Out for a good time? Yes. Dressed to be raped? No

Susan McKay: How women choose to dress can never be taken as an invitation for assault

In October 1978 five thousand 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 sexually assaulted 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.


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

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 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.