Monday 23 September 2019

Sex, shame and consent: the dramatic challenge for us all

The play 'Asking For It' shows all too clearly the pitfalls and prejudices facing our children, writes Emily Hourican

DEVASTATING: From left, Venetia Bowe as Zoe, Darragh Shannon as Dylan, Lauren Coe as Emma, Sile Maguire as Ali and Sean Doyle as Sean in the new stage version of ‘Asking For It’
DEVASTATING: From left, Venetia Bowe as Zoe, Darragh Shannon as Dylan, Lauren Coe as Emma, Sile Maguire as Ali and Sean Doyle as Sean in the new stage version of ‘Asking For It’

Emily Hourican

It's tempting to think that the timing of Asking For It at the Abbey Theatre was somehow prescient - just a couple of weeks ago we saw a rape trial in which the 17-year-old complainant's underwear was mentioned in court as evidence. There were street protests, Ruth Coppinger brought a thong into the Dail and our Taoiseach made a speech in which he said "nobody asks to be raped and it is never the victim's fault".

He might have been talking about Emma in the play. Actually, I reckon that if you had staged this play at any point in the last three years it would have felt prescient. Because we are at a weird stage of our social development, where there has never been more talk about sexual violence - about what is and isn't rape, about consent and what it means, about how victims are treated when they speak out. And yet, it is mostly just talk. So little has changed.

That was the backdrop to heading off to The Abbey last week with an 18-year-old pal, the daughter of an old friend. (By the way, there are spoilers ahead, but if you don't know the basics of Asking For It, you've been living under a rock.)

I bought the tickets as an 18th birthday treat for her but as we walked down the quays, I suddenly worried. Some treat this was - a play about gang rape and social media shaming. I've read the book. I knew what to expect. She had only the vaguest of ideas. I worried that it was all going to be too much. But I decided not to pre-prep her; just to let the evening unfold. For both of us.

I wasn't surprised to see how well the book adapts to the stage. All the power of the story is right there, in front of you. What did surprise me was the number of young men in the audience. And how sorry I felt for the young men on the stage. What we now call ''toxic masculinity'' - the thing that is most responsible for ''rape culture'' - looks, up close, to mean a wretched combination of insecurity, bravado, fear and uncertainty, as much as anything more sinister.

Another thing that surprised me was the crying at the end. The extent of it. All around me, women and a few men, were wiping their eyes and blowing their noses. When that happens, you wonder - I do, anyway - are they crying for what they have watched, or are they crying because the story strikes a personal chord somewhere?

I didn't cry. Not that it isn't a devastating play, it is. But in a way I was too upset for tears.

At the interval, which occurs directly after Emma finds herself in an obviously unsafe scenario - too many young men, too much booze, too many pills, too many hormones, too little kindness - and before the consequences of that hit home, I asked my friend, cautiously, what she thought: was she shocked? "No" - though she admitted to being "distressed and unsettled".

This girl did her Leaving Cert last year. She is fresh out of school. Practically a child still. The same age as Emma in the play. And there she was, saying, almost casually: "There were lots of guys in my school like that. Not all of them, but a big gang. Lads my age speak that way about women, even in front of myself and my girl friends, and think little to nothing of it." It is, she pointed out with a wisdom she shouldn't have yet, "the kind of disrespectful behaviour that can escalate quite quickly".

"They get nicer," I tried to tell her. "Give them 10 years and those guys nearly all get much nicer. Gentler. More honest." I don't know if she believed me.

Around us as we talked, other theatre-goers, mainly women, mainly middle-aged, tried to listen in. I could see they, too, were fascinated. They wanted an 18-year-old perspective on what they had just watched; wanted to know what was it like for a new generation. The awful thing is that what we heard were some very old stories.

If the boys on stage were familiar, what about the scenario of what happens to Emma? Yes, alas. That too.

"Completely believable," she said. Some of her friends have had ''bad'' experiences, that they communicate almost in code - no one spells anything out in this murky world of what is, and isn't, assault - to each other, but never to anyone in authority. They would no more think of going to a parent, a teacher, lecturer, the police than… well, than my generation would have.

Did anyone talk to them - boys or girls - in school about consent? About what that even means?

"No." Sex education covered the anatomical basics of what/where/how, and the dangers of STDs, but didn't go near ideas of respect, consent, about owning their own sexuality or their bodies.

Instead, this generation got what mine got. "I, as a teenage girl, have had to learn practically from birth, that I should not walk alone at night, or that I should not show too much skin, or that I should not do one million other things that people like to blame rape on," my 18-year-old friend said.

Back in the day, her mother and I, all our friends, laughed about this stuff. We warned each other off certain guys - "don't take a lift home with him" - communicated in code about "things" that happened. It was fine. We don't feel scarred by any of it (though who really knows?). It was what we expected. There may even have been a bit of machismo; we could handle it. It was ''good enough'' for us because we didn't know there could be better. But it's not good enough for our daughters.

We went back in for the second act, in which the appalling consequences of what has happened to Emma play out. It is, if possible, even harder to watch than the first act.

Here, it is Emma's parents who are the bringers of tragedy. The fact that they can't begin to talk to their daughter about what has been done to her. They don't have words to describe her body or her experience. They don't understand it. They definitely consider her in some way responsible. Their inability to talk to her, communicate with her, is just as depressing as the rape.

Until we can talk to young girls, and boys, openly, honestly, without shame, about their bodies, and sex, and every thorny thing that comes with that, we're not going to crack this.

The good news - yes, a weird way to put it - is that my young friend says she has been left with "outrage that I cannot shake". She's going to need that outrage. We all are.

Sunday Independent

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