Paddy Jackson, "innocence", rape and redemption


When Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were acquitted, in March, of all charges in a rape trial that lasted nine weeks (while the jury's deliberations lasted three hours and 40 minutes), we should have known that wouldn't be the end of things. It was a verdict that sparked outrage and protests; we asked questions about consent and machismo; we talked about a culture that causes men to believe they are entitled to women's bodies; we asked whether "not guilty" and "innocent" are interchangeable. We said – I said, at least – that Jackson and Olding, the two Ulster rugby players at the centre of the trial (they were each charged with rape, while McIlroy and Harrison were charged with exposure and perverting the course of justice, respectively) would never play rugby again.

Yet here we are.

Paddy Jackson signs deal with Perpignan

Today it was announced that Paddy Jackson – who was acquitted of rape and sexual assault - has signed a two-year deal to play for Perpignan, in France. His contract with Ulster was revoked, as was that of Stuart Olding, after the trial, following a review of their behaviour by the IRFU.

The behaviour in question isn't rape; no, that was never proven in court. Instead, their conduct was being reviewed in the light of text messages they sent, after they "pumped a bird" one Monday evening last June. They claimed that any sexual interaction they had with the unnamed woman was consensual – nevertheless, they spent the following day discussing her in a Whatsapp group as if she were a prize heifer they'd just bought at auction.

Is presumption enough?

In an interview with police, Paddy Jackson said, "I presume if it was happening she wanted it to happen". I don't think the police thought to ask if he had checked with her. Is it enough to presume sex is consensual? Is it enough to presume that "she didn't have to stay, she could have left if she wanted to"?

I guess, the sad fact of the matter is: in terms of a trial, in terms of legal proceedings, in terms of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that what occurred between Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and the woman – with the knowledge of Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison – constituted rape, presumption was, indeed, enough. It was enough that Paddy Jackson presumed she wanted it. It was enough that he presumed she would've left if she hadn't. On that day in March, it was enough.

Rape is rarely – if ever – black and white

The thing is, when we're taught about rape, we're only taught about the down-the-alley cases. We're told stories of girls who got in the wrong car, at the wrong time, tales of women walking home alone after dark. We read books in which women are assaulted, punched, kicked, held down and forced – in situations they couldn't possibly escape from. Nobody tells the stories about the drunk partner who didn't take no for an answer; about the friend who misinterpreted the signs; about the man at the house party, who presumed you would have left if you hadn't been into it.

By that same token, men aren't told that presumption could turn them into rapists. They're not taught that they should ask for enthusiastic consent; they're not warned that women may be frightened of them because they're bigger and stronger and more powerful, because they play rugby and it's their house she's in and they want to be polite. Can we blame them if they choose to misread the signs?

Should Paddy Jackson be an example?

The thing is, I think we can – and should – lay the blame where it belongs: at the men who ignore the signs. Paddy Jackson, whether or not he was found guilty by a court of law, admitted that he did not seek enthusiastic consent; his texts were plain for all to read; his guilt, if guilt means not caring about what that woman wanted, was assured.

The question of whether or not his life should be ruined is less important, I think, than what message we want to send. In a way, it's about sacrificing one person for the greater good. I wouldn't necessarily throw him to the lions; I wouldn't even send him to prison. He wasn't found guilty – I understand that.

But he was guilty, by his own omission, of not caring about women; about that woman; about what she wanted. I think that's significant. I think the question of whether or not he deserves to have a career as a rugby player – a career with prestige, with power, with more money than your average 9-to-5-er – is worth asking.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But what I am sure of is what message it sends – to men and women, here and everywhere – that the rugby world is happy to forgive Paddy Jackson. It sends the message that he was right; it doesn't matter what that woman wanted. Maybe it doesn't matter what any of us want – in the end, it makes no difference.

That woman spent nine weeks listening to her life, her character, her sexual history, her drinking habits and her words (or lack thereof) being dissected by a jury of "her peers". When it was over (although will it ever be over, for her?), she was told that there was not enough evidence to find these men guilty of assaulting her. Having not been proven guilty, they are innocent. If they are innocent, she is lying. Their innocence equals her guilt.

And a few short months later, Paddy Jackson is off to France, where he'll drink nice wine and perfect his French and play rugby at a high level. The moral of the story? All's well that ends well for men who are good at sports.

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