COLUMN: A short skirt doesn't equal consent

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 | 6:08 p.m. CDT; updated 9:30 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 29, 2010

Six years ago, a 20-year-old woman, named in court papers only as Jane Doe, went to a bar at Laclede's Landing in St. Louis. She was dancing and someone pulled her tank top down, and it was all filmed by a Girls Gone Wild video crew. The incident was distributed on a video called “Girls Gone Wild Sorority Orgy.”

On July 22, a St. Louis jury ruled that despite saying “no” when asked to reveal her breasts to the camera, Jane Doe had given “implied consent” because she was there and taking part in the party.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that Patrick O'Brien, the jury foreman, said: "Through her actions, she gave implied consent ... She was really playing to the camera. She knew what she was doing."

Allow me to express my outrage. This kind of reasoning makes me nauseated. If this case involved a guy unwillingly having his genitalia exposed to a video camera, I can guarantee that the outcome would’ve been incredibly different.

There is more than an undercurrent in our culture that says a woman “asks” for rape or other forms of sexual assault. It starts with snide comments about a woman’s wardrobe — a short skirt is apparently some kind of invitation to be harassed.

This is the beginning of a slippery slope, which ends in blaming women for rape. In feminism and feminist theory, the term “rape culture” is used to describe the commonness of sexual violence and how social norms, the media and people’s attitudes condone it.

The culture then teaches women how to avoid rape, through PSAs and self-defense classes and carrying mace and traveling in groups. This implies that not taking these precautions means that a woman deserves what she gets. Not that these precautions aren’t a good idea — I’ve taken a self-defense class myself — but that a woman must somehow be on guard against sexual attack at all times is ridiculous.

I spent one painful evening begging a friend to go to the police after an incident where her date just didn’t stop when she asked. She decided not to inform authorities and press charges against the guy because of the stigma of rape. Upon reflection, I find that a big part of her decision not to press charges was the fear that others would place the blame on her.

The St. Louis Girls Gone Wild case uses the illogic that Jane Doe was asking for it because she was “playing to the camera.” This is the same absurdity that would say a sexually provocative dress is “implied consent” for a man to rape the woman.

A girls' night out usually isn't a big deal. A woman wants a night out on the town with her girlfriends. She wears less clothes and higher heels than would be acceptable in the daytime. There will be dancing and a few drinks. A fun time will be had by all. I’ve been on these nights out, and they’re harmless.

Until someone pulls down a woman’s tank top in front of a Girls Gone Wild video crew.

That Girls Gone Wild, with its owner Joe Francis, is one of the most repellent companies ever to grace late-night television with its commercials is inconsequential. Pornography has been around since history could be recorded. I would even go far as to say that pornography, when made or consumed by consenting adults, can be empowering to women.

This jury’s decision is enshrining in legal precedent that being a woman in front of a camera at a party “implies consent” for having images of your naked breast distributed for profit. Girls Gone Wild made an estimated $1.5 million from the video in question. Someone pulled down Jane Doe’s tank top, and she said “no” to the camera crew. There is no evidence Jane Doe signed a consent form.

As Jane Doe’s lawyer, Stephen Evans, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Other girls said it was OK. Not one other one said, 'No, no.’ She is entitled to go out with friends and have a good time and not have her top pulled down and get that in a video."

Apparently not.

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism


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Ray Shapiro July 27, 2010 | 6:33 p.m.

("COLUMN: A short skirt doesn't equal consent")
-Neither does a T-Shirt...

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez July 27, 2010 | 8:23 p.m.

Well if a girl is worried then she can try to order some of these:


(Report Comment)
Matthew Cavanah July 28, 2010 | 9:37 a.m.

As a colleague of Ms. O'Neill's (and a former staffer at The Missourian) I'm a little bothered by one thing.
"Sparking conversation this a.m.: Erin O'Neill's take on what short skirts say — or don't say — about the wearer."
This is how this column was teased on Twitter. I feel as though the tone of the tweet versus the tone of the column are completely contradictory and misleading even.
In her time as a columnist at The Missourian, O'Neill has discussed a variety of topics. Some where lighthearted jabs at the poor fashion sense of some women. ( I'm in complete agreement with you there, Erin) Others discussed politics, some discussed sports, and one even talked about the worth of believing in Santa.
But I just feel like the ball was dropped here and the tweet that teased this column (obviously how I came across it) does no justice to the seriousness of the issue which O'Neill addresses. I thought I was going to be reading another poke at poor fashion taste.
Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that it wasn't such a case. I just feel the tweet was poorly worded. I understand how The Missourian thought it would read, but I read it as a tease to a column that called out women who wear unreasonably short skirts.
Give the column it's due, it is a very serious issue that warrants continued coverage.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer July 28, 2010 | 9:46 a.m.

Hi, Matt. I'm the one who wrote the tweet. Your point is well taken.
— Joy Mayer,

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 28, 2010 | 11:27 a.m.
(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 11:32 a.m.

You made many valid points, but to use this incident isn't valid. As usual, ALL the details must be known, which we don't have.
You say "A short skirt doesn't equal consent", and of course in most cases this is true, but if the girl was standing on a corner in a red light district at 1:00 in the morning, your statement isn't true.
And, anything to do with "girls gone wild" is questionable. It's like crying "sexual harassment" at the Playboy Club. I'm sure the jury heard far more truth than you did.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush July 28, 2010 | 12:01 p.m.

Ms. O'Neill,
It is a crime to intentionally expose another person in public whether the person is drunk or sober, dancing or standing, outdoors or in a club. The real tragedy is this poor woman's sexual assault was caught on video and used for profit. Everyone deserves justice; unfortunately, they get the Justice System.
As someone who is one-degree removed from many victims of sexual violence, attitudes of intolerance and bigotry towards those who have victims of a sexual crime is still prevalent. I'd already heard of this case before you wrote about it, but it's refreshing to read another thoughtful perspective.
Keep educating and keep writing.
As a man, I would feel betrayed if (1) a woman was videotaping me dancing at a club, (2) one of my acquaintances pulled my pants down exposing me, (3) that sexual assault was being used in homosexual pornography against my will, and (4) a court ruled I'd given "implied consent" simply by being present at a public event "playing to a camera."
May god have mercy on the soul of a person who would exploit my daughter in such a way.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 12:03 p.m.

....and, when the jury said "through her actions" you immediately assume only one action was considered: standing in front of the camera.
THAT isn't what they said. They might have seen or heard many other actions that would change your mind. So, YOUR reasoning isn't exactly objective, is it?

(Report Comment)
Noah Hartsfield July 28, 2010 | 2:03 p.m.


Only one action in this case matters... she said NO. It doesn't matter if she chose to go the party, it doesn't matter if everyone around her was doing it... nothing else matters. In this country, no means NO. Period, done. Furthermore, she didn't even commit the action herself. the camera men willing filmed her assault by another patron and then sold it for money.

There is nothing defensible in this situation and the defense only succeeded because they painted the defendant as having some form a loss morality and therefore bringing it upon herself. Erin is 100% right. This case is just a glorious example of how our society still treats women.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 2:47 p.m.

Evidently a jury, probably consisting of women and some liberal men decided otherwise. You don't know what the jury saw. If she was laughing while saying "no" or taking off her pants saying "no". I live in this country too, and "no" doesn't always mean no. I'm not supporting chauvinism or whatever you're calling male America, but some of your assumptions are just as prejudiced.

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."
— Albert Einstein

(Report Comment)
Liz Z July 28, 2010 | 3:18 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 4:18 p.m.

I'm sorry if rapist use this fact, but it doesn't change the truth.
I don't force myself on anyone, but I know a hundred times when "no" didn't mean no, and it wasn't ME who changed directions. So, to continue to say it ALWAYS means no is ridiculous. That is a lie, and you don't know your own gender.

That is what the jury was for, so get off your soapbox. We're not talking about ALL women's rights. You go off on all kinds of tangents that have nothing to do with this case. I'm glad you weren't on the jury. You are worse than any of the men you're trying to spit on.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 5:03 p.m.

I won't say anymore after this. It's pointless to argue with bias. You have done your gender a disservice, not for standing up for obvious rights, but for rewriting what isn't there.

I never payed much attention to Freud psychology, but could this be what he meant by "penis envy"? Are you all upset because you don't have one? Is this the basis for your neurosis? I'm so sorry.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 28, 2010 | 7:17 p.m.

@tom kelly:
Uber-feminists will never understand your logic, even though you were able to temper your testosterone and balance the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
Too many uber-feminists seem to want a world filled with eunuchs, you know.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 28, 2010 | 8:42 p.m.

Thanks, I was outnumbered. They deleted a girl who was portraying America like it's full of chauvinists. I think it's full of wimps. Bring back the Archie Bunkers for balance. And don't disagree, or you're an uncontrollable letch rapist...........down boy.

(Report Comment)
Warren Mayer July 29, 2010 | 3:26 p.m.

Ms. O'Neill, with all due respect, the outcome of this recent court case touches on an extremely sensitive issue, especially painful to those in our community - primarily women - whose lives have been forever marred by this kind of sexual humiliation and/or violence (or worse). Like you, I too am at a loss to explain this particular jury's verdict in the face of what seems like it should be a slam-dunk; either the "GGW" video producers have this particular woman's signed release form on file...or they do not. Right? End of story, one would think.

But I think you really did your readers a disservice, diluted your message, and lost a ton of credibility with a single sentence, an unfortunate aside that was not really relevant to your main point, specifically:

"I would even go far as to say that pornography, when made or consumed by consenting adults, can be empowering to women."

The primary point of your column is (as I understood it) that "No means no," or at least that it should. Women should not be treated disrespectfully, their preferences should be honored and they should feel safe to go out and dance at clubs...without being molested and/or humiliated. (As the father of three teenage girls, I heartily applaud that sentiment.) However, you really detract from your primary message by introducing the idea that pornography - under certain circumstances - can in any way, shape or form be "empowering" to women. For a well-reasoned counterpoint, you could do worse than to read this short article:

How Porn Destroys Lives

Some excerpts:

"[Author Pamela Paul] was even more surprised, however, by how often pornography use ruins relationships, increases sexual dysfunction, and changes what men expect from women."

"I think a lot of women feel cowed by the attitude of a lot of men who use pornography..."

"If pornography involved blacks or Jews or any other minority or group, I think that liberals would respond with outrage. But it's women and there's been no response."

Just to be clear, pornography never, ever "empowers" women. It degrades, enslaves and destroys them...right alongside their hopelessly-addicted customers. As a recovering alcoholic I have volunteered in addiction-recovery and divorce ministries for only a few years and yet already seen, firsthand, multiple lives absolutely ravaged by porn addiction. Please, I would ask that you do some research on how porn mercilessly "consumes its consumers" – along with their families, their finances and their souls - before you toss off a remark like that again. Best wishes as you continue in your studies at MU.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 29, 2010 | 4:15 p.m.

And what of the lyrical porn soon to be spewed at this Friday night's gathering on 9th Street?
Does not "gangsta' rap" contribute to our culture's view and attitudes towards women?

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 29, 2010 | 5:03 p.m.

"Hi Jen, did you hear who's down at the bar tonight, "girls gone wild", wanna go?" "Are you nuts, those guys strip you and who knows what." "So what, we can show off our new underwear tee hee hee." " I don't know Janey, I think you have to sign a waiver at the door because it gets sooo wild.. tee hee." "Like wild isn't a good thing tee hee....all we have to do is say "no" when they come close."
"Beesi--ides...after two beers, you try to do the whole band." "OH...don't EVER mention that again, you know that's not how I really am." "Yaa right....okay, let's these panties make me look fat?"

The original expression was: "Sometimes no means no." It was written that way for a reason.
The jury saw what you didn't.
Pornography doesn't lower my opinion of women. Their reasoning does.

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill July 29, 2010 | 9:51 p.m.

Mr. Kelly- I find the scenario you put forth to be misogynistic and disturbing. In the case in question, the woman's tank top was pulled down against her will by another person. She said "no." Remember: you didn't see what the jury saw either.

Erin K. O'Neill
Opinion Columnist
Assistant Director of Photography
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill July 29, 2010 | 9:51 p.m.

Mr. Mayer- I think that making a blanket statement as pornography always being degrading to women and consumers, full stop, as a bit extreme. While I think that is some cases you may be right, I think that some women, under other circumstances, could find pornography to be a fulfilling expression of their sexuality. I am, of course, speaking of women, who are of age and fulling consenting, and not teenagers or young girls. Human sexuality has a whole spectrum of expression, and pornography can be a part of it. Reasonable people may disagree, after all.

Erin K. O'Neill
Opinion Columnist
Assistant Director of Photography
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill July 29, 2010 | 9:53 p.m.

Apologies, I meant "fully consenting."

~Erin K. O'Neill

(Report Comment)
Jake Sherlock July 29, 2010 | 10:12 p.m.

Tom Kelly said in an earlier post:

"They deleted a girl who was portraying America like it's full of chauvinists."

That post was not deleted because of its content. It was deleted because the user did not want to adhere to the Missourian's real name policy for comments.

Jake Sherlock
Opinion editor

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 29, 2010 | 10:13 p.m.

("Reasonable people may disagree, after all.")

Unreasonable people may have an opinion too, you know.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly July 30, 2010 | 6:37 p.m.

Erin, you have my respect. I know it has to be hard to write without leaning one way or the other, and taking hits from the public all day is rough, but maybe you're used to it. My pet peeve is the racial junk all over the internet, I can't believe it. And, it's not whitey being prejudiced today, but minorities, and they think it's okay because they're a minority. If a white guy is involved, it has to be racist, and they don't see that to think that way is racist too, and I'm tired of that.

When I stumbled onto your article, it looked the same, only it was gender. And, not one woman could admit that sometimes what a person says and does conflict. Like someone said, even unreasonable people can post, and maybe Most responses are the extremes, I don't know. I just don't think I'm extreme. So pardon my scenario, and I definitely don't hate women. It was meant to show how stupid we are in our youth, men too. Of course it doesn't depict all women, but it reflects quite a few I've known, and loved. Both men and women are provocative, that's why we have little men and women.

I believe your intentions are good, so lean anyway you want, and of course America is always out here to critique :) ...and blather...and offend....and....

(Report Comment)
Ali Straka August 1, 2010 | 8:02 p.m.

Tom Kelly, you wrote: "You say 'A short skirt doesn't equal consent' and of course in most cases this is true, but if the girl was standing on a corner in a red light district at 1:00 in the morning, your statement isn't true."

Actually, Erin's statement still holds true in that case and in all cases. You're implying this woman is a prostitute, and regardless of whether she is or is not, she has the right to refuse to have sex with someone. And she has the right to say no regardless of what she's wearing, what time of day it is, where she is and the assumptions you make about her based on those things.

You also said: "And, anything to do with 'girls gone wild' is questionable. It's like crying 'sexual harassment' at the Playboy Club. I'm sure the jury heard far more truth than you did."

Once again, your statement is misguided. A woman should be able to go to a party hosted by a company such as Girls Gone Wild, no matter how "questionable" it may be, without surrendering her rights simply because of the nature of the party. Never mind your implications with the word choice of "crying" sexual harassment, it's still very ignorant to assume a woman signs away her rights for respect and safety at the door of a party simply because it's hosted by a "questionable" company. You're providing further proof that our society illogically thinks women "ask for it" in certain situations. No one asks to be raped, taken advantage of or forced to do something against their will. And I'm not just writing that because I'm a woman.

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill November 4, 2010 | 2:27 p.m.


Jane Doe is getting a new trial. You can read the whole court order at the link:

Erin K. O'Neill

(Report Comment)

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