Content note: this article contains mentions of rape and sexual assault.
Often, I feel the distance between my university and home life as not only geographical but also temporal. Returning home for the holidays often feels like retreating into the past. The blade of this encompassing disparity – which cuts deep into my natural affinity for home – feels most keen now. In Cork, a 27 year old was acquitted of the rape of a 17 year old woman in a muddy laneway. In her closing argument, his defence lawyer produced the teenage girl’s lace thong. The fringing was caked with dirt. ‘You have to look at the way she was dressed’, she prodded. Does the evidence rule out the possibility that she was ‘attracted to the defendant’ or that she was ‘open to meeting someone?’
Ireland erupted into protest. The parliamentarian Ruth Coppinger asked in the Daìl, ‘how heroic do you need to be to pursue a rape case in Ireland?’ Fairly heroic: in the north, only 2% of rape cases result in a conviction. The media circus is another mitigating factor for women coming forward. This is especially true in a country as small as Ireland, where anonymity for those involved is a journalistic responsibility rather than a social reality. Women took to the streets to protest a culture that is so heavily weighted against them. In the capital, women hung thongs on clothesline along the city centre pavement. In Cork, they draped lingerie over the courthouse steps. The internet was inundated with images of lace, silk, and cotton underwear and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent, endemic to Ireland, went viral.
It was less than a year ago that I wrote about Belfast’s own rape trial. In March, the alleged victim’s bloodied underwear was passed unceremoniously around the Belfast courtroom. Perhaps it is superfluous for me to note that in both these instances, the defendants were acquitted. An attempt to physicalize consent as admissible evidence gives something as quotidian as fabric an autonomy, alarmingly, above an actual woman’s insistence that the intercourse was without sanction. It is not unreasonable to suggest, either, that the judicial system takes a perverse pleasure in quantifying assent in a manner that makes female dignity a necessary casualty.
The case sets an alarming precedent because it takes victim blaming to new dizzying heights: the rhetoric of ‘she was asking for it’ because she was wearing a short skirt (or – god forbid – a bralette) has morphed into something more terrifying. This verdict tells women that they are asking for it even when it comes to clothes that aren’t visible. This verdict tells women anytime they wear a thong they are actively consenting, at all times, to anyone. These are some reasons, excepting signalling undiscriminating sexual assent, that you might wear a thong this week:
1. Because it makes you feel good.
2. Because your comfy nautical striped boxer briefs are in the wash.
3. Because you don’t want a visible pant line.
4. Because you want to impress someone else (and that’s okay).
5. Because you want to impress yourself standing half-naked in front of your bathroom mirror blasting ‘God is a Woman’ (and that’s okay too).
6. Because you can. And it’s still not consent.
#IBelieveHer – the Belfast rape trial’s hashtag – has contorted and transformed itself into #ThisIsNotConsent. It would be optimistic to believe the latter form will be the last. I am reluctant to hope that the amorphous sentiment of women’s sexual agency might not, in the near future, be forced re-emerge under a new guise. How many more hashtags do we need to learn to treat women with dignity? How many more eponymous rape trials are too many? How many more young women will find themselves, in a dark paneled courtroom, confronting the image of their own underwear being weaponized against them?