Women Out in Force for Thong Protest

Eoghan Dalton Reports

Women from across Waterford gathered in John Roberts Square last Friday afternoon to protest against the use of victims’ clothing in rape trials.
It had been organised following a call for national demonstrations by Deputy Ruth Coppinger (Solidarity-PBP). She had held aloft a black lace thong after concerns and anger were expressed at evidence presented during a rape case in Cork Circuit Criminal Court. There, the counsel for the defence told the jury that the 17-year-old complainant was wearing a thong, adding: “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” The man in the case was later found not guilty.“This is not the first time this has happened, this is probably not going to be the last time this has happened,” said Gillian Kearns, one of the organisers for last Friday.

WIT student Michaela Cooper and Tanya Keane of Waterford Together for Change pictured at last Friday's protest

WIT student Michaela Cooper and Tanya Keane of Waterford Together for Change pictured at last Friday's protest

“But it just felt like a culmination of everything that’s gone before. We’d come out for the Belfast rape trial, and we just wanted to show solidarity and bring attention to the fact that underwear is not consent.“There were rallies held in other parts of the country and we decided we wanted to show that Waterford also supported this.”
One of the event’s other organisers, Aislinn Fell, said it was up to people to open up the discourse around sexual assault and victim blaming.
“It’s part of our collective unconscious, a bias against women or girls, or men, but the focus tends to be on women and what they’re wearing as a justification for why they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped. “It’s about having a conversation, even discussing it with people in work, with friends.
People have contacted me to ask questions about it, people who normally wouldn’t be involved in activism as such. But the crucial thing is to change the conversation, and educate people about their own unconscious bias.

“Someone’s choice of clothing is not something that you’d think about as harmful, until you start to dissect it. Really, does a pair of knickers invite sexual contact? No, it doesn’t. And how often do we judge somebody based on their wearing, and then how often does this come into the courts?”If a jury is a reflection of society at large, then “it shows how pervasive these misconceptions about women and girls are. Obviously we want to change that adversarial system that we have, but its’ really about changing minds, to think about it logically”. For Gillian Kearns, questions need to be asked of legal professionals who pursue such a line of argument in the courts:
“The 1999 consent act explicitly says that the only form of consent is somebody saying it – not their underwear saying it, not their drinking saying it, not their walking home alone at night saying it. It’s not that barristers don’t know this.”

Jac Sinnot (Waterford Together for Change), Senator Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party) and Gillian Kearns (Waterford Together for Change)

Jac Sinnot (Waterford Together for Change), Senator Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party) and Gillian Kearns (Waterford Together for Change)

Second SAVI Report

One action called for by protestors was for a second SAVI Report (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) to be carried out. The first, published in 2002, examined issues such as barriers for sexual abuse victims in accessing law enforcement, medical and therapeutic services, as well as looking at the general public’s attitudes and perceptions to sexual violence. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan (FG) confirmed over the weekend that he would commission a second report and that it would take two years to complete. “At the moment, our figures are literally best guesses. We have overarching reports from the likes of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, but there’s no longitudinal report, and the SAVI Report is the only thing that can give us that because it can tie everything together,” said Ms Kearns.

Many of the faces who gathered in John Roberts Square knew each other from the Repeal the 8th campaign. They’ll be continuing their activism for now under the Waterford for Change banner, though there’s been no official launch yet. Said Ms Fell: “There’s’ a group of us that were involved in the Repeal campaign locally, and the housing crisis and direct provision. We’ve kept in contact so when something comes up that should be highlighted, we would organise a protest like this.
“We’re intertwined now across the country, it’s a massive network of people that can mobilise at the drop of a hat and it shows the collective is still there.”
“We are a group of people who have stayed together,” said Ms Kearns. “We’ve called ourselves this (Waterford for Change). And we do really want Waterford to change, we want Ireland to change but we’re focusing on our efforts locally. “We learned our craft I suppose in Repeal in what was a very difficult campaign, and so we’d like to use what we learned.”

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