Women still forced to do bat­tle with rape myths

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Su­san McKay

In Oc­to­ber 1978, 5,000 women came from all over Ire­land to take part in a protest march through the cen­tre of Dublin or­gan­ised by the new Dublin Rape Cri­sis group. Anne Con­nolly led the chant: “Yes means yes and no means no, how­ever we dress, wher­ever we go.”

Forty years later, last week, in the clos­ing stages of a rape trial in Cork, a bar­ris­ter for the de­fen­dant told the jury they should con­sider the un­der­wear the 17-year-old com­plainant was wear­ing. “Does the ev­i­dence out-rule the pos­si­bil­ity that she was at­tracted to the de­fen­dant and was open to meet­ing some­one? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wear­ing a thong with a lace front.”

The jury in Cork unan­i­mously ac­quit­ted the 27-year-old ac­cused man af­ter 1½ hours of de­lib­er­a­tions. They had heard all the ev­i­dence and there is no sug­ges­tion that their ver­dict was wrong, or that con­sid­er­a­tion of the girl’s un­der­wear played any part in their reach­ing it. I don’t seek to ques­tion the ver­dict. The case fell be­cause the State failed to prove be­yond all rea­son­able doubt that the com­plainant did not con­sent to sex, and that the de­fen­dant knew she did not con­sent. The man was en­ti­tled to a fair trial, and there is no rea­son to doubt he got one.

What is, how­ever, en­tirely wrong, is the sug­ges­tion that it is pos­si­ble to ex­trap­o­late any ev­i­dence what­so­ever in a rape trial from the way a woman is dressed. Last month in Dublin, at the ex­cel­lent Safe Ire­land sum­mit on vi­o­lence against women, we heard Mona El­ta­hawy de­scribe how she was raped dur­ing a pil­grim­age to Mecca. She was wear­ing tra­di­tional robes and hi­jab, swathed from head to toe. I come from a city, Derry, in which women love to dress up. The hair is done, the make-up is lashed on, and out you go, quite likely tee­ter­ing on heels, glam as Panti Bliss. Out for a good time? Yes. Open to per­sua­sion, or to per­suad­ing? Maybe. Maybe not. Dressed to be raped? No. No. No. Women in pros­ti­tu­tion tell us that men want them to dress “provoca­tively” for paid sex, in school uni­forms, or like “French maids”. That doesn’t mean girls walk­ing to school or women clean­ing ho­tel rooms are putting them­selves at risk of rape, does it?

TV par­ody

The Scot­tish rape cri­sis cen­tre had a tele­vi­sion ad in which a young woman is buy­ing a sil­ver se­quinned mini skirt. The woman in the shop asks her if it is for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. “No,” she replies. “I just thought I’d go out and get my­self raped.”

The bril­liant Tracy Ull­man like­wise nails it with a BBC sketch in which she plays a stern po­lice of­fi­cer in­ter­view­ing a busi­ness­man who claims he was mugged at knife­point by a man who de­manded his watch and phone. She gives him a cup of tea. “And were you wear­ing what you are wear­ing now?” she asks, nod­ding at his suit and tie. He looks be­wil­dered. “You look quite provoca­tively wealthy,” she ex­plains. He gets upset and she calls in a coun­sel­lor, who makes sooth­ing noises be­fore ask­ing him if he’d been drink­ing.

He protests, but the pair ad­vise him that he is go­ing to have to ac­cept some re­spon­si­bil­ity for what hap­pened.

What is it that women are sup­posed to be pro­vok­ing any­way? Male de­sire. And the no­tion is that once aroused such de­sire can­not be con­trolled.

What fol­lows is never the man’s re­spon­si­bil­ity. There is an ugly vo­cab­u­lary in which flirt­ing lurches quickly into prick teas­ing, and sexy into slut­tish. Con­sent is by­passed.

A favoured line among do­mes­ti­cally vi­o­lent men is “Now look what you made me do.” The rapist says, “You led me on.”

It doesn’t take much. Stay­ing in a cheap ho­tel one night (a jour­nal­ist’s ex­penses are leg­endary), I went into the bar to get a bot­tle of wa­ter.

There was a man sit­ting be­side where I stood. He looked at me and I smiled briefly and po­litely. I got my wa­ter and headed off to get the lift to my room. He fol­lowed me. It seems he thought I had given him a sig­nal.

Myths of rape

Fem­i­nists have been do­ing bat­tle with the myths of rape for many years. How­ever, Noe­line Black­well, di­rec­tor of the Dublin Rape Cri­sis Cen­tre, re­cently cited an EU re­port which found that 9 per cent out

‘‘ A favoured line among do­mes­ti­cally vi­o­lent men is ‘now look what you made me do’

of a sam­ple of 1,000 Ir­ish peo­ple thought it was ac­cept­able to have sex with­out con­sent with some­one who was provoca­tively dressed.

There are re­views un­der way in both ju­ris­dic­tions in this coun­try right now of how our rape laws op­er­ate.

In the North, Sir John Gillen is likely to rec­om­mend train­ing for ju­rors in the rape myths – which are rou­tinely used by the de­fence to sum­mon up deeply rooted prej­u­dices and cre­ate doubt in the minds of ju­rors. Doubt is all it takes.

Lots of women like lacy thongs. The de­part­ment stores are full of them. Lots of women pre­fer big cot­ton knick­ers. Th­ese too are widely avail­able.

All women are at risk of rape. Now if we knew what sort of knick­ers rapists wear, that would re­ally be help­ful. Es­pe­cially if they’d wear them out­side their trousers.

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