Roe McDermott writes about her experiences of sexual violence, and the way society is trained to seek out any reason to blame victims. This includes the victims themselves. If you have been affected by sexual violence please contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
When I was sexually assaulted, I was wearing jeans, a cropped cardigan and a top that was literally safety pinned to my bra. The top was flowy and had a habit of twisting around, so I had taken precautions.
(“I had taken precautions,” I write. Like I understood what to be afraid of. Like I could protect myself from it.)
My bra was pink. I don’t remember what underwear I was wearing. But I do remember that my jeans were torn. They were one of the first pair of girls’ jeans I had ever owned – low self-esteem and a broken view of my body meant that exclusively wore men’s baggy jeans to hide my thighs. But then, on a family trip to Paris when I was in sixth year, I found them. The grey, stretchy, close-fitting jeans that magically made me feel confident. I bought two pairs and wore them relentlessly over the next year, until the thin fabric tore a bit in the crotch, and I had to ask my mother to sew a patch in.
He found the hole while groping me.
This was after he had been confused by the safety-pinned top that wouldn’t pull down. This was after he had pulled it up instead. This was after I had said “no” over and over. This was after I had started crying. This was after he had pinned me to the bed.
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himself when faced with a hint of lace?
After all that, he put his hands between my legs, and his fingers found the small hole in the crotch of my jeans. He grinned. In that moment, with a crying 17-year-old girl pinned to his bed in the bedroom he had locked, he actually grinned.
I could start analysing the victim-blaming nature of this comment now, could explain how that phrase reverberated my head for years, how it made me question whether the assault was my fault, even though it had started long before his fingers ripped through the stitches my mother had carefully sewn into the jeans that managed to make her insecure youngest daughter feel pretty. I could also tell you about the other things I blamed myself for: for kissing him once before, for going to his house, for believing we were going to watch a movie, for following him to his bedroom, for not immediately trying to leave when he locked the door.
I’ve already lied to you
"It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t minor, it wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was deliberate, conscious, degrading sexual violence."
But I need to go back. Because I’ve already lied to you. I lied to you when I told you what I was wearing when I was sexually assaulted. Because I’ve worn four different outfits while being sexually assaulted.
It’s fine though (“It’s fine though”, I write, just like I’ve said a million times before.) It’s fine though, because in my mind, I don’t really count the first two times I was sexually assaulted. These are the types of trivialising mantras I repeat to myself: Both incidents were quick. The groping was minor compared to incidents of violent rape. I was so young that I was more confused and uncomfortable than traumatised.
I have a myriad of other excuses deliberately constructed with minimizing language that let me avoid acknowledging how many times I have been sexually assaulted; that let others avoid acknowledging how many times I have been sexually assaulted.
And then there’s the assault that came after the one when I was wearing the ripped jeans. It was worse. I don’t have any way to minimise it; my usual linguistic tricks and emotional distancing can’t cope with the scale of it. It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t minor, it wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was deliberate, conscious, degrading sexual violence. But I haven’t really talked about it much yet; in private, let alone in public. Because I already know what the reactions will be.
I was wearing an outfit that made me feel sexy, so I was obviously looking for sex.
I kissed him, so I led him on.
I’m a sex columnist, so I’m a slut.
I believe in enthusiastic consent, so I’m unrealistic about standards of consent and hysterical about what constitutes assault.
I’m a Me Too supporter, so I just want to ruin the lives of innocent men with false accusations.
I’m 30, so I should have known better.
I didn’t attempt suicide, didn’t take time off work, and I’ve had sex since, so I’m not acting the way a real victim would.
I didn’t report it to police, so it clearly never happened.
I’ve been sexually assaulted four times, so I’m either a pathological liar or I’m encouraging men to do this to me.
I know that these are the arguments that will be used to discredit me, to argue that I’m lying or to imply that I was “asking for it.” My entire character will be turned into a lacy thong, examined and analysed and used as evidence against me.
Society protects sexual abusers
"The thong isn’t the problem. Our search for it is"
I don’t blame myself for what happened this time, not like I did when I was 17. I know unequivocally that it was wrong, that the only person responsible for sexual violence is the person who commits it, that consent that is not given freely, enthusiastically and continuously is not consent.
I know that I was assaulted, and that it wasn’t my fault. But I also know how the truth will be twisted to argue that it was. So the result is the same: I stay quiet.
My experiences of sexual violence were all different in circumstance, in nature, in emotional impact. But they, like all experiences of sexual violence, are all united by a visceral, internalised understanding of how society protects sexual abusers, and blames victims. Abusers, survivors, juries and observers alike have been trained to do this; to twist ourselves into knots looking for any excuse not to believe a victim of sexual violence. Victims have been trained to do it to ourselves – and we know, in detail, how others will do it to us. And they do.
In Cork last year, this manifested with a thong being used as evidence that a 17-year-old girl had wanted sex, and therefore could not have been raped. It’s horrific. It’s not surprising. If a lacy thong hadn’t been held up as evidence that a girl was lying about rape, something else would have. Another argument would have been made. The thong isn’t the problem.
The problem is that sexual violence is rampant and normalised and continuous and acknowledging that would implicate too many people, would implicate too many systems, would implicate our of view of the world, would implicate ourselves.
Acknowledging how often sexual violence occurs would demand we all participate in personal and societal overhauls addressing gender, privilege, misogyny, toxic masculinity, equality, the legal system, shame - and not enough people want to do the work. So instead we latch on to anything that will give us distance. Excuses. Twisted logic. Minimising language. Trivialising mantras. The emotional distance of statistics. Victim blaming. Self-blame. The hole in a pair of jeans. A thong.
The thong isn’t the problem. Our search for it is. When are we going to put our unrelenting desire to blame victims on trial?
(“I’ve been sexually assaulted four times,” I think about writing. “It’s not fine. It never was.”)
Main photograph: Pexels