Clothing, Crime, and Consent

  • Style

[Written by Lynsay Holmes]

[Image credit: Wikimedia//Tomar]

Content Warning: This article includes a discussion of sexual assault.

“You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” This quote was taken from the Irish Examiner’s report of a rape trial that occurred in Cork, Northern Ireland in November of 2018. In the trial—where a 27-year-old man was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl—the defence lawyer publicly scrutinized the victims dress and urged the jury that her choice of underwear, which was a thong, conveyed consent. Even though the incident had occurred in a muddy alleyway, the perpetrator had claimed that the sexual contact he had with the girl was consensual. In the end, the accused was acquitted and the girl left in disgrace.

This pattern of injustice is nothing new; in fact, it’s just the latest example. In cases of sexual assault, victim blaming is the ideology, which frees perpetrators of their crimes. In this process, clothing has always been used as an instrument of distraction: in the argument that it is the woman’s “enticing” attire that shows her intention and “attracts” the attention of others, focus is shifted, and by default, the liability of actions, onto the woman; allowing the perpetrator to be less responsible for the legal culpability of their crime. A woman wearing a thong in this context can then become an easy scapegoat; the “thong” in our society having been established as a symbol of risqué lingerie with sexual connotations. This idea is further cemented with the common misconception that thongs are awkward and uncomfortable to wear, so an individual would only wear one if they were planning to have sex.

Nevertheless, let’s just set these misconceptions straight: Firstly, many kinds of trousers and skirts can make a woman’s panty lines visible. For some women, this is highly embarrassing. Thus, wearing a thong is the practical, easy solution to that problem. Secondly, thongs can be incredibly comfortable. Many women find that full coverage underwear can move around during the day, bunching up and essentially becoming a thong. As there is less material, some women feel more free wearing thongs, and with lace and mesh options, they can be very soft and breathable.  A woman’s choice of underwear is an expression of her style and comfort and that meaning is different for every woman. All are valid and should be respected.

From my own personal experiences of harassment, I see how deeply ingrained misogyny and victim blaming remains in our society, as I question myself: “Oh, but I wasn’t even wearing anything revealing”. These questions subtly, even invisibly, shift the blame. Victim blaming does not have to be outright accusal. What a lot of people do not realise is that asking questions like: “But what were you wearing?”, not believing the victim’s story, minimizing the severity of the attack, and inappropriate post-assault treatment by medical personnel or other organizations are all forms of secondary victimization.

Women have to curate their bodies in order to not “attract” attention. It restricts my style as I select “safer” or “more appropriate” clothing options. I know men will stare at my boobs if I wear this top, so I cover myself up and feel hatred towards the female body I was born into. Struggling to breathe in the dichotomy that I am sexualised and glorified because of my curvaceous figure, to feel grateful that I have been “bountifully blessed”—but then to also be made to feel ashamed and guilty of my body at the same time.  At this point, my body isn’t even mine anymore.

Although awareness and support on the ground is extremely important, it is the legal system that must be changed in order to deal with these issues in a more sensitive and appropriate manner. Irish MP Ruth Coppinger has suggested that both judges and jurors are given pre-trial, mandatory training, in which both are informed about what kinds of evidence are acceptable. Moreover, jurors should be made aware of and dispel any common, yet inaccurate perceptions or myths they have of rape. Sir John Gillen (a retired senior judge and Privy Councillor) in an independent review has backed this first proposal and has put forward that victims who have suffered from serious sexual offences must be offered legal representation. Jurors who have access to social media during trials should also be subject to severe penalties, as these online sources will skew their judgement.  These changes—although seemingly small—are extremely progressive and could have profound effects for not just the Northern Irish criminal justice system, but for the rest of the United Kingdom as well.

So, to end where we began: “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” Clothing does not convey consent. Clothing is not a lack of caution.  Uncoerced verbal and physical permission for something to happen, or agreement to do something, conveys consent. Myself, and friends included, have all had sexual experiences that have teetered on the line of consent. Wearing you down until you say yes—not consent. Taking off a condom during intercourse without your knowledge—also not consent. Going back to their flat is not “sealing the deal”. You are under no obligations: If you felt like having sex with them in the beginning, but have now decided you do not want to go through with it, you do not have to. My choice of clothing is an expression, not an invitation—I have never “asked” for anything.

[Image Description: a red, ribbed set of thong-style underwear.]

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