Rape culture in Ireland

The setting of a date (May 25, by the way) for the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment should have been a day to celebrate Irish feminism making progress. Instead, it was overshadowed by the verdict in the Ulster rugby rape trial, which brought the covers off a cesspool of misogyny apparently still present in Ireland.

For me, what the reaction to the verdict showed is that there are two distinct layers to rape culture in Ireland.

The first can be seen in the overt reaction of some, mostly men, celebrating the verdict. I am not going to write much about the trial itself because I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. I accept the verdict is the verdict. The reaction to that, however, is a different matter.

I’ve previously written here about how people respond to political messages emotionally, rather than analytically. How it works is kinda fascinating: the brain receives the contradictory information, does a post-hoc rationalisation, and then activates the reward centres – meaning you actually get rewarded for rationalising away contradictory information, in much the same way that addicts get their fix. That’s not just true for politics; it works the same for receiving most messages, and it’s absolutely the case here.

While the jury decided that the defendants are not guilty, that doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth – in fact, they can’t be, their stories contradict each other. It’s impossible for them all to be telling the truth. Two them even told much the same story, which is very difficult to rationalise in a way that looks good for them. That’s why the reaction is so worrying: it’s impossible to believe all the defendants rationally, so those cheering the verdict must emotionally relate to the defendants or their case in some way.

Now, obviously a couple of the defendants are rugby players for Ulster and Ireland, and that has the makings of an emotional connection. But I’ve seen plenty of strong rugby fans who have clearly not emotionally identified with them during the case, so I don’t think that’s it. Emotion can be overcome by stronger emotion, and the strength of the emotions surrounding the trial and the evidence was much stronger than the emotional attachment to even a national team.

Instead, the key emotional reaction will have been to the accusations made against the four defendants, and to the misogyny on display. Misogynistic attitudes were quite evident during the trial; in particular, the messages exchanged by the defendants reveal an attitude to women that does not belong in this decade in Ireland. Many of those cheering loudest at their acquittal probably relate to this. In fact, they probably believe the woman’s story more than the defendants’ versions; they simply don’t see anything wrong with what they were accused of. Possibly many of them have acted similarly in the past, and related on a very core level.

It seems clear, from what has been said online, particularly on Twitter, that some people sadly see women as just objects to have sex with. That it doesn’t matter who you’re having sex with, as long as you’re having it. I see no appeal in that; that’s not really sex, it’s just using a warm body as a masturbation aid. I cannot see how anyone can get sexual pleasure from that. What pleasure derives from this is really about power and reinforcement of what frankly must be a very fragile masculinity. I can’t imagine that consent is particularly important to someone who thinks in that manner.

That’s the first level of rape culture in Ireland, which has now become overt. I think many women are actually glad to see this this come to the surface, because it’s let them identify some people they now know to avoid.

But there’s a second, deeper, and still hidden level of rape culture, which is even more dangerous because it’s less overt. This is clear from the response of Irish women to the verdict – especially clear through the #ibelieveher movement. Reading the tweets from that hashtag, it’s very clear that many, if not the majority of Irish women, have had sexual encounters they didn’t want. That’s why they relate so much to the case – because they emotionally identify with the woman on a fundamental level through shared experience. Absolutely, there are those – both women and men – who sympathise on a human level without that shared experience, but from what I’ve seen, they are fewer in number.

I don’t think it would be too far from the truth to say the opposite holds true too. Many, possibly even a majority of Irish men have probably had sexual encounters of which they have much better memories than the women involved. Not because the men jumped someone down a dark alley with a knife – that still seems to be the image that most people jump to when you say rape, but the truth is that most victims know their rapist. Many rapists don’t know or don’t believe that they are rapists. Many women also consent to sex when they don’t really want to. Many men will have had encounters where the women involved didn’t want to do it, and the men didn’t realise. That could be because the women didn’t feel they could say no – maybe they’d already gone home with them and changed their mind but felt obligated, maybe it was a girlfriend who wasn’t in the mood but felt pressured, maybe they were just a bit too drunk and couldn’t really consent properly, or any one of a million different reasons. The results of that run the gamut from bad sex (in the sense of this article by Ella Dawson which you should definitely read) to rape, and everything in between.

I’ve seen more than a few comments online from women noting that people who have raped or sexually assaulted them in the past are joining in the the #ibelieveher movement. I’m not commenting on any of those in particular here, but that isn’t necessarily because they’re deliberately being deceitful or two-faced. Some are, for sure, but in many cases it could actually be that the men in question genuinely believe they’re good guys, perhaps even regard themselves as feminists, while completely misunderstanding consent.

A very real problem is that people think they understand consent, when they don’t. I know how easy a trap that is to fall into; if you’d asked me 5 years ago if I understood, I’d have said of course I did. The truth is I absolutely didn’t, and I’m very glad for a couple of good friends and some of the amazing people I follow on Twitter for showing me how much I didn’t understand, which was very eye-opening. I think I’m probably very lucky that they helped me before I might have unintentionally made a terrible mistake. I’m sure there’s still things I don’t get.

I’m not going to give a lesson in consent here – I’m not the right person to do that. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, as they say, and I don’t think I’m in a position to be casting any stones here. I think this article from @girlonthenet is a good place to start, and this thread by @roemcdermott is a good reminder that while consent is important in the legal sense, that’s absolutely not the only aspect of consent. There’s plenty of good sources out there.

My personal rule now – I stole it off someone but I can’t remember who – is “don’t do anything with anyone who wants it less than you do”.

I wish I knew how to fix this dual-layer rape culture, both the overt layer and the underlying almost accidental layer. For future generations, I think it’s very clear that consent should be taught properly in schools, I think ideally by specialists who go around schools rather than dumping it as another task onto already overworked teachers. For the rest of us, I don’t really know. I’m not done thinking about it, and I’m certainly not done listening to those who know this issue a lot better than me. But at least this trial has revealed to everyone the true, and worrying, extent of the problem.

Images from @fillyc (here) and @hvixx (here)

About the Author

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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