Thursday, 18 Jul 2024

'Thongs can't talk' – hundreds take to the streets in protest over underwear comments in rape trial

ALMOST 400 women staged a march to Cork Courthouse where underwear was symbolically laid on the court steps in protest at comments passed at a rape trial over the fact a female teenage complainant was wearing a lace thong.

Protesters marched from Cork city centre to the Anglesea Courthouse to demand judicial reform over sexual assault cases as well as better training for barristers to avoid potential ‘victim blaming’.

The protest – launched on St Patrick Street – was organised in response to the outrage over comments passed in a Central Criminal Court rape trial where the fact a 17 year old complainant was wearing a thong was cited by a defence counsel to the jury.

One protester carried a placard, complete with attached underwear, warning that: “My knickers is not my consent.”

The demonstration was organised after concern was expressed by sexual violence and rape victim support networks over the closing argument comments in a rape case where the senior counsel defending a 27 year old accused passed remarks about the fact the 17 year old complainant was wearing a thong.

Elizabeth O’Connell SC asked the jury to reflect while deliberating on their verdict on the specific type of underwear worn by the teenage girl at the time.

“Does the evidence out rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone,” she asked?

“You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

  • Read more: TD holds up thong in Dáil with demand for action on ‘rape myths’

The jury of eight men and four women then took just 90 minutes of deliberation last week to reach their unanimous not guilty verdict last week.

However, the reference to the complainant’s underwear sparked concerns from both the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Sexual Violence Ireland.

Protester and Cork mother of two Jackie Foley from Ballyvolane warned that there can be no place for “victim blaming or victim shaming” in the Irish judicial system.

“The message that is being sent out from repeated cases like this is that women should be somehow ashamed of what they wear,” she said.

Jackie also warned that the gender of the barrister who passed the remark is immaterial.

“It is the comment that matters not the gender of the person who made it,” she said.

Maidy O’Brien from Skibbereen said she was supporting the protest because there should be no evidential link between what a person is wearing and the potential motivation for a criminal act.

“It is totally irrelevant,” she said.

“We need to reform the entire area of the law. Gender quality and rights are something that need to be protected,” she said.

Siobhan Thomas from Cork city warned her concern was that the controversy over the rape trial comments might dissuade other women from reporting incidents of sexual violence.

“The conviction rate for crimes of sexual violence is already very, very low,” she said.

“My fear is that this might persuade other people as a result not to come forward and report what they have suffered.”

The head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Noeline Blackwell hit out at the use of what she deemed “rape stereotypes” in trials.

Cliona Sadlier of Rape Crisis Network Ireland said there was already training available for barristers about the use of such language.

She said such language effectively appealed to misogynistic stereotypes and should have no part in trial proceedings.

Ms Sadlier admitted she was “very surprised” by the comments made.

A full review of the legal area involved is now underway by Prof Tom O’Malley, one of Ireland’s top legal experts.

The protest was organised by the Rosa Socialist Feminist Movement in Cork to express their anger at the contents of the trial closing argument.

Cork Solidarity’s Councillor Fiona Ryan said clear action needs to be taken in relation to the language used in courts.

“This is just what one example of what is everyday in cases of (alleged) sexual violence where your clothes where your clothes, your manner, which has nothing to do with sexual violence can be used as evidence against you….can be used as evidence of consent,” she said.

“I was inundated over the weekend with people outraged and with people wanting to show their anger.”

The Rosa movement in Cork says so-called victim blaming is unfortunately a a common tactic used in sexual violence cases before the courts.

“The judiciary has proven itself time and time again to be utterly damaging to survivors of sexual violence,” she said.

Meanwhile, protesters also lined the streets around the Spire in Dublin this afternoon with posters and lacy underwear as a demonstration.

Members of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and TD Ruth Coppinger join the O’Connell Street crowd.

Members of the public hung various forms of underwear onto a make-do line between two trees near the Spire, with many carrying posters to demonstrate their support.

The Dublin rally was organised by Ms Coppinger alongside ROSA (Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity).

“We wanted to put a call out to end victim blaming. Obviously in the courts, the idea that a person’s underwear being used by a defence barrister as some indication of their intentions, is absolutely despicable,” Rita Harrold, an organiser with ROSA said. 

“This culture that tells us we have to keep ourselves safe, we have to wear conservative clothes, we can’t go to certain places, is a culture that tolerates rape and blames victims, and we won’t take it anymore.”

Speaking at the event, Tara Brown from the NWCI said that discussions about underwear has “no place” in Irish courts or in determining consent.

“Today we stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault, who are being grievously failed by our criminal justice system. The type of clothes a victim was wearing has no place in our criminal justice system, and it had no place in determining what is consent.

“We have a responsibility to create a safe system for survivors of sexual assault, and we are repeatedly shown that we are a long way from achieving a victim-centered prosecutory system.”

Members of the public said they decided to attend in hopes of bringing along “change” and to show their support.

“We wanted to show our support, that what you wear doesn’t give permission for people to do what they want to you,” Evelyn Suttle from Dublin said.

“It doesn’t seem like anything is changing and the more we talk about it, the more other people talk about it so maybe someday things will change,” said Deirdre Lynam.

Ms Coppinger, who yesterday brought a thong into the Dáil, added that she would like to see a larger event taking place for International Women’s Day next year.

“I call on everybody who’s angry about this, and quite rightly, all of us who voted and campaigned for Repeal, and anyone who wants to end inequality, let’s build for a massive International Women’s Day in 2019. 

“Let’s bring ‘me too’ onto the streets.”

Speaking in the Dail yesterday, the Dublin-West TD claimed the Dáil “ hasn’t taken sexual assault and harassment any way serious enough”.

“The women of this country are getting a little weary at the routine victim-blaming that is going in Irish courts, and the failure of law-makers in this House to do anything about it,” Ms Coppinger added

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