The hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent has been making waves on Twitter.
Women across the country are posting photos of their underwear in solidarity with a 17-year-old girl who was involved in a rape case in County Cork. The barrister representing the accused asked the jury to consider the girl's choice of underwear before making their final decision.
Related: 'Victim blaming' comments in Cork
rape trial spark outrage
How has it come to this? That a thong has been described as an instrument of sexual consent. That we, as women, are consistently seen as facilitators to sexual advances.
#ThisIsNotConsent isn’t a blind foray into feminism, nor is it an ‘all men are sh*t’ assumption. This campaign is not questioning the rule of law or the decision of a jury.
This campaign is contesting the way women are discussed, dissected and scrutinized in courts of law and in society. #ThisIsNotConsent is about the way in which we must continually battle a chauvinistic culture. It is about the tone, the language and the commentary that promotes blatant victim shaming.
It's about fear.
In the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial, it wasn’t uncommon to find yourself in the midst of a conversation about who to believe. Often, women in those conversations said one thing; if a sexual assault were to happen to them, they would not come forward, because they would be too afraid. They would be afraid of what would be said in court; scared of what might filter out in the mass media. These women were fearful of their personal activities (no matter how mundane) being twisted into something more sinister. But most of all, they were terrified that no one would believe them.
Asking for it
The Chief Executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Noeline Blackwell has asked for greater reform at trial-level around elements such as clothing. She has also discussed the issue of stereotyping in rape cases. “It comes up very, very regularly how someone was dressed, the amount of drink they had taken, why they hadn’t screamed if they were in trouble,” she said.
Women are often said to be "asking for it". Our tops are too low, our skirts are too short, niceties are seduction, and drinking alcohol means we are open to sexual encounters. Now, our underwear is a sexual suggestion.
Think of the thousands of women who choose underwear on the shop-floor. They purchase it, often without an inch of consideration for the colour. There is no complex thought process or imagined role-play. If there is a hidden connotation, that suggestion is solely for the woman; to make herself feel good.
But not in the court of law. There, underwear is a symbol of a woman’s desire.
On her Newstalk radio show, Dr Ciara Kelly confronted solicitor Phelim O' Neill about the use of women's underwear in legal settings, saying, "I've never seen a pair of Y-fronts in court" – and she is correct. A man's underwear is never construed as a means for sexual intent. So, why the double standards?
A damaging narrative
The more we hear this damaging rhetoric, the more detrimental it will be for women who have suffered. Refusal to come forward will be commonplace, and our state will once again fail to protect its women.
We are living in a world where we are told not to walk alone at night; not to drink too much, and to tell the taxi driver to wait outside until you get inside the door. It is as if we are being told, 'yes, you are in danger. There is a threat which lurks in dark corners and you must follow these guidelines to be safe'. But when we step inside a court of law and have to face our attacker head-on, it's our fault. We did everything you asked us to, but we are still the seductress in the night who cried wolf.
When does this end? Our bodies, our behaviours, and our clothes supposedly represent consent. If the tables were turned, something as fickle as clothes would never be used as evidence against a man – and his underwear would not be passed through the hands of a jury.
When Ruth Coppinger displayed a pair of underwear in the Dáil yesterday, there was clear discomfort among her peers as they saw what, in essence, was a mirror image of the court case. Maybe they realised too, just how damaging this narrative is.
Who or what is to protect us? Our choice of underwear is not consent. A drink is not consent. A dress is not consent. We are exhausted and afraid that we will never be heard.
We are shouting for reform. Treat us fairly and equally in courts of law. Stop victim shaming. Stop describing us as the threat. Stop neglecting us.
And please, stop hurting us.