This Is Not Consent: When Will We Stop Blaming Women And Girls?

On the 6th of November, a jury in the criminal court of Cork, Ireland, took an hour and a half deliberating on the outcome of a sexual assault case, to ultimately declare the 27-year-old defendant not guilty of raping a 17-year-old girl. The case itself, and the outcome of an acquitted defendant, has been the focus of much controversy and, as a result, has sparked protest both nationally and internationally. The controversy surrounding the case has largely come from the defence barrister’s choice to ask the jurors to take into account the underwear that the teenager was wearing when she was attacked. The fact that the survivor was wearing “a thong with a lace front” was deemed sufficient evidence for both the defence barrister and the jury to determine that there was a “possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone.” The details of this case are disturbing, not only due to this being deemed sufficient to acquit the defendant, but it once again demonstrates the societal culture of victim blaming towards women and girls, both in Ireland and globally.

In Cork, following the trial, an estimated 200 people gathered to march on the courthouse and place underwear on its steps, according to BBC News. However, the trial has also ignited a viral online response, with women posting pictures of their own underwear, using the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent, to express solidarity with the survivor, and protest the outcome of the trial. The backlash to the trial also surfaced within Irish Parliament. MP Ruth Coppinger held up underwear and asked those in Parliament, “why is nothing yet being done to stop the routine use of rape myths in trials, and how concerned is this Government about the chilling effect this is having on victims coming forward?” The trial in Cork ignites an important conversation regarding the security of women and girls globally, given the reoccurring inability of our legal system, and society, to hold men accountable for their actions. Amnesty International have revealed that the majority of women living in Europe are being put at risk by laws that fail to recognize sex without consent as rape, highlighting that “flawed and outdated” legislation is constantly upholding a dangerous culture of victim blaming across Europe.

Victim blaming marginalizes the survivor and makes it excruciatingly difficult for survivors to come forward and report the assault. It is for this reason that Ruth Coppinger notes that “how heroic you have to be” to pursue a rape trial, specifically within Ireland. However, this stands true for women all over the world. Perhaps one of the most high-profile cases concerning sexual assault recently has been Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Despite these allegations, Kavanaugh went on to be sworn in as Supreme Court justice, and the President of the United States went on to cast Kavanaugh as the real victim, one whose “life is shattered.” As well as this, in 2017, an Indian court suspended the jail terms of three young men guilty of gang-rape, and labelled the survivor as “promiscuous,” according to BBC News. These are just a few examples of the victim blaming culture which surrounds sexual assault.

Boston University philosopher Ann Cudd notes that the best way to understand sexual violence is as a quiet but constant campaign of systemic violence to preserve male privilege. However, this does not stop at the act of violence in itself, but the violence is a focal point within a much wider, damaging narrative. Our response to sexual assault allegations as a society determines how we value survivors and women and girls as a whole. To reduce women’s clothing choices to the effect it will have upon men underpins the patriarchal notion that women are ‘for’ men, to be used. To reduce the 17-year-old’s survivor’s trauma to her choice of clothing further entrenches the misogynistic myth that women are responsible for the violence inflicted upon them. Our inability as a society to hold men accountable for their actions perpetuates the misogynistic myth that women’s lives are of less value. And when we don’t hold men accountable, the safety and security of women and girls is constantly at risk.

Since this case, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has called for urgent legal reforms in how rape trials are conducted. Archaic stereotypes continue to arise within court cases such as this one, which not only have a damaging affect on the case in question, but discourage other survivors of assault from coming forward. However, whilst legal reforms are a necessary action, there also needs to be a much more widespread societal shift concerning consent and accountability. This begins in schools. Both boys and girls need to have sufficient sexual education, which covers topics like healthy sexual relationships, LGBT matters, and more importantly in this case, consent. It is paramount that sexual education tackles the patriarchal and misogynistic stereotypes from a young age and instill a sense of responsibility and accountability among young men for their actions.

Furthermore, men must learn how to be effective allies. Patriarchal society affords men privilege, and therefore their support can manifest in even the simplest of ways, such as using this privilege to be a voice in situations where women do not feel comfortable, or have associated trauma. Take on the burden of emotional labour for your women counterparts, as it is not just in the interest of women to dismantle the patriarchy. This includes creating safe spaces for survivors to discuss their trauma, if they want to. This requires listening, not derailing, not gaslighting and not victim blaming. Moreover, being an ally includes examining how you personally conduct yourself with women that you interact or have personal relationships with. Examine the power dynamics in your personal relationships and your workplaces. To be complacent in your privilege, is to not use your privilege towards a more peaceful goal, and cements you as part of the problem, not the solution.