Wednesday 23 October 2019

'Women in rape cases are often cast as liars and gold diggers' - Opening up the debate: author Louise O'Neill on sexual consent

Louise O'Neill explains how 'Asking For It' is having a dramatic effect on the conversation our teens are having about sexual consent

Louise O'Neill says we know that early education is key to tackling sexual violence against women and men. Photo: David Conachy
Louise O'Neill says we know that early education is key to tackling sexual violence against women and men. Photo: David Conachy

It hadn't occurred to me that my grandmother might want to see the stage adaptation of Asking For It. She was 85 and a deeply pious woman, and although I knew she was proud of what I had achieved and supported me - she uncharacteristically rebuked a friend who had expressed disapproval of my public stance on abortion by saying, "Louise has to do what she thinks is right" - I was also aware that many of my opinions directly contradicted everything she had been led to believe since she was a child.

A play about a young woman who is sexually assaulted at a drunken house party did not seem like something that would appeal to my Granny Murphy. But Ireland being Ireland, a young actor was cast in the role of Dylan who happened to be the grandson of their local postman, and my grandmother was beside herself with excitement at this coincidence. She would have to attend the opening night at the Everyman, it was decided, if only to get a photograph taken with "the young Riordan lad". (No such photo with me was requested.)

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She was sitting just three rows from the stage that night. The first act was a dizzying explosion of energy and youthful vitality; it was utterly compelling, exhilarating, and at times I found it almost difficult to breathe. When the curtain fell for the interval, my father tried to stand up, falling back into his seat. "My legs are shaking," he said. I immediately thought of my grandmother and I rushed to where she was sitting with my cousin. Crouching down beside her, I asked if she was okay. She turned to me, one hand on my knee, and she said, "Well. It wasn't like that in my day, I can assure you."

It made me laugh and it's an anecdote I've repeated many times since but really, I was thinking - actually, Granny, it was exactly like that in your day. It's just that no one talked about it.

Some of the particulars of Asking For It are unique due to the role social media plays in the narrative, the dissemination of photos online, the vicious trolling to which Emma, the main character, is subjected, but rape is not a new phenomenon in this country. Victim-blaming is not new, nor is shaming women for their sexuality. Irish history is littered with stories of attempts to police women's bodies, labelling them Madonnas or whores depending on their willingness to comply with mandates handed down by a patriarchal Church and State. And the extent of the sexual abuse that took place within the Catholic Church is staggering, the victims silenced, their backs broken from carrying a shame that did not belong to them.

In some ways, we have come so far, maturing into a tolerant, open-minded society. But the change has been so rapid, taking place over such a short period of time, that it doesn't require much to show the fault lines hidden beneath our feet. Every time there is a high-profile rape case, there seems to be an accompanying schism in Irish culture; one faction loudly proclaiming the need to believe victims, the other sceptical, no matter how compelling the evidence. While men can also be victims of sexual violence, the majority of the complainants are women and, as a result, our societal attitudes around gender are unflinchingly exposed. 'Boys will be boys!' people cry if we are offended by degrading language used to describe the victims, it's just banter, after all. The women in these cases are often cast as liars and gold diggers, their social media accounts trawled through, any clothing or poses that could be deemed as provocative held up as evidence that they were 'asking for it'. What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink? Why did you go back to that party? What did you think was going to happen?

The 2002 SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) report found one in five Irish women will experience assault in their lifetime, with one in 10 men likely to suffer the same, and yet there is still a reluctance to acknowledge how prevalent the problem is.

We know that early education is key to tackling this and yet whenever consent classes are mooted, the backlash is swift. Some parents are outraged at the suggestion their children may need to learn about consent, what the parameters of a healthy sexual encounter should look like, and the need for respect and boundaries within all relationships, sexual or otherwise. There is a misunderstanding that consent workshops are about blame, casting young men as rapists and predators, when the truth is that these classes are designed to protect all of our young people, boys and girls, and ensure they don't find themselves in situations they will later regret. When Asking For It debuted in Dublin, Phil Kingston of the Abbey Theatre devised a special workshop to run in conjunction with the stage adaptation. He visited schools all over the country, debating the issues raised in the play and the book.

The students then went to see Asking For It, after which Phil returned to the school for further discussion. What he found was extraordinary. Students who had held Emma responsible for her rape, citing the amount of alcohol and drugs she'd consumed, were now able to display empathy for the character. In another school, the students banded together after seeing the play to write a letter to their principal, asking that their sex education programme be improved. Most strikingly of all, a school in which many of the male students had expressed deeply unsettling views before seeing the play, were now able to discuss their anxieties about masculinity and identity in a safe, non-judgemental environment. Overall, nearly all of the students demonstrated a substantial shift in their attitudes towards sexual violence and survivors.

And isn't that what great art is supposed to do? Isn't it supposed to move us, and create a sense of compassion within us? After the curtain fell on Asking For It, I looked around as the audience rose to their feet to applaud, tears streaming down their faces, and it was as if we were all connected, each of us part of this collective moment of catharsis.

I wondered at the conversations that would take place as those people left the theatre, the chats that would be had in the car or the bus on the journey home. The stories that might be told, the memories that might be shared, the painful experiences that might be finally disclosed. The healing that might take place, after all this time.

My grandmother died in January of this year. I was with her when she passed, holding her hand. There were so many things I wanted to say to her, so many questions I wished I had asked her when I had the chance. What had it been like for her, coming of age in an Ireland that demanded so much from its women? She had sacrificed so much, she had tried so hard to be a good wife, a good mother. Had she ever wanted things to be different? Had she wanted more choices, choices that I took for granted?

I will never know the answers now, of course. But when we were cleaning out her house after her funeral, we found a drawer full of newspaper and magazine clippings, every article I had ever written, every interview I had ever given. And on the very top was the programme for the Asking For It play.

Landmark Productions and The Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre present 'Asking for It' by Louise O'Neill, adapted for the stage by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn, at the Everyman Cork, ending tonight, and at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, October 9-26

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