01:16, April 13 168 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-13 01:16:04
Spare me these sob stories about the rugby misogynists

How do legends have sex, and who do they have it with? Perhaps it’s none of my business, except when these things become public knowledge, it’s because they are exposed in court.

That word “legends” sticks in my mind. Or rather in my craw. It was in one of the WhatsApp messages read out in court in the Belfast trial of the “star rugby players”, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, accused of rape and unanimously found not guilty last month.

The messages discussing what had happened the night before, for which they later apologised, talked of “shaggers”, of “Belfast sluts”, of “pumping a bird” and “spit-roasting”. Such technical terms had to be explained by barristers to the judge and jury, but somehow it was the self-glorifying “Why are we are such legends?” in the players’ WhatsApp group that got me. Legends indeed.

I am not sure this is the word they would be using now. This was a high-profile trial in which the woman who had accused them of rape had her bloodied knickers passed around a courtroom, in which the taxi driver who took her home told of her sobbing, and her distressed texts were also read out. Since the men’s acquittal further details have been released, of a pornographic video shared with Olding the day after the night in question.

The jury unanimously acquitted these men of rape. Their friends Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were unanimously found not guilty of indecent exposure and of perverting the course of justice. None of these men did anything illegal. Yet they are now fighting in a different court: the court of public opinion. The widespread disgust at the way that they spoke about the woman who they had sex with clings to them. It is the nature of what these young men said to each other that has appalled so many people and led to the creation of the hashtag #IBelieveHer.

This week a full-page advertisement has been taken out in the Belfast Telegraph by supporters of Jackson and Olding, asking that their suspension from Ulster and Ireland rugby duties be lifted. The advertisement reads: “As Ulster and Irish rugby fans we want these innocent men reinstated and rightly allowed to resume their roles … The IRFU [Irish Rugby Football Union] should take note of the silent majority and not bow to the court of social media.”

One wonders about the kind of sex these premier athletes actually want. This week Otto Putland, a swimmer who represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games, was also cleared of rape at Cardiff crown court. He had denied forcing himself on a woman after she had consensual sex with his friend, the Olympic swimmer Ieuan Lloyd.

Does male bonding have to involve the seeming humiliation of women, as it does in some American college fraternities? Is it always a kind of performance that needs to be watched by their mates? In the Belfast trial where a slang expert was brought in to explain “spit–roasting”, the woman spoke of one player penetrating her from behind while another player walked in naked, holding his penis, looking to join in.

Footballer Ched Evans, unanimously cleared of rape in 2016, had sex with a woman in a hotel room following a night out in Rhyl, immediately after his friend Clayton McDonald had had sex with her. Evans left via a fire exit without speaking to the woman. His younger brother and another man watched the encounter through a window.

So is this is the ultimate in hyper-masculine male bonding? What is happening when these young sportsmen who know each other’s bodies, whose business is their bodies, choose to enact their sexual desires in this way?

Of course, there is no reason why such sexual activity should not be consensual, and a lot of pornography indicates that such encounters are every woman’s fantasy. Perhaps, though, in such scenarios, the women is the vessel through which these young guys communicate their power to each other?

These men are not rapists, but they are guilty of  vile misogyny. None of them presumably has difficulty getting women, who flock to them. To bring Jackson and Olding back on to the rugby field now, as their supporters are demanding, would appear to endorse what looks like degrading behaviour. This would hardly be the first time such a thing has happened. But how do we teach the boys who admire and emulate sportsmen to respect women if this is how their role models conduct themselves? Talking after his acquittal about the risks of mixing alcohol and sex, Ched Evans said he had been “young” and “stupid” at the time.

Is behaviour such as Jackson’s and Olding’s – which some seem willing to write off as high jinks, high-testosterone pranks – in fact best understood as being meant for each other? These men may need an audience for their performances and then to congratulate each other the next day. But is this really living the dream?

For that dream, as we have seen, can turn into a nightmare for everyone involved, while a woman can look from the outside as if she is a disposable conduit, not a person in her own right. This is where we still are. And yet there are voices telling us to think about these poor innocent lads whose reputations are ruined. It is shameful.

Misogyny is not a crime, clearly, but spare me the suffering of these rugby legends. For them to be portrayed as victims, now? That is truly unbelievable.

Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist

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