Blurred lines: when it's not rape, but it's not right
Writer Louise O'Neill - short-listed for two 2015 Book Awards and recent winner of Tatler's Woman of the Year Award for Literature - is smart and fearless and willing to tackle the kind of topics that are both important and uncomfortable
'The darkest people I know are 15-year-olds," says Louise O'Neill. "I'm rereading my diaries from that age, and wondering why did I not have more psychiatric help, they are so dark!" She is responding to the notion that her novels - Only Ever Yours, published in July 2014, and the most recent, Asking For It - are too dark for the young-adult age group they are aimed at. It's the only criticism the books ever accrue; otherwise, they seem to have swept all before them, crossing effortlessly from young-adult to adult, and igniting the kind of debate over young women and the sexual and societal pressures they face that feels like it has had the whole country talking.
On the Late Late Show recently, Ryan Tubridy said that he read Asking For It in one go, unable to stop. It's the story of Emma, a pretty teenager, just 18, who tries to play nice but is a far more complex set of motivations internally: self-obsessed, bitchy, insecure, competitive, a relentless flirt; entirely believable, basically. She goes to a party, gets wasted on drink and drugs, has sex with an older guy, and then blacks out. The next day, dumped on her parents' front porch like a bag of rubbish, a mass of cuts and bruises and horribly sunburned, she remembers nothing. But then the photos start - scores of them, posted up on social media, showing a comatose Emma naked, in a variety of humiliating sexual positions, with a gang of guys, some of them local GAA heroes, standing over her. She has been gang-raped, photographed, destroyed. And yet, for the small town where she lives, the case is far from clear-cut. In the tightly interwoven community, there are plenty who, obliged to take sides, won't take Emma's. The young men involved are popular and well-connected. They are young men with a future and position. They are young men.
It is a compulsive read, written with a shocking, compelling immediacy, and yes, it is bleak. Without giving too much away, there is no happy ending here. Was she not tempted, I ask Louise, to give the boys a resounding come-uppance? What stopped her, it seems, wasn't any lack of dramatic desire, but a question of authenticity; the knowledge that, in these real-life cases - and there are all too many of them - there aren't that many good outcomes. "Rape victims are reluctant to speak out, because convictions are low and sentences are lenient," says Louise. "There's no incentive to them, and no deterrent to rapists. Anyone who has been the victim of sexual assault deserves our sympathy, and the fault always lies with the rapist, no matter what the victim was wearing, had to drink, how many sexual partners she's had, and that's what I'm trying to hammer home."
Despite the seriousness with which Louise considers questions of sexism, feminism and equality, she is good fun, with a likeable dose of self-mockery; her Tinder bio reads: "Interests include: Theatre, art galleries, and burning the patriarchy to the motherf***ing ground." "I thought, 'that'll definitely weed out the assholes,'" she says with a laugh. She is smart, stylish, and has nine tattoos - "my parents hate them. They're all tiny, and I love them, but I think I'll stop now."
Asking For It was, she says, a hard book to write. "When I'm writing, I'm very obsessive and intense and probably very difficult to live with, because I get very immersed in the world of the story. This was a difficult book to write. It was very carefully planned, I did a lot of research, and the research was very upsetting. I did find it very hard, slightly nightmarish."
The world that Louise - aged 30 - writes about is one that will be possibly mystifying to older readers, and terrifying to the parents of young girls. It is a world so full of sexual violence, threat and reality, in which young men are often as confused as young women around what constitutes willing consent, that it feels as deeply menacing as a lost night out.
Some of Louise's research involved the kinds of cases we know as the Steubenville High School rape case, and 'Slane Girl'. More again simply involved talking to women she has met, and thinking back over her own experiences, something that makes it shockingly clear just how common a kind of inconclusive acceptance around sex now is. "I feel that so many women I have met had these experiences that they describe as 'it wasn't rape but it wasn't right.' It's this idea of dubious consent - maybe they'd had too much to drink, they didn't really feel comfortable with it, they got pushed along . . . so in some ways, it feels like that kind of sexual violence or assault is nearly like an epidemic," she says. As for herself, when I ask does she have that kind of story in her own life, she says, with the kind of bravery that seems typical of her: "I do. It was a casual encounter, when I was younger. It took me a long time to come to terms with it. I was very badly affected by it. The interesting thing is, even now, looking back, I don't think I could blame him, because I was in that situation where I completely froze. My voice was completely lost. I think it's because we were both very young, and neither of us really understood the true meaning of consent. I think that scenario is so common . . . there's that moment where you have a decision to make - 'either I can have sex with him, or he's going to force himself upon me, and it definitely is going to be rape.'"
"It's funny," she continues, "having spoken to other women I have met who had similar situations, all of us felt guilty. I was drunk, I was wearing a short skirt, I went back to his house. And I know, even saying this, that there will be people reading this who will think 'What did she expect?' That's the attitude we need to eradicate." About this, she is adamant.
"We've had a huge cultural shift around the way we view drink driving. That's the sort of cultural shift we need to have around how we view rape."
So is she surprised to find herself the catalyst for a long-overdue conversation around women, sex and consent? Yes and no, really. She admits to always being "very ambitious," adding later, "I was always convinced I was going to be famous, which is why - not that I am famous - but when people say to my sister or my mum 'isn't it such a shock?', my sister says 'I've been waiting 30 years for something to happen. It's not a shock.'"
Within the kind of world she describes, does she see a place for parents simply teaching their daughters to stay sober, stay in control, avoid trouble? "I fall down very firmly on the side that this 'you have to be careful attitude' is not helpful," she says. "I can see that it is easier to teach your daughter than it is to change society. Easier to tell your daughter 'you need to not get into those situations' rather than go out there and change the world. I know that when I was a teenager, my parents would have had those conversations with myself and my sister - 'just watch out for yourself, your friends, watch your drink, don't walk home by yourself' - I totally know where they're coming from, and I think they did an amazing job with us, making sure that we were OK. But it does set up this feeling that the prospect of rape is something that you're nearly expecting. It becomes almost an inevitability. And the responsibility is placed on women to prevent rape occurring, rather than focusing on teaching young men not to rape."
She then tells a story about her mother, that is highly revealing about both generations: "I remember when I was about 19 or 20, we were talking about a girl I met, I was telling my mother, that she had got really drunk, fell asleep, woke up and the guy she was with was having sex with her, and I said 'that's not right, is it?' And she got so angry with me. She said 'Of course that's not right. That's rape.' I was so shocked. I said, 'I wish we'd had this conversation when I was younger.' I never knew she had such strong views on it. We'd never talked about it. I can still see her face, she was so shocked by me, by the fact that I didn't know."
So where does she stand on something like the kinds of consent apps we occasionally hear about, something that will remove the blurring of lines completely, albeit in an utterly functional kind of way? "I think that anything that brings the issue of consent to the public consciousness or brings it to the forefront of the conversation that we're having culturally, I'm not going to sneer at that. I think it's hugely beneficial. Even if we disagree, think 'that's ridiculous,' at least we're talking about it. People say, 'Oh that doesn't sound very romantic,' or 'It's not very sexy,' but I feel that saying 'Are you OK with this?' is just hugely important, and that's what asking for consent means. Because I think, a lot of the time, girls are afraid to say no. They are socialised to be very mindful of other people's feelings. That can create a situation, especially when you're younger, where you don't feel able to say no."
All that said, she is quick to add, "For the record, I do not hate men. I really don't. I'm a feminist, but I like men. And any man who's frightened of me because I'm opinionated, or because I'm driven, or because I've had a certain amount of success, I wouldn't be into them anyway, they wouldn't be someone I'd even look at, to be honest, so it's great, it's weeding out all the assholes. I'm not hurting for male attention - I've a few boys on the go at the moment. I'm having a great time. It's been a great summer, talk about reclaiming your sexuality as a woman - I'm flying the flag!"
As a child and teenager, Louise wanted to be an actress, an ambition she had to put aside, to her continued regret, although the kind of training she did then is very evident in the immediacy of her writing style. "I was really involved in theatre, but I had an eating disorder as a teenager, it kicked in at nearly 15. I became incredibly self-conscious about how I looked. The thought of having to go to auditions, of having to be on TV - I couldn't bear that. I reacted very strongly, so I gave up, which I always regretted. I really loved it. It gave me such joy. But I think I approach writing similarly, I really become this character in the way that you do when you go on stage. I step into their shoes and try and inhabit that person while I'm writing the book."
The kind of personality traits often associated with anorexia - high-achieving, driven, ambitious - she admits to with a wry laugh, and a codicil: "I think that being driven is very beneficial, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with being an over-achiever, but I think perfectionism is a disease. That's one thing I really had to leave go of when I was writing - I read this quote, 'perfectionism is the enemy of creativity'. Expecting yourself to be perfect, expecting your life to be perfect, it just sets you up for unhappiness, because that's just not what life is like, unfortunately." She laughs: "I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I'm not perfect!" It wasn't until she was 27 that Louise really recovered, for some of which time she was in New York, working for Elle magazine, and yes, she can see the irony - "It was a very odd experience recovering from an eating disorder and gaining weight, while working in an industry that is obsessed with extreme thinness. You couldn't have made it up" - and understands that this may be her battleground. "It's a bit like being an alcoholic," she says. "I have known people who have fully recovered, but I think because I had it for so long, it's still something that is a consideration. If I get anxious, or I get nervous, those behaviours feel very tempting. But I am very able to manage it now, and take care of myself. I'm at a stage now where I feel very healthy, very strong. I suppose I'll always have 5pc of an eating disorder, that voice in my head will always be there, but that's OK too."
For now, though, life is very good. She is indifferent to the kind of biological pressure that can harry women: "I love children, but that's never been a driving ambition of mine. Maybe my career comes first, and in a way that is very freeing. The pressure is off when you don't really care. There's nothing worse than wanting something and feeling you can't get it. And it's not like other aspects of sexism - we can't change this." She will soon head back to Clonakilty, to her parents - "I'm so lucky, my mother does my washing. They're amazing" - to begin work on the third novel. "It's kind of scary, the thought of trying to follow up the two, after they've been so well received, but I have to just not think about it," she says. And she's ready: "I've been in Dublin for the summer. I wanted a summer of cocktails, and dates, and art galleries and the theatre and book launches. I had it all," she laughs. "My liver and my bank balance are really hurting, but I had so much fun. I did that, and now it's time to go back and start writing the next book."
'Asking For It', by Louise O'Neill, is published by Quercus, €14.99. See irishbookawards.ie
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