The Butler Scholarly Journal

The St Cuthbert’s Rugby Social

By Ali Poll

I have read much over the previous months regarding the actions of Cuth’s rugby club, and aside from the harm the original actions have caused, what worries me most is the response of others. I have read often that their ban from playing was unfair, that their free speech has been impeded, and that those who called them out on it are just boring. This worries me so much because it points to a level of acceptance where this sort of behaviour seems almost expected of those playing in male-dominated sports. What I really hope is that by the end of this article, you will have an idea of why this isn’t a case over people being “over-sensitive” or wanting to restrict people having a good laugh, but it is about allowing the entire population of Durham to feel safe in their own city; a right which these actions, and the collusion with them from a majority of Durham students, is seriously infringing.

First, let’s look at why people don’t think this is a problem. Apparently rape is funny. That seems to be the sticking point in most people’s defences of such actions and attitudes. Before we go any further, it thus seems necessary to clarify something: It isn’t. And thus a group dressing as possibly the most famous rapists of recent times whilst chasing schoolchildren-impersonating freshers around town really isn’t funny. One thing it certainly is not, is satire: the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. There was no attempt made to ridicule, criticise or condemn Savile’s actions as rapist and child abuser, and you’d be hard pressed to call them ‘stupidity or vices’ anyway: it was done for pure entertainment and shock value, and to evoke a response. Well, you got one. It seems people just haven’t considered why this could be anything but a laugh, so this being the case, I shall spell it out: triggering. That is sensory cues which take victim/survivors of rape or sexual abuse back to that event, and the trauma that goes with it. To draw a parallel (not a particular good one if you analyse it in depth, but it makes a point): would you take a soldier suffering from PTSD after a return from Afghanistan and make them watch a war film, witness a “suicide bomber themed social”, or play Call of Duty? I thought not. And so comparatively surely you wouldn’t force a victim/ survivor of rape or sexual abuse to witness a rapist-themed social? By doing so, you may be causing them to suffer harm and trauma beyond your comprehension. I can’t imagine how this would feel, and I am fortunate that in being male, I am around 8 times less likely to in my life, but I have enough empathy with people’s emotions to realise this isn’t the sort of deep trauma I would want to cause someone. That isn’t “banter”.

So how likely is it that this social came across a victim/survivor of rape or sexual assault? Again, this seems to be dismissed as negligibly low. I wish it were, but if 200 males and 200 females saw this social, even using the most conservative reported statistics around completed rape, that’s 10 female and 2 male survivors. Including attempted rape and serious sexual assault, the figure could rise to 45 or so in total – 45 people dealing with the emotional trauma of rape or serious sexual abuse that have just witness 20 or more rugby players dressed as a famous rapist, chasing schoolgirl-impressionist freshers around town. Add to that that as many as 1 in 7 female students experience rape or sexual assault whilst at university, and I assume I don’t need be to point out again the potential for triggering flashbacks in this situation, and the enormous harm this can have on a victim/survivor’s life. Such statistics are often dismissed, even ‘a joke’ I’ve been informed (strange sense of humour, but I guess if rape is funny, rape statistics may also give you a chuckle to pass those long northern winter evenings) but they are unfortunately true, supported by government and charity based research. It’s a fact. So now consider the actions of Cuth’s rugby club in light of the harm this may have caused these people, and tell me its banter. Of course, this is aside from the effect this has on victims of ‘less serious’, but still severely traumatic, forms of sexual abuse, violence or harassment, or those who simply feel vulnerable walking through town at night because of the awful statistics, and that they are constantly reminded by people that, if they get raped, its apparently often their fault. On top of that, we also have the added strain on the ‘town vs gown’ relationship, given this sort of behaviour is often cited as a reason local residents find the student population irritating, if not downright rude and obnoxious. So you begin to see layer upon layer of people who aren’t annoyed because they don’t think your joke isn’t funny; they’re annoyed because you’ve caused them personal trauma or a feeling of vulnerability which no one should be made to feel.

And, as a final note on this incident, it is not an infringement of their human rights, personal liberty or free speech to ban them from competitive rugby because of this. Such decisions are based on a balance; is it more important that a group of guys are allowed to dress up as paedophiles and chase their team-mates through the streets, or that members of the Durham community have the right to not fear threatening or triggering behaviour when walking through the streets of town. Well having read the rest of this article, I hope you’re able to make your own mind up on that one.

To discuss the implications of these actions and people’s responses is a more general manner, I think it is important to look at how people have reacted to this situation, and the reasons they cite. High on the list is a complete lack of awareness of the harm that can be caused triggering victim/survivors and causing other to feel unsafe, but what is applicable to the Cuth’s rugby saga, as it seems to have become, is applicable the same way in all such situations. To me, more worrying is the disbelief that figures for rape and sexual assault are as high as they are, and this is part of what can only be described as a victim-blaming and silencing culture. People don’t believe these statistics because of the sever under-reporting of such crimes, but can you honestly imagine why you would report them, when the majority of Durham Tab readers have been happy to align itself to the view that this is actually acceptable behaviour, and that rape and child abuse are things worthy of mocking, not condemning.

The link between the actions of paedophile-clad rugby players and genuine rapists and rape victims may seem tenuous, but is about perpetuating a culture. In the UK, it is estimated that fewer than 0.5% of rapes result in a rapist being prosecuted. This is because there is disbelief of the victim at every stage of the process: their sexual history is scrutinized and the reason for ending up in the situation they did is usually pinned on them. If the victim had been drinking, willingly gone somewhere with the rapist, or even had sex with them on a previous occasion, there is even less chance of a prosecution. People don’t make up rape accusations for fun (fewer than 6% of accusations are believed to be false), they do it in almost all cases because they have been raped. However, whilst society keeps on blaming the victims, reports and prosecutions will remain low. How do you change this? You make it so that victim/survivors know that they will be believed, and that their trauma won’t be mocked. Using rape as a vehicle for your own amusement does the complete opposite, and silences victims. Unfortunately, especially within male-dominated sports, this seems to be almost expected behaviour, which extends from ‘rape jokes’ and the belief that someone ‘deserves it’ or ‘is asking for it’ for dressing or acting in a certain manner, to incidents of dressing as rapists and thinking it’s funny. Whilst you continue to do this, you continue to tell both victims and perpetrators of rape and sexual assault that you think it’s acceptable. And whilst that is the case, people won’t come forward as victims of rape, and rapists won’t be prosecuted, so people will carry on not believing the victims.

Clearly this is a vicious circle of disbelief, victim-blaming and under-reporting, but it ends when we as a society want it to. I don’t believe most of these actions are malicious, but borne from a complete misunderstanding of the issues discussed in this article. But that is why this message needs to be made more widespread. No one is saying you can’t go out in fancy dress, have a few drinks and a good laugh, but please for the sake of every one of the victim/ survivors already dealing with their trauma, and those who will experience it in the future because we continue to condone such actions, just stop: stop perpetuating this culture, and it will make a difference. Seriously, rape isn’t funny.