“I see London, I see France, I see [child’s name]’s underpants!”
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 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.
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.