Sunday 4 December 2016

Blurred lines over rape and sexual consent

Asking For It, Louise O'Neill, Quercus, €15.99

Claire Coughlan

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Legendary rock star Chrissie Hynde provoked much debate and outrage over the last week with comments she made concerning rape victims and their own responsibility towards personal safety and sexual autonomy. The Pretenders' lead singer told a Sunday newspaper supplement that she had been the victim of a sexual assault aged 21. Hynde went on to say that she blamed herself for the attack as she supposedly placed herself in a dangerous situation with a biker gang in Ohio.

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"You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive," she said. "Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing, and I take full responsibility." Was Hynde internalising the blame, as many victims do? Or does she actually have a point? These questions regarding sexual consent and rape are pre-empted in Louise O'Neill's powerful second novel, Asking For It, which even has its own hashtag on Twitter: #NotAskingForIt.

Does it matter if you can't remember? That's the book's tagline, a deeply unsettling one, which this utterly brave and important novel tackles head on. Young Irish author Louise O'Neill deservedly won awards for her first book, Only Ever Yours, which depicted a scarily convincing dystopian world where women are bred and schooled with the sole purpose to please men. O'Neill has followed up her successful debut with Asking For It, which is set in contemporary Ireland, in the fictional Cork town of Ballinatoom, a close-knit community where nothing much ever happens. Until it does.

Emma O'Donovan, aged 18, has it all. A loving family, A grades at school, an adoring group of friends and supermodel looks. She's the perfect protagonist for a Young Adult novel. The only thing is: she's hard to like, but you sense that this is deliberate on the author's part - we're not really meant to sympathise with Emma that much initially. She's not the 'perfect' victim, but that doesn't make what happens to her any less horrific.

Emma goes to a party one Saturday night with a group of local young athletes, whom the town treats as heroes, and gets wasted on a cocktail of drink and drugs. When she goes into school the following Monday, there are explicit images and videos of her all over Facebook. In the photos she isn't conscious, but the boys who violated her have recorded their actions for posterity and have set up a Facebook page so they can continue to do so. Hundreds of people, people Emma knows and trusts, 'like' the posts on Facebook and comment on them, saying degrading, horrible things.

This raises the issue of collective culpability - are the people who view the images of Emma, and comment on them, complicit in her attack? What about the priest who shakes the hand of one of the culprits at Mass and offers them his condolences? What about the callers to the radio station, saying that Emma was 'asking for it'? Are they also complicit? Aren't they?

While it is aimed at Young Adults, this novel should be compulsory reading for older teenagers and their parents, as well as anyone who's ever thought a rape victim was in any way to blame for what happened to them. It has laid the groundwork for a long overdue conversation about consent. And it's established Louise O'Neill as a literary tour de force. Keep an eye on this book: it's about to be huge.

Louise O'Neill will be in conversation with Madeleine Keane on Wednesday September 23 at the Mansion House. For more info email cityofliterature@dublincity.ie

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