Belfast rape trial a story that will be retold for years to come

In sexual relations, successful men don’t have to be persuaded they’re worth it

Belfast rape trial: Paddy Jackson outside court after all four defendants were cleared of all charges. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Belfast rape trial: Paddy Jackson outside court after all four defendants were cleared of all charges. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

What happened in that bedroom that night in Belfast has become a litmus test for examining changes in the sexual relations between men and women.

What was the woman thinking, going back to a house full of drunk men without backup? What were the men thinking? Did they think that they had died and gone to heaven, that they were playing parts in some fantasy porn movie, that this woman whom they had never met was just gagging for it?

During the trial, daily radio reports were prefaced by warnings that the material was unsuitable for children or those with “sensitive ears”. But in the #MeToo era this became a story that had to be told. We understand our lives through the lives of celebrities. They are the saints and sinners who create our parables.

It is only because the defendants were celebrities that the case attracted so much attention. And it is only because defendants in the UK are not entitled to anonymity that there was so much coverage. Regardless of the verdict, the men and the woman were always going to be tried in the court of public opinion.

This is the main reason why the Belfast rape trial has become a story that will be told and retold for years to come. It has led to debate and discussion in homes, pubs, clubs and cafes about the different demands and expectations of men and women when it comes to initiating, negotiating and having sex. It is a story of changing norms about sexual relations, of who can do what to whom, how, when and where. It is a story of how, when the game of sex goes wrong, celebrities can be tainted for life.

It is a story about “lads being lads”, of being high on drink and success, of moving from talking the talk to walking the walk and having a “spit roast”. It is about men seeing sex as something that they have a right to and that, when it seems to be offered, can be taken like a sandwich from a plate; and that it does not matter who is offering it. It is about being heroes, earning bragging rights and becoming legends.

No matter how civilised men may be, no matter how virtuous they may appear, deep within them lurks a sexual drive that can easily burst out

The trial revealed, once again, that no matter how polite and civilised men may be, no matter how honourable and virtuous they may appear, deep within them lurks a sexual drive that can easily burst out, given the right conditions. They are lured into believing that the type of sex they want is what women want.

It is a story, the accused men argued, of a young woman looking back on a sexual encounter. Feeling she had been caught behind enemy lines. Wondering not if it had been pleasurable but to what extent it had been consensual, and then beginning to see and understand it as rape.

The trial revealed the double standards in sexual relations. Highly successful men don’t need to be persuaded that they are worth it: they know it from the looks they get, from the way women come on to them. It is an honour for a woman to be possessed by them. The four men have been found not guilty. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to overcome the smear of being involved in the events of that night. Being arrested, being named, being brought to trial, bringing shame on themselves and their families. Regardless of the verdict, they have been stigmatised.

At another level the trial has a broader cultural dimension. Ulster Protestant identity has long been founded on being different from Irish Catholic identity. It was not just about playing different sports, listening to different music, going to different pubs; it was also a fight for moral superiority. It was about public decorum, about being private, quiet and, ostensibly, sober.

Perhaps the shock and horror for many good Ulster Protestants were caused not only by the sexual activities in the bedroom that night but also by the amount of drink taken in the pub and the nightclub

If there was any letting go it took place quietly, behind closed doors. It was about not letting the side down. There have been plenty of Protestant rabble-rousers, of course, most notably George Best and Alex Higgins. But for good Ulster Protestant society they were the exceptions.

Perhaps the shock and horror for many good Ulster Protestants were caused not only by the sexual activities in the bedroom that night but also by the amount of drink taken in the pub and the nightclub.

The other source of shock and horror is that this all took place in the heartland of good, middle-class society. How could such decent lads, from such decent homes, from such decent schools, behave this way?

The question now is whether, having been found innocent, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding will be accepted back into the fold. Will they be able to regain the honour and respect they once had, or will they be shunned?

Tom Inglis is associate professor of sociology at University College Dublin