By Michelle Wei
On November 13, MP Ruth Coppinger walked out onto the floor of the Irish parliament with a point to prove and a thong up her sleeve. Head held high, she confronted members of parliament with lace stretched out between her hands – a symbol of almost sacred intimacy displayed for all to see.
“It might seem embarrassing to show a pair of thongs here in this incongruous session of the Dáil,” Coppinger acknowledged, “but the reason I’m doing it… how do you think a rape victim or a woman feels at the incongruous setting of her underwear being shown in a court?”
Coppinger was referring to a case that went public on November 6 in which a 27-year-old man was acquitted of raping a 17-year-old girl in Cork, Ireland. In the closing address to the jury, defence counsel Elizabeth O’Connell brought up the complainant’s attire, stating that “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”
O’Connell’s comments sparked protests across Ireland and attracted international attention. Women began posting pictures of their underwear with the tag #ThisisNotConsent to social media, lambasting the trend of victim-blaming and the idea that clothing is an indicator of consent – two pillars of rape culture. The campaign against the trivialization of sexual assault soldiers on.
But in the midst of the battles which have brought crucial questions about harassment, rape, and consent to the forefront of media scrutiny, we often forget one important casualty: privacy. The fight against rape culture is eroding the lines between the public and the private, advocating a harmful form of transparency that targets the very victims that it aims to defend. Case in point, the striking image of a lacey undergarment displayed at the Cork trial against a backdrop of suits, podiums, and the Irish flag. This trial perfectly encapsulates the intrusion of the private into the public.
Ever since the acceleration of the #MeToo movement in 2017, and the subsequent implication of countless high-profile figures, publicized sexual harassment allegations and trials are slowly becoming the norm. The exposure of – mostly American – sex scandals through, not only national, but international news outlets, sets a dangerous precedent for the way that sexual assault cases are handled. Reporters followed every development of Harvey Weinstein’s case, photographed the tearstained faces of gymnasts during Larry Nasser’s trial and logged every emotional minute of the Kavanaugh hearing. Scandals dominated headlines and transformed courtrooms into TV stations.
The spotlight on sexual assault set the price for accountability as publicity – and an extreme publicity at that. While the persecution of sexual crimes necessitates the breach of privacy because of the nature of rape and sexual assault itself, it does not justify this level of invasive scrutiny that does more harm than good to the survivors.
As a crime of the most personal nature, it is inevitable that any sexual assault investigation would also need to delve into the personal. But the problem arises in the fact that it is not the alleged abuser being investigated so intensely, but the alleged victim.
In an article published by the Guardian, Joan Smith and Claire Waxman revealed that in England and Wales, complainants in rape cases are often probed more carefully than defendants. The complainant is required to turn their phones, laptops, and tablets to the police for investigation while no such obligation exists for the defendant, resulting in a “complete loss of privacy” in the pursuit of justice. In conjunction with media spotlight, the misguided investigative focus on the wrong party places the consequences of persecuting rapists on none other but the victims’ own shoulders.
When the quest for justice comes at the expense of the victim’s privacy, the result is a trade-off between holding the perpetrator accountable and keeping the victim safe. In the case of Christine Ford, after testifying against then-Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh she received death threats so severe that her family was forced to move.
Growing awareness and acknowledgement of sexual assault is fast narrowing the gap between what should be made public and what should remain private. The consequences of such a development are borne by the victims themselves. The fact that victims and survivors of sexual violence are forced to choose between security and justice is a failure of the system when it comes to the treatment of allegations of sexual assault. Until it is addressed, there will be no victory in the fight against rape culture.
Michelle Wei is an Opinion writer for The Sundial Press. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, she is now a first year student at Sciences Po in the Dual BA with the University of British Columbia.
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