Some of you may have been following the Northern Irish case whereby after a gruelling trial, Irish and Ulster rugby players were found not guilty of raping a 19-year-old female student at a house party two years ago. It had been an emotional, exhausting and traumatic nine weeks for many who were following the case.
The woman did what we are all taught to do. She disclosed to people she trusted, sought medical help, reported the incident to the police, agreed to be a prosecution witness, and sat through nine weeks of humiliation as every detail of that night came under scrutiny inside and outside the court. This included questions regarding her choice of clothing. Had she been drinking? Her blood-stained underwear was passed around the court and ‘slut-shaming’ by both the media and in the court.
What this case has highlighted is why so few survivors come forward and furthermore the stigma and myths surrounding incidences of rape. So in this piece I have challenged some that have arisen from this case.
In the recent court case one of the barristers stated; “ why didn’t she scream, there were a lot of middle class girls downstairs, they were not going to tolerate rape or anything like that. Why didn’t she scream the house down?” I mean, if only it was that easy. We all know of fight and flight but the freeze is always forgotten. It’s like the deer in the headlights, frozen. With the freeze reaction a part of the brain called the amygdala, detects an attack and signals the brainstem to inhibit movement. Alongside that the stress hormones, called Cortisol is released. This causes a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities leading us unable to think rationally. It is called collapsed immobility’ and is incredibly frightening for the survivor. The lack of education by this barrister ultimately punished this women for her neurological responses to assault.
Self lubricating ( ‘being wet’) can happen during sexual assault. There is a myth that lubricating only occurs during pleasure and therefore a reaction like this would indicate consent. However, studies suggest genital responses are a physiological defence mechanism. Studies carried out in 2001 at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology revealed that genital reactions during an assault are physical, reflexive responses – which are actually the body’s way of minimising injury, such as tearing and pain. Pretty smart really. This includes when there are non-consensual and violent incidents, even when experiencing anxiety and distress such as an incident of rape or assault, regardless of one’s level of enthusiasm or emotional buy-in. This, physiological response does not imply desire, and it definitely does not imply consent.
The statistic of those who experience orgasms during sexual assault are approx 4–5%. The true numbers are likely much higher due to survivors feeling confusion or shame. Orgasm during rape isn’t an example of an expression of pleasure. For example; while tickling can be pleasurable, when it is done against someone’s wishes it can be very unpleasant experience. And during that unpleasant experience, amid calls to stop, the one being tickled will continue laughing. They just can’t help it. Sexual arousal and orgasm appear to originate from the autonomic nervous system— the same reflex-driven system that underlies heart rate, digestion, and perspiration.
The presence of sexual arousal during rape is about as relevant to consent as any of these other responses.
There have many occasions where a trial occurs and the perpetrator is found ‘not guilty’. I have heard, on numerous occasions people claiming that the survivor was lying on Twitter; “she is just looking for fame.” Firstly just to nip that one in the bud-she remained anonymous-so Twitter user you may sit back down. There remains a public impression that false allegations are common and that innocent people suffer as the result of being wrongfully accused. Yet the Crown Prosecution Service carried out a report that disrepruits these allegations. This stated that in 2011 (over 17 months) there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape, 35 of these were deemed to have been false allegations, that is 0.6% of cases. This is an incredibly small percentage.
Many survivors are worried about not being believed and being put through a distressing time in court. Survivors often have to wait years to go to trial and then subsequently have their sexual history investigated, clothing, vaginal investigation and sit on a stand to be cross examined. In the aftermath of the verdict, Irish women have been vocal in their rage and frustration at yet another incident of a woman not being believed or trusted. Following this trial, and (ashamedly) reading the negative comments on social media I became outraged; “why didn’t she scream?” “She just regretted it in the morning,” “she was looking for fame” and it goes on and on shaming the survivor. I am exhausted by this. Myths have to be busted, more information to be provided and as proven in this piece; lawyers, judges and juries should be educated. So that survivors feel empowered to come forward.