(TW// Rape, sexual assault)
Rape is commonly understood to be the act of sexual violence in which a woman is penetrated orally or sexually by a man without having given consent. In today’s society, rape is a frequently and openly discussed topic which has lost much of the stigma and taboo which used to surround it. In recent times, various rape cases have swarmed the media, raising questions of women’s rights and victim-blaming. #ThisIsNotConsent trended on twitter earlier this month following a rape case in which, controversially, the lace thong of the victim was used by the defence to successfully acquit the man, sparking debate and protest about what really constitutes consent.
The heavily publicised case came to trial in Cork, Ireland, earlier in November. The case surrounded a 17 year-old girl who was allegedly raped by a 27 year-old man on her way home from a party. Controversy and anger have arisen due to the words of Elizabeth O’Connell, senior counsel for the man in question, in her closing argument in court; “Does the evidence outrule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” O’Connell’s choice to raise the victim’s clothing as key evidence for the presence of consent has triggered a storm of protests, not only on social media but all throughout the streets of Ireland as people, some sporting solely their underwear, have called out for the end of victim-blaming and stronger rules on consent.
This case illustrates that, despite prevalent movements such as the #MeToo campaign, there is still a long way to go when it comes to ending sexual assault and violence and getting women the respect and support they deserve in such devastating cases. The #MeToo campaign has hugely raised the profile of sexual assault in the public eye and shocked readers with figures of the quantity of sexual violence which goes unspoken of, and how many women are made to feel at fault. According to The Independent, only 15% of women who experience sexual assault report it. The article also adds that this year the Crown Prosecution Service has seen the lowest number of convictions of rape in the last ten years, thus proving that so often the victim is too afraid to speak out, and that when they do, their voice is so often unheard. The Cork case comes in the wake of another heavily-documented rape case in Ireland in which two well-known rugby players were acquitted of the rape of a woman at a house party. It is evident that there is a need for change and that the discussion of female dress should play no role in her giving of consent.
Female attire has been a long-standing issue for many advocates of women’s equality. It seems to be that women and their appearance are inseparable topics of conversation, shown just days ago as ITV’s This Morning held a debate covering whether or not Charlotte Tilbury’s keyhole neckline was an appropriate outfit choice for receiving her MBE from the Queen. Suffice to say there was little to no mention of the multi-million-pound make-up empire she has created through her intelligence, dedication and in-depth knowledge of business. It is unfair that whilst a man may query whether his shirt is sufficiently ironed in the morning, a woman tends to stand before the mirror and consider whether her outfit is ‘appropriate’ –not too tight, too revealing or too seductive. If the outcome of this particular case is reflective of how the legal system views sexual assault, then the woman should add ‘does this consent sexual intercourse?’ to her morning checklist.
Ruth Coppinger, a member of the Irish Parliament, has taken a stand against the way the legal system deals with rape cases following this trial. After pulling a thong out from her sleeve in the Dáil, Coppinger declared “If we sit in Parliament quietly waiting for change to come, we won’t get it”. She argued that if it was shocking of her to have revealed a thong in Parliament then it should be equally shocking for one to be raised in court in a rape trial. Days after the trial Coppinger led protests in Dublin where she demanded that the legal system change to ensure a woman’s clothing cannot be considered evidence of consent. It would be a revolutionary change to see for so many victims who have been branded ‘willing’ or told they were ‘asking for it’ due to what they chose to wear or how much they had chosen to drink. If the system could change to strengthen the law on the rules of consent, then women all over the world would be spared the trauma of spending the rest of their lives feeling guilty for a crime committed against them.
In this particular case, it is not specifically the verdict which is under criticism, it is the fact that the teenager’s underwear was even spoken of. To use the words of Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan “Clothes don’t rape women. Rapists rape women” – a woman’s voice, her saying ‘no’, constitutes consent, not what she chooses to put on in the morning.
~ Imogen Williams