The Color Code: Underwear, An Invitation For Sexual Misconduct?

“I see London, I see France, I see [child’s name]’s underpants!”
(unknown origin)

A familiar childhood chant, guaranteed to wreak playground-wide humiliation on the child, usually a girl, whose name was tauntingly inserted into the rhyme as she practiced perfecting her cartwheels on the grass, or flipped somersaults over the railings by the steps, with a flash-glimpse of her underwear fleetingly on show.

In Ireland, recently, an adult version of this ancient ditty played out in a courtroom. A female lawyer in court defending a man charged with raping a teenage girl gave a detailed description of the underwear the girl had been wearing at the time of the assault, in front of the entire courtroom. This was in an attempt to absolve the accused of blame.

“You have to look at the way she was dressed…” the legal counsel, Ms. Elizabeth O’Connell declared, “…she was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

As if that explained the whole incident…..

The words “what the fuck?” might be flying around in your mind now. They fly around in mine, every time I recall this news story and the outrageous comment quoted in the previous paragraph. The reference to the girl’s underwear was made during the lawyer’s closing comments before the jury broke for deliberation in the case. The man accused of raping the teenager was subsequently acquitted. Unsurprisingly. The woman lawyer had publicly implied that the girl’s choice of underwear was somehow relevant. This, after #MeToo. After #TimesUp. After Larry Nassar’s trial. As well, she undoubtedly brought further shame and humiliation to a young woman who had already suffered the trauma of a sexual assault. But the prevailing notion which underpinned the lawyer’s remarks, was her suggestion that ‘wearing underwear like that, well what did the girl expect?’

Of course, you can’t say things like that in 2018, right?

This case understandably sparked public outrage. But, despite the outcry and ensuing protests, which echoed around the globe in relation to SC O’Connell’s assertion – an assertion made in front of a court of law where it went unchallenged at the time – has any change been influenced as a result? Likely not.

As a mother of a son and two daughters, I would love the three of them to know that what we wear has nothing to do with how another human being might choose to violate us. I really would. My husband and I do our utmost to remind our children of such essential messages at every opportunity. But the press coverage about the Irish lawyer who described that girl’s underwear has sadly reinforced for all children and young adults that society thinks otherwise.

Society judges.
Society says what we wear can lead to our own calamity.
Society says our underwear communicates our sexual boundaries to others, and our words don’t matter.
Society says girls need to choose their underwear carefully.
Society says boys can use our underwear as a weapon against us in court after they have sexually assaulted us.
Society says that if girls and women don’t want to be sexually assaulted, they have to prove it.
Society says.

And society has a very loud and powerful voice.

Like too many other girls, I was sexually assaulted more than once growing up. By my late teens, I had acquired a few tactics in an attempt to steer clear of further sexual trauma. This was because, through social conditioning, I wrongly believed it was my responsibility not to get sexually assaulted. Among the various strategies I relied on, one centered on my underwear; more specifically, the color of it. A color code, of sorts. I believed an easy solution to not inadvertently give the “wrong” message (whatever that means….) to boys, was never to wear black or red underwear. Crazy, I know. But, I drew the conclusion that white, cream – or any color, really, except black or red, was a much safer bet. Don’t get me wrong – I liked fabulous underwear, pretty matching sets and the latest lacy, delicate treats from Victoria’s Secret in solid colors or floral patterns. I loved intensely dark colors like navy blue, plum, burgundy, but never black or red, feeling certain those colors next to my skin would definitely land me in trouble.

When I met my (now) husband, he pretty much moved in not long after we started seeing each other. Despite being in a safe, committed and loving relationship, it took over a year before I scrapped the “no black or red” rule. I never consciously questioned it for myself, and never justified my rationale to anyone. The news story from the Irish courtroom brought all that back into my mind, and my decision as a young woman to be governed by the fear of judgment, and ultimately the fear of harm when purchasing underwear.

So great was the dread of being ‘misunderstood’ – a man catching an eyeful of a black bra-strap, and thinking that was an invitation to help himself to my body.
So great was the drive to do all I could to avoid further sexual harm, and devastating invasions which take so long to forget.
So great was the weight of responsibility on my shoulders to make sure I was not unwittingly giving a message that I wanted to engage in a sexual encounter that I would not be consenting to.

Disappointingly, my plan failed me, anyway. Sexual harassment and sexual assaults still befell me, despite adhering to my color code where underwear was concerned. Fun floral prints in various hues were no deterrent for those intent on an unwanted kiss, a forceful grope, or worse, being imposed upon me either at work, or drunk at a bar, or while mingling at a party. Nothing was gained by my careful choices, apart from perhaps a false sense of security that I was safer by avoiding the raciest colors on the rack in the lingerie department.

These days, without giving too much away, there is no color banned in my underwear drawer. My choices are dictated by my outfit or my mood. Or whatever’s not in the laundry basket. As well, there is no color coding – of course, black and red are pretty and sexy, but they don’t mean anything more or less than any other color. Underwear shade or style should never be relied on as a key indicator in terms of communicating the amount of sexual contact a woman wants/feels comfortable with, or her level of desire.

At home, we discussed the Ireland case with our three children and were both relieved when they recognized the lawyer’s behavior as unbelievable. It is essential that children are enlightened, and learn to challenge such convenient, yet ludicrous stereotypes. We want our daughters to grow up free to wear whatever the hell color they like under their clothes. After all, it’s their choice. Just like consenting to sexual contact is – because, guess what? There IS no color code. There’s no code at all.

When consenting to intimacy, underwear is immaterial.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya Flickr via Compfight cc

Judith Staff

Judith Staff’s background is in teaching and early years education. She still teaches occasionally, though now her main focus is in child welfare and safeguarding children. Her work includes delivering training, presenting at conferences, and engaging in collaborative projects with schools around child abuse awareness and sexual violence prevention. She enjoys writing blogs and poetry on topics she feels passionate about. Judith loves running, gym classes and karate. She is married to an art lecturer and they live in Northamptonshire, England with their three free-spirited children, a 12- year-old son, and daughters aged 11 and 9.

  1. Judith Staff

    Bryan, first off – thank you for reading.
    Disappointingly, it seems you did not read thoroughly, as the answers to your queries are in the article which is hyperlinked right there in the body of the text. As well, the case attracted world-wide condemnation which you could quickly find out were you to search online. Commenting, without having done your ‘homework’, emits a slight level of arrogance which detracts from whatever you wish to communicate. As well, your extreme lack of acknowledgement of the main point of the article, lies somewhere in between mildly baffling to alarmingly disconcerting, though it does underscore what many millions around the globe are all too aware of: humanity has got a long way to go in relation to creating a society which does not tolerate sexual violence.
    All the best.

  2. Avatar

    Unfortunately, though the female lawyer’s comments were unconscionable and completely unacceptable, they weren’t unbelievable at all. In a world where victims of sexual assault are constantly blamed for causing the rapes — and any lesser assaults as well — it’s no surprise that yet another attorney betrays victims of sexual assault by blaming them for the crime in a trial.

    As a victim of rape and sexual assault for 13 years, beginning at the age of 3, I was constantly told that the only underwear which was “acceptable” for me as a girl was white. No lace, no designs, no nothing: just plain white panties. Funny how plain white panties never protected me from rape by my father, stepfather, mother, or any of their neighbors or friends.

    Wonderful article, Judith, and thank you so much for sharing it with all of us. Thank you for your honesty and your bravery. Thank you for the very well written piece.


  3. Dori Owen

    It was good of you to read Judith’s essay and take the time to express your thoughts. I did not interpret Judith’s telling of these remarks to be a reason for the defendant to be acquitted. You asked about the jury’s decision–no one may ever know why this or any jury acquits. Yes, it is the job of a defense lawyer to represent their clients. Yes, she was not there to represent the female gender of the human species. But these issues are not the point of Judith’s writings.
    Judith’s point, to me, has been made over and over and over in many circumstances and trials. And this is it. A victim’s clothing has no nexus to a sexual attack.
    Counterpoint. If she had been wearing camouflage combat clothing, would this fact be disclosed or be relevant?
    This essay is about inappropriate assumptions. The lawyer here was but one example. I strongly encourage you to research rape and sexual assault trials. But I have a feeling that you already know this truth–victim blaming exists. Blaming a victim for what they wore, what they drank, or where they were is never an excuse for a sexual attack.
    I believe you already know this as well. Here’s a litmus for you. What if the defendant in this case was your sister? Your girlfriend? Your daughter? Do you think their underwear was relevant?
    I do not believe it is. Ever. And I’m saddened that the case Judith wrote about is just one example of why so many assault victims do not come forward or press charges. Going through a trial of this nature to see your attacker acquitted is beyond devastating.
    I appreciate you reading my thoughts on this essay. Godspeed.

  4. Judith Staff

    Thanks so much, Rachel, for your kind words and warm support. Rape culture is alive and kicking, with women still being blamed for crimes against them….but post #MeToo, there is hope on the horizon that change is underway.

  5. Cee Streetlights

    Missed the point entirely.

    The author gives one example from a myriad of court cases where what victim is wearing scrutinized and this is all you can comment on from her entire article? Besides the fact that she is from the UK and their press has covered this particular case whereas ours has not, I would encourage you to read the entire piece and be less myopic.

  6. Avatar

    Read the linked article, or Google it, to find the answers to your questions about the trial, jury, etc. In addition, you’re making a lot of assumptions as to what you believe Judith is ‘implying’ here.

    As to the bigger picture of what she has experienced, which is what this article is about… have you no response to that? It’s overwhelming, expensive, and even cellular, the long-term effects of sexual abuse on survivors (all genders). Society’s expectations of survivors (all genders) do not take into account these effects. Being a childhood sexual abuse survivor and activist myself, I’d be happy to share articles with you about the long-term effects of abuse on survivors (all genders).

    It’s interesting how you made it all about male vs. female, which says quite a lot more about you than the author, who, as you say, ‘was not here to represent the female gender of the human species’ EITHER.

  7. Avatar

    Brilliant, Judith. Honest take on the failings of society and its effects on women. I mean, seriously — how ridiculous was that argument? And insulting beyond belief.

    Beyond that, thank you for sharing your own stories. I’m proud of you and your awesome kids.

    (An aside: my mom’s best friend just shared a story of being assaulted by a teacher on her college campus back in the early 60s, and how during the trial, the defense tried to paint her as a ‘hussy.’ Sadly, not much has changed in over 50 years — the way victims are treated in a courtroom is pathetic.)

  8. Avatar

    You’re implying here that this comment was why the defendant was acquitted. I would like to know if that is what the jury based it’s decision or if it was based on other evidence and also how many women were on the jury. Sometimes things can’t be reduced down nicely down to a one line sentence but then again I would guess that there are times when it can. Furthermore what the female lawyer did was represent her client even though to me it seems kind of tacky and tasteless. She was not there to represent the female gender of the human species.

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