#ThisIsNotConsent: Underwear, Sexual Assault and Rape Culture

Last week, a court in County Cork heard the trial of a 27-year-old man accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. The case, which again came down to the issue of consent, centred around the girl’s willingness to engage with the man prior to the rape, rather than the actual rape itself.

The defendant’s counsel told the jury the pair had been spotted kissing during the night and, having left the venue, proceeded up a lane to have sex. Counsel was just short of saying the complainant was “asking for it” because of the underwear she was wearing. Yes, underwear.

“You have to look at the way she was dressed”, Senior Counsel Elizabeth O’Connell, defending the accused, is quoted saying to the jury. “She was wearing a thong with a lace front”. This was the culmination of her defence, with her argument resting entirely on the alleged victim’s appearance and her earlier interactions with the defendant that evening.

The jury of eight men and four women delivered a unanimous not-guilty verdict after just 90 minutes. It ultimately came down to how she was dressed, which simply put, is unacceptable. It feeds into the notion that what a woman wears dictates what her body wants. It’s as if consent is something women are incapable of saying. Women are too stupid to actually spell the word out, and therefore have to outsource it to their pants. As if wearing certain clothes renders a woman up for it, creating a walking invitation to whatever sex with whomever, whenever, wherever. Once again, it’s victim blaming. And it’s terrible.

Victim blaming has been around for centuries, it’s easy to find faults – “who was she with”, “did she look happy around the time of the crime”? The “what was she wearing”, however, is one of the most common and also most problematic. This specific form of victim blaming is a pure myth. This point is vexed when it comes to general rape victims. Whether you’re wearing a bin bag, a bikini, or a full on ski suit, you’re still likely to get raped in 2018.

Lace thongs and underwear in general are but another layer to be disposed of before the act can take place, but are continually used to blur the boundaries of consent. The complainant could be wearing jeans and a jumper, but because she has lacy underwear on underneath, she’s automatically giving consent, because all men have the talent to see what’s underneath the clothes, right? The implication here is: if the girl or woman wore anything other than Spanx on the night in question, surely she was looking for sex.

 

 

It doesn’t matter that the complainant’s counsel refuted the notion that she went willingly, with her barrister, Senior Counsel Tom Creed, telling the jury: “a witness saw you with your hand to her throat”. Despite the potential physical violence, her underwear still outweighed any other important information. Her underwear outweighed any other facts given within that trial. Add the extra information that she was kissing the defendant prior to the rape, it provides a ‘clear’ answer. These rape stereotypes are used by defendants to plant doubt in the minds of a jury, taking away from the law which is that sex without consent is a crime.

The most infuriating aspect of this case is the barrister’s lace thong justification for consent as the best way for her to win. She said it because she knew how winnable rape cases can be when there’s an element of a naughty nature to the alleged victim that displaces the predatory, nature of the defendant. In Irish law, there has been an exception made for men who genuinely believe they are not raping a woman. If a man believes he is being given consent by a woman, he is not raping her. Elizabeth O’Connell knew what she was doing with the archaic, victim blaming rape myth and it highlights the backwards nature of the law surrounding sexual assault cases.

                 

The question remains: how can a female barrister, who at some point in her life has undoubtedly dealt with some form of a sexual or sexist comment, be ok with perpetuating these archaic stereotypes back to the surface of society? How can anything ever change if our top female professionals buy into centuries worth of patriarchy and rape culture? In the light of the #Metoo movement, women have come so far in fighting sexual assault myths and this case may just appear to be another blow. The world, it seems, would rather believe in the existence of slutty women over the chilling reality of rapists.

A few years ago, social media would’ve been silent. It would’ve been a silent cry for this girl and for all women around the world who have suffered. Yet, thanks to the success of #Metoo, and Times Up, Twitter immediately responded with the hashtag #thisisnotconsent and victim blaming was once again, protested and the dangers of it brought to the surface. Protests around Ireland have taken place, demanding change. Ruth Coppinger, an Irish MP brought lacy blue underwear to the Dail on Tuesday. It’s been reported that cameras cut away from the blue knickers when Coppinger produced them as if knickers are more embarrassing than the fact that women’s clothes are being held up, in court cases relating to their safety, as supposed proof of their willingness to have sex.

Now, more than ever, solidarity and empowerment are essential. It’s time to get our knickers in a twist – both females and males. Female protest simply isn’t enough anymore, it’s amazing but men, you’re needed. Stand up for your female friends, your girlfriends, your sisters, mum’s, grandma’s – any female you have ever come into contact with. Any decent human being knows that underwear is not a valid form of consent. With the international solidarity that’s been extended to this awful case, when exposed it will go a long way towards pushing for genuine legal change; it just has to be kept at the forefront long after this case is old news and someone else has to suffer.

Words by Hannah Strong.

 

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