A little warning just as a heads up, there are some minor spoilers in Alice's post. I don't think there's anything that would spoil the enjoyment of the story overall, but if you have yet to read Only Ever Yours and you'd rather not have anything spoilt for you, maybe skip this post. If you have, read on, because it's brilliant!
Companions, Concubines and Chastities: Weaponised sexuality in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours
Louise O’Neill’s debut novel describes a dystopian future that’s scarily close to our present. Teenage girls are brought up in a claustrophobic society with an obsessive focus on their looks and an infinitesimally narrow band of what is deemed acceptable behaviour. All right, the girls in question have been genetically engineered for maximum attractiveness, and they are raised in a nightmarish boarding school that is set up as The Handmaid’s Tale-meets-reality TV, but despite the alien setting, the constant emphasis on prettiness, compliance and conformity is frighteningly familiar.
As one might expect, this world doesn’t leave the girls who inhabit it much room to explore their own sexualities. This is another area of their lives that is proscribed; their sexualities must conform to one of three heteronormative categories. There’s the pure, procreative sexual role of the Companion; the raunchy and recreational sexual role of the Concubine; and the predictably sexless role of the Chastity. None of these roles allow any agency to the women who inhabit them – each girl is selected and categorised by the boys of her year, having spent a lifetime being conditioned to believe that her sexuality is for men alone. Like their looks, the girls’ sexuality is turned against them by society, weaponised to keep them in line.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with freida, the protagonist of Only Ever Yours. freida (like all the girls, her name is never capitalised, to emphasise her lack of importance), who has completely internalised the repressive principles of her society, never truly explores her own sexual feelings or wishes. Even when she is selected for ‘Heavenly Seventy’ by Darwin, her temporary love interest, freida’s reactions are dictated by her social training; ‘My arms feel awkward so I copy what they do on TV and wrap them around his waist’. After making a mistake that alienates Darwin, she uses her sexuality in the way she has been trained, having sex with him in an attempt to regain the future as his Companion that she has been hoping for: ‘I don’t know if I am sure but I know that I have to do something to keep him, and this is all I have to offer’.
The full horror of this policing of sexuality becomes even clearer when freida begins to learn about the world outside the School. Darwin shows her a scene played out by a Concubine who is physically under his control (‘there are wires wrapped around her head like tentacles…“While she’s hooked up to the sensors, all of her movements are completely controlled by me.”’). Despite being one the kindest male figure freida encounters during the series, Darwin sees nothing wrong with treating a real woman as if she is a video game avatar, thus showing how completely women are objectified in O’Neill’s society.
Darwin also tells freida about ‘female aberrants’ (lesbians; according to the homophobic as well as misogynistic society, a ‘problem’ that was ‘sorted out years ago’), leading to a hint at how freida’s sexuality could have developed had she been allowed to explore it herself, rather than having it dictated to her. Upon hearing about female aberrants, freida thinks about her relationship with her best friend:
Images flash into my mind of isabel and I, lying together on my bed, our fingers intertwined as we talked and talked for hours. I’ve never felt the same connection with anyone else that I have with isabel, not even with Darwin. She has been the other half of me for the best part of sixteen years.However, freida’s training has been so comprehensive that she is horrified at the idea that she might be ‘unnatural’, rather than questioning her world’s totalitarian sexual rules.
Only Ever Yours offers an important perspective on the way young people’s, and particularly teenage girls’, sexualities are put under immense pressure by a society that tries to dictate how they should be. It’s a bleak read, but a crucial one.
Thank you, Alice, for such an amazing guest post! Reading this had the story come flooding back to me, making me want to read Only Ever Yours again!
Alice Nuttall is a tea-swilling, lindy-hopping, perpetual student, who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She has been writing since she could hold a pen, and, at the age of twenty-nine, has just about finished school.
Be sure to check out Alice's website, and you can check out my review of Only Ever Yours from last year. Next week on 20th November, I'll have an interview with Louise O'Neill on her latest novel Asking For It, so do come back for that!