Thursday 17 January 2019

Eimear Cotter: 'Clothes don't rape women. It's rapists who rape women'

Protest: TD Ruth Coppinger joins the march against sexual violence against women this week. Picture: PA
Protest: TD Ruth Coppinger joins the march against sexual violence against women this week. Picture: PA
Eimear Cotter

Eimear Cotter

You can't see it, but in the picture byline accompanying this piece I'm wearing a thong. It's not black with a lace front, but it is pink with little flowers. There's even a matching bra.

I like pretty underwear, so I'm open to having sex?

I say my underwear is my business.

It all sounds ridiculous - it is 2018 after all - but again this week the issue of what a female was wearing was raised in the context of a defence in a rape trial.

In her closing address to the jury in the Central Criminal Court trial, of a 27-year-old man accused of raping a 17-year-old girl while out socialising in Co Cork, defence counsel Elizabeth O'Connell SC told jurors they should have regard for the underwear the complainant wore on the night.

"Does the evidence out-rule 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."

Acquitted

Ms O'Connell was obviously doing her best for her client, who was later acquitted. We don't know all the facts about the case, nor do we know how the jury ultimately reached its decision.

But Ms O'Connell's remarks have generated controversy.

First, a jury should concern themselves with the issue of consent - was the complainant consenting to sex at the time of the act.

That's important, at the time of the act, because anything that happened earlier that night is irrelevant.

Even if there was a mutual attraction or if the woman was "open" at some previous point to having sex, or if she was wearing a thong or granny knickers. It's all irrelevant.

It's about consent at the time of the sex act.

So asking a jury to question if there's any meaning behind the young woman's type of knickers, which were probably chosen hours beforehand, is unfair to the woman, and is an example of victim shaming at its worst.

Secondly, for many women, a thong is a normal piece of clothing and isn't suggestive of anything, other than maybe trying to avoid a visible panty line (VPL).

I'd hazard a guess the dreaded VPL is the reason why most women wear thongs. And so what if a woman wants her underwear to look pretty. That's not a crime.

So let's be clear. A woman's clothing says nothing - good, bad, or indifferent - about her desire to engage in sex.

Women should choose their clothing because it makes them feel good, without giving a thought to men or sex or any fear of getting assaulted. I think that's why so many women have been flabbergasted at the lawyer's comments.

My experience, from reporting on rape and sexual assault court cases, is rape is the most difficult of all crimes to prove.

This is because it's usually a he said/she said scenario, often with memories blurred by alcohol, sometimes drugs.

It can be heart-breaking watching a woman give evidence, intimate details, of what she said happened to her. It's worse watching a woman being cross examined.

Obviously, the evidence has to be tested, but surely there's a better way to do that than the current system?

Earlier this year, an exhibition entitled 'Is it my fault' was held in Brussels. It consisted of items of clothing which were reportedly worn by sexual assault victims when they were attacked.

A pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Pyjamas. Knickers and a bra.

Photographs from the exhibition are online, and what's striking is how ordinary, how normal, the clothes are.

Clothes don't rape women. Rapists rape women.

The harsh reality of the Irish legal system, particularly in relation to sexual crimes, is that the complainant is often shamed for their behaviour, both prior and after an alleged assault takes place.

Irish Independent

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