Sunday 17 February 2019

Colette Browne: ''Thong' case shows rape myths must be consigned to history'

One poll, from the UK in 2010, found 71pc of women felt a rape victim should accept some responsibility if they got into bed with someone, compared to 57pc of men (stock picture)
One poll, from the UK in 2010, found 71pc of women felt a rape victim should accept some responsibility if they got into bed with someone, compared to 57pc of men (stock picture)
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

'She asked for it. The way she was dressed with that skirt you could see everything she had. She was advertising for sex - we felt she was up to no good by the way she dressed, she was obviously dressed for a good time."

These are not the words of lustful men, or puritanical clerics, but rather comments from a jury in Florida explaining why they unanimously acquitted a man of charges of kidnapping and sexual assault. In that 1989 case, the clothes the complainant wore coloured every other piece of evidence. Her short skirt and tank top amounted to an implied consent - an invitation to sex.

We don't know why juries opt to acquit, or convict, in this country. Our legal system doesn't allow juries to be interviewed after a trial. Therefore, we don't know why a jury in Cork opted to acquit a 27-year-old man of the rape of a 17-year-old girl last week.

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Further, it would not be fair to take one remark, uttered by a defence barrister, and extrapolate from that the jury were somehow primed to impugn the character of the complainant.

However, that remark, that the jury were invited to "look at the way [the complainant] was dressed... a thong with a lace front" has caused outrage in Ireland and internationally.

In Cork and in Dublin, girls wearing school uniforms joined hundreds of other people who took part in protests demanding a change to the way rape complainants are treated in criminal trials.

Those girls don't want to have to deal with the same level of presumption and innuendo about their choice of clothing as their mothers and grandmothers. They shouldn't have to.

Anger has boiled over because it's hard to imagine in what context the choice of underwear of a complainant, be they a G-string or granny knickers, could be in any way relevant in determining the issue of consent. The only way it seems underwear could be pertinent is if the garment contained either inculpatory or exculpatory DNA evidence or, perhaps, were torn to show evidence of a struggle.

However, while the details of the Cork case remain vague, it has at least started an important debate. Are the kind of rape myths that saw a man acquitted of rape in Florida in 1989 proving stubbornly hard to kill? And how widespread is the belief in these myths?

If, for instance, you thought it was just men who hold these views, you'd be wrong. One poll, from the UK in 2010, found 71pc of women felt a rape victim should accept some responsibility if they got into bed with someone, compared to 57pc of men.

Meanwhile, one-third of women said blame could be apportioned to victims if they dressed provocatively.

Given these myths are so hard to eradicate, even from the minds of other women, it is clear that something other than occasional worthy lectures from NGOs and feminists needs to be done.

In Scotland last year, a campaign that aimed to educate the public about rape myths was launched. The 'I Just Froze' campaign was an attempt to explain that there is no ideal rape victim - that women violently attacked by a stranger are not the only women capable of being raped.

In this country, in an attempt to ensure juries are not swayed by irrelevant evidence, legal academic Dr Susan Leahy has suggested judges should warn juries about rape myths before they start their deliberations, if required in particular cases.

That system of discretionary judicial directions, which already exists in other common law jurisdictions, is something which should be considered in a review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences that is currently underway.

Myths are so called because they are fiction - but they become dangerous when they are confused with fact. For the sake of every victim of a sexual crime, more needs to be done to consign these sexist stereotypes to the history books.

Irish Independent

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