Sunday 25 September 2016

Author Louise O'Neill- 'Rape is always the fault of the rapist and the responsibility for the crime lies with them'

Author Louise O'Neill argues that Irish people use alcohol to blame rape victims and make excuses for rapists

Published 07/03/2016 | 02:30

Louise O’Neill
Louise O’Neill

When my novel, Asking For It, was first released, a friend phoned to congratulate me. She then said that she was glad I was highlighting the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and she hoped any young women reading the book would come to the realisation that they needed to drink less if they wanted to ensure they didn't get raped.

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It was an odd moment, but an incredibly revealing one. It had never been my intention for the reader to come to that conclusion. Rather, I had hoped they would see how Irish people often use alcohol as just another way in which to blame victims of sexual violence while simultaneously using it to excuse the behaviour of the perpetrator. However, time and time again, at events and book festivals and school visits across the country, I am asked the same questions - what can we do to stop young people from drinking so much? Surely I agree that alcohol is responsible for most of the sexual violence that happens in Ireland?

I can see why people think this. The permissiveness around the drinking culture here is astounding. To use a gross generalisation, a lot of Irish people drink to get drunk and this need for social lubrication is especially true when it comes to interacting with members of the opposite sex. When I lived in New York, I was asked out on dates on an almost daily basis - at the laundry, in the line at Starbucks, on the Subway. Yes. Men approached me and asked for my number when we were both sober. (The first time it happened I got such a fright I started giggling uncontrollably and my prospective suitor backed away slowly, a panicked expression on his face.)

This is something that just does not happen in Ireland without a great deal of vodka involved. Drinking is something that is deeply embedded within our national psyche, it is the touchstone of many of our social activities, and the statistics around sexual violence reflect that. The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland's Rape and Justice in Ireland study indicated that 74pc of all rape complaints involved alcohol, with 10pc of complainants admitting to being so inebriated that they were almost completely incapacitated. It's all too easy then to draw the conclusion that if women were simply to avoid drinking, then the rates of rape would decrease exponentially, but really, where do we draw the line? We tell women to drink less, we tell them to watch their glasses in bars to ensure they don't get spiked with date rape drugs, we tell them to avoid walking alone at night-time. Rape prevention programmes have traditionally been focused on teaching women how to avoid being raped but here's the problem - it's clearly not working.

Incidences of sexual violence are increasing year on year, and our obsession with policing women in order to stem the tide is only fostering a culture where victims of rape not only blame themselves, but are blamed by others for failing to adopt behaviours that could have helped guarantee that this didn't happen in the first place.

A 2008 study carried out by the Irish Examiner found that 41pc of Irish people believed that a woman was partially or fully responsible for being raped if she was drunk or had taken illegal drugs.

If you put this in the context of any other crime, it becomes increasingly bizarre. Imagine if your house was broken into while you were asleep and afterwards people felt unsympathetic because you had been drinking the same night; that as if somehow having six pints meant that you 'deserved' to be robbed. Or if we look at it from another angle, when people rush to defend someone who has been accused of rape by saying he was too drunk to know what he was doing, would we be so quick to excuse such behaviour if that man had committed murder? "Ah, come on, Johnny didn't mean to stab that man! He was just drunk.We've all been there. He's a good lad, really."

Besides the urgent need to enshrine a legal definition of consent in law that includes the understanding that anyone who is incapacitated with drink is incapable of giving consent and any sexual act that follows is therefore rape, there also needs to be a cultural shift around how we view sexual violence and a zero tolerance policy adopted towards the perpetrators.

It doesn't matter what the victim has had to drink or what they were wearing or how many sexual partners they've had previously or if they went home with the man in the question. It doesn't matter if the man accused was drunk and "didn't know what he was doing" - rape is always the fault of the rapist and the responsibility for the crime lies with them.

Louise's book 'Asking For It' is published by Quercus. louiseoneillauthor.com

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