Yesterday TD Ruth Coppinger held up a pair of lacey underwear in the Dáil chamber. On the face of it, you might be forgiven for rolling your eyes and thinking, here we go another stunt from the outspoken Solidarity politician.
And yet, it was anything but. In fact, I applaud her for doing so, because this wasn’t just a stunt. Coppinger’s ‘magic trick’ of making a thong appear from up her sleeve was in relation to a recent rape trial in Cork. The 27 year old defendant in the case was found not guilty, but proceedings saw the complainants underwear held up in court, as the accused's barrister, argued that the jury should consider on the 17 year old victim's underwear as a factor in their decision.
The female barrister is reported to have said;
'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.’
The defendant was acquitted by the jury in 90 minutes. In the eyes of the law he is not guilty. He goes on with his life, without having his underwear shown around the court room. I am not trying to change the verdict, but what I can do is talk about the implications it has for victims sexual violence in this country.
To me, the idea of holding up a pair of any victims knickers in any court room sends out a very clear and strong message to women and girls everywhere.
It says, our legal system will not support you. Our legal system might just decide to pass your underwear around a courtroom and pass judgement on the colour, style and whether or not there is a presence of lace.
Watch what you wear girls, or you might get raped.
To me, this is victim blaming, pure and simple. To me, it’s saying women are somehow asking for it, by wearing a thong, or a short skirt, or a dress.
Just what exactly are the rules, then, just so I’m clear?
If I wear a thong I’m fair game, but if I wear big white granny knickers up to by belly button I’m safe? What about the colour? What colour underwear will make me safe? Black is suggestive and red makes me a whore? And definitively no lace? Do I have that right?
It’s a ludicrous assertion!
And yet here we are. We’re bringing teenage girl’s underwear into a courtroom. We’re using a style of underwear to judge someone.
The suggestion has been made that in any rape or sexual assault case, using the tactic of having the underwear a victim held up in court and presented to the jury as evidence, is to merely to ensure the jury can reach an informed decision.
While I understand the clothing in any rape case is of course important evidence in terms of its physical condition - rips, tears, damage and samples for testing; how the colour, fabric or style worn by a victim can in anyway have a bearing on a jury’s decision is beyond me.
Why would you highlight the fact the victim had a thong on, or full briefs, or wore stockings, or went commando for that matter?
It shouldn’t matter.
Jesus, if I decide to walk down Grafton Street in my bra and knickers, it still doesn’t give anyone the right to think I’m fair game to be raped. It’s not a big flashing sign saying yes I’m consenting to anyone having their way with me. The only thing that matters is concrete and real consent from both parties. Not clothing, not setting, not shoes, not alcohol.
We’ve got to stop and think about how all of this will impact on a victim of sexual abuse. Why on earth would they ever find the courage to step forward and report a rape, when we have a legal system in place that allows their choice of underwear to be passed around the court?
In March of this year, I wrote a piece called #IBelieveHer is more than just a hashtag, in relation to the protest in the wake of the Belfast Rape Trial. I thought the movement had made a change, that the issues raised had sparked a national debate around how victims of sexual assault are treated. I thought we’d come so far since then, but we haven’t. Because today a new hashtag is trending, today women are sharing images of their underwear with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent
So here’s mine.
What I am asking for is the government to step up and address the very real issues highlighted by both trials.