The context: girl’s thong used as evidence of consent in Irish rape trial
In Ireland, a 27-year-old man accused of raping a 17-year-old was found ‘not guilty’ by a jury after his lawyer asked to consider the underwear worn by the girl on the night she was raped.
«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 lawyer said in her closing address to the jury – of eight men and four women – that acquitted the man after one and a half hours of deliberation.
That’s how the defence lawyer used a thong as evidence of sexual consent in court.
After the news spread out, hundreds of women with posters and lace underwear in hand protested in several cities across the country calling for an end to “victim-blaming in the courts”.
The protest soon went from national to international under the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent.
Women from all over the world are posting pictures of their thongs to state once and for all that they are free to wear whatever they like and that a piece of fabric, bigger or smaller, more or less sexy, does not give anyone the consent to do anything. That no victim of sexual assault ever asked for it. That the law must stop blaming victims of rape and defending rapists.
The protest reached the Dáil (Irish parliament), where the deputy Ruth Coppinger pulled a thong out of her sleeve during public debate calling for an end to victim-blaming in the courts:
«It might seem embarrassing to show a pair of thongs here… how do you think a rape victim or a woman feels at the incongruous setting of her underwear being shown in a court?»
Truth is, what happened in Ireland is happening regularly in many countries: during sexual assault cases, rape victims get blamed in court for their clothes, the number of sexual partners, for being in the wrong place and for alcohol or drug use.
None of these things can constitute consent, because only people can express consent: THIS IS NOT CONSENT.
The point is: a culture of consent does not yet exist. But consent should be the basis of every relationship – sexual or not.
I believe in a sexuality free of all barrier and constraint, both mental and physical, and that this requires two fundamentals: respect and consent.
But consent is still something we’re talking too little, too poorly or too bad about.
It’s only recently that consent gained some degree of popularity following the #MeToo movement that brought up many cases of violation of a person’s sexual sphere without consent, starting with what was going on behind the scenes of the then glossy Hollywood world: sexual harassment and abuse of men and (so many) women based on power dynamics.
As happens in the digital era, some topics’ virality occurs and spreads across social networks with hashtags, memes and quotes.
On the subject of consent, there’s a phrase, often used as a hashtag, that keeps getting shared and reposted on Instagram and Twitter:
Its meaning is as simple as powerful: no can’t mean anything but no. No doesn’t mean maybe or keep trying. A ‘No’ should work as a deterrent of whatever action in progress. Otherwise, there’s an abuse, a harassment or a violence going on.
If we really want to create a solid culture of consent, I think this is not enough. I believe in the value of a “Yes” and I believe it deserves more attention within the contemporary conversation around consent.
We keep passing on a cultural system of values still heavily influenced by gender roles and stereotypes dictated by what’s called heteronormativity – the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm.
We – as family, scholar system, society, popular culture – are still teaching girls and women to value what’s between the legs more than what’s inside their minds. Growing up, all they learn is to defend it and protect it from the male predator, to wait as long as possible before giving it away.
If we pay attention to the way we comment on relationships – especially of the sexual kind – between males and females, it always looks like women have something to lose – virginity, innocence, dignity, also vaginal tone (we’re talking absurd but still true) – and men have something to conquer and win – masculinity, the fact of being a men, honour for physical performances.
One of the few things sexual education is currently teaching is that vagina owners come with a hymen and that’s the seal of their virginity – both physical and moral – the bargaining chip to give themselves to the white knight, the conqueror who will not only take advantage of their body but also will take care of their mind, emotions, thoughts.
I know it all sounds simplistic but it’s the idea behind these dynamics that we’re still passing on and that’s still strengthening a misconception of man-woman relationships.
As much as we delude ourselves that we’re living a time of sexual liberation, we’re still reducing a woman’s worth down to the number of sexual partners and elevating a man’s up to the number of sexual conquests.
We’re still making the mistake of weighting quantity more than quality.
Measures matter. Too much. We judge women by the skirt length, heels height, the (metaphorical) legs width, the cms of bare skin, and we honour men for their penis size, the duration of their intercourse and the number of sexual partners.
Sometimes the judgement is loud and clear (a direct insult, written or spoken out loud), sometimes it’s just a silent thought, maybe temporary, that remains in the mind. I think everyone, at least once, has judged a person – a friend, an acquaintance – especially a woman or a non-hetero, by their sexual conduct.
The cultural system we live in, discourages women from saying as many yes as they like to as many people as they like, in the name of some kind of dignity.
A woman’s ‘Yes’ is widely interpreted as a demonstration of sluttiness. The rule is to play hard to get by saying a series on No’s.
If we want to create a culture of consent, we have to eradicate the idea that a woman should make men wait and want her as if she was a prize to be won.
In this way, we’re suggesting that a little persuasion can turn a ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’. That’s enough to pave the way to harassment that can quickly escalate into sexual violence.
I believe it is crucial to teach about the value of a Yes and the freedom to say Yes, which must be equal for all genders.
‘Yes’ must be as clear and unambiguous as ‘No’: it can’t remain implied.
A yes should not be a man’s conquest but the free choice of the woman who decides to say yes because that’s what she really wants.
“’Yes’ and ‘No’ should always represent the honest intentions of the will and never embody the stereotypes generated by socio-cultural conditioning that comes from that thing we call patriarchal system in which males hold primary power and authority and women take a subordinate role to men.
Consent must be Free from any compulsion, pressure, manipulation or any influence of drugs or alcohol.
Consent is Reversible, can mute over time, depending on the situation, the emotions: it’s a process and not a one-off event. Anyone must feel free to change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if they’ve consented before.
Consent must be Informed: it’s not consent if you’re denied information that might influence your choices. It’s not consent if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t.
Content is Enthusiastic (I love this!). Consenting means doing what you WANT to do (not what people expect you to do). So saying ‘Yes’ means listening – enthusiastically – to your will.
Consent is Specific: saying yes to one thing doesn’t equal saying yes to everything (saying yes to a first physical contact doesn’t mean saying yes to whatever happens next). The great thing is choosing what you want and saying no to what you don’t want to do.
To get back to what happened in Ireland: the fact that the girl was wearing a thong might mean that she was “open to meeting someone and being with someone”, as per the words of the defence lawyer, but this doesn’t imply that the victim gave consent the moment she was involved, against her will, in a sexual activity.
A woman is free to wear a thong because she likes it, because it makes her feel good and sexy, to please herself or someone else, to seduce and tease, but this doesn’t imply in any way any consent to any sexual activity.