that, lads, it’s appreciated. Tell your friends.

Thirdly, please consider donating to charities that support survivors of sexual violence. Having briefly worked in the sector, I cannot emphasise enough how cash-starved they are; the work they do is restricted and their capacity to research and contribute to policy formulation has been stifled – unforgivably so – by the current government who appear to deliberately oppress the sector in order to avoid addressing the very serious issues that real engagement would reveal. Rape Crisis organisations are rarely at the top of the charity wish-list when organising a fundraiser, but the work they do is literally, life-saving. So please consider running your next mini-marathon or making a donation to Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, who operate with a small team and very big hearts.

Just three small things. There are more.

Far away from Facebook, the power to change things is yours.

This article first appeared in the Mayo News on Tuesday, 3rd April 2018.

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