Thursday 22 August 2019

Author leads charge against Ireland's campus rape culture

Louise O'Neill's new novel has opened an important conversation on sex and consent among young people

Talking point: Author Louise O'Neill, whose new novel, 'Asking For It', has just been released Photo: Tony Gavin
Talking point: Author Louise O'Neill, whose new novel, 'Asking For It', has just been released Photo: Tony Gavin

Rachel Lavin

Louise O'Neill is not afraid of change.

She threw in a high- powered fashion career on Elle magazine in New York to return home to Clonakilty to write a dystopian novel about the pressures of body image on young girls. While her debut, Only Ever Yours, rose steadily to the top of the Irish YA fiction charts, she quickly followed it up with Asking For It, a depiction of rape culture in Ireland that has achieved widespread success.

With two young adult books published before the age of 30 and two nominations for this year's Irish Book Awards, she has decided to change course yet again. She recently set her sights on the big screen, signing over the film rights of Only Ever Yours, and is planning to move to adult fiction for her next novel.

Most recently she has turned her attention to a more monumental form of change - cultural change. Specifically, the Trinity graduate wants to lead the charge in challenging the widespread problem of campus "rape culture" in Irish universities, and is leading a campaign to open up a conversation on rape and consent among young people in Ireland.

A survey by the Union of Students in Ireland in 2013 found that one in 10 female students had been victims of sexual assault, one in 20 had been victims of rape and one in 33 had been victims of attempted rape.

This correlates with wider national figures. The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report, a landmark project that investigated sexual abuse in 2002, found that nearly half of Irish women (42pc) had been sexually abused or assaulted while one in 10 had been victims of rape.

O'Neill had just graduated when the news of a sexual assault case in Listowel sent chills throughout Ireland. It wasn't the assault itself - a sadly common story where a man had taken advantage of a woman who was intoxicated - that so disturbed the nation. Rather, it was the reaction of the community.

Almost 50 people, including the local priest, lined up at the courthouse to shake the hand of the man who had been convicted. It was incidents like this that inspired Asking For It, which examines what happens in a small town when a 15-year-old girl becomes the victim of a serious sexual assault.

She said that there's this certain idea of what a sex assault is. We have an image in our head that a sex assault occurs when someone is dragged into an alleyway and assaulted at night. "While those types of attacks do happen and are absolutely horrific, a lot of people don't understand there are other types of sexual violence.

"I think what was interesting in researching Asking For It was that so many of my friends started telling me stories where they had sex where they did not give consent but no one used the word rape, ever.

"They'd say it wasn't rape because 'I was drinking' or 'because I brought him back to my room', that 'it was just a bad sexual experience'. The one line that kept coming up was 'it wasn't rape but it wasn't right'."

The issue with defining oneself as a victim of rape, says O'Neill, is that predominantly female victims are often treated as the aggressors in the situation and blamed for their own attack.

"There's such shame and stigma attached to it that the blame and responsibility is placed upon the victim," she says. "They'll say, 'Why didn't you shout? Why didn't you scream? Why didn't you fight him off?' They don't want to give it the name of rape because it's too much to deal with."

The resulting silence, says O'Neill, has only compounded this rape culture, as more and more women are shamed into silence and more and more misconceptions grow about what constitutes rape and who is responsible for it.

"What always frightens me is how many of the cases have gone unreported and how many people don't even realise that they have been raped, and that goes both ways, because I think there's so many young men out there who don't realise that they actually have raped someone," she says.

"When you think about that, I think we've failed as a society. We've failed our young women and our young men because we haven't given them the right information and we haven't guided them through education in order to teach them how to respect one another, how to engage in sexual relationships without hurting the other person and how to respect each other's boundaries and to understand consent."

This shaming and blaming of victims of sexual crimes is what motivated O'Neill to write Asking For It, which explores the attitude towards victims and sought to raise awareness about the issue, especially for young teenage girls who could one day fall victim to such sexual violence.

The book was such a poignant conversation starter among young people that UCD students approached O'Neill with the idea of starting a campaign tackling rape culture and educating students about sexual consent with her as the figurehead. The Not Asking For It campaign was launched last month.

As well as a cultural shift among students, O'Neill is calling for a more comprehensive education for teenagers.

"I think sex education should be mandatory in all schools regardless of religious orientation," she says.

"I think consent needs to be an issue discussed in greater depth and at a younger age because by the time they're sexually active it's too late to have those conversations."

O'Neill says the current absence of a comprehensive sex education in schools has seen young people turning to media sources, with the result that first impressions of sex can be from violent and misogynistic pornography on the internet.

"If that's your first introduction to sex, it can be very damaging to your psyche," she says.

"You're getting all these mixed messages from the media about what it means to be sexual and what it means to be sexy, and that's why non-consensual sex happens so much.

"It's really important that we have these conversations with young people and that we don't shy away from these topics. We need to normalise it, so that sex is a basic human instinct, people want to have sex, it's really enjoyable but as long as you're enjoying yourself, you have to be responsible, you have to use protection, you have to ensure that the other person feels comfortable."

"The earlier we can start having these conversations and start instilling these ideas that consent is a vital part of having sex, the better," says O'Neill.

Sunday Independent

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