“What was she wearing?” It’s a question that’s been connected to sexual assault and harassment for so long that it’s become cliche. Pointing out the misogyny inherent in this question been the basis of a huge amount of feminist activism, from “Slutwalk” marches to art exhibits. Arguing that a woman’s clothing can incite a man to assault or harass her is a cornerstone of victim-blaming, suggesting that women and girls could change a predator’s decision by wearing a longer skirt or a baggier top. It also has the secondary implication of suggesting that men and boys are incapable of self-control - honestly, I’m surprised that more men aren’t insulted by the comparison between them and cats going wild over uncovered meat.
It has been repeatedly proven that clothing has no impact on a person’s likelihood of being harassed or assaulted, but, even in 2020, the myth persists - even in court. In a recent rape case in Peru, the accused rapist was acquitted because, according to a statement made by the court, the woman’s choice of red underwear ‘signalled that she intended to have sex’. A similar decision was taken by a court in Ireland; a 27-year-old man was acquitted of raping a 17-year-old girl after his defence team showed the underwear she had been wearing - a thong with a lace panel on the front - to “prove” that she had consented.
Understandably, these two legal decisions were followed by a huge outcry amongst feminist activists, and also amongst the general public, in both countries. Protests were organised in Peru, with many women wearing red underwear around their legs while holding signs and banners condemning the court’s decision. Irish feminists placed underwear on the steps of the courthouse where the lace thong had been introduced as evidence. State organisations also got involved following the uproar over the courts’ decisions. In Peru, the Public Ministry has requested that the acquittal be nullified and a new trial be held in a different court, while the Ministry of Women made a statement rejecting the court’s decision to acquit. In Ireland, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre criticised the defence barrister’s remarks, and Irish MP Ruth Coppinger presented a similar lacy thong in Parliament while speaking out against the current rules that allow a victim’s underwear to be presented as evidence in court.
The pushback against the two courts’ victim-blaming approach is heartening, but in 2020, surely we should have long ago reached a point where the legal system isn’t allowed to suggest a link between clothing and consent? The activists in Peru have made their red pants a symbol of resistance against rape culture, countering the false meaning that was ascribed to them in the first place - that the colour, shape or fabric of someone’s underwear can mean “yes”.
All opinions expressed in this piece are the view of Alice Nuttall.