Today, we are extremely lucky to have the completely brilliant Louise O'Neill stopping by, who has been incredibly busy lately (she's been at events in Ireland, the UK, the US, and Canada, all in a matter of months!) due to the success of her two novels. She's here to discuss her latest novel Asking For It and to talk about rape culture.
Asking For It is such a deeply affecting and eye-opening novel. What prompted you to write it?
There were a few different reasons. I was finishing Only Ever Yours in 2012 when Todd Aiken, a politician who was running for senate in the US, made a comment about how the female body had ways of ‘shutting down’ a pregnancy if it was a ‘legitimate rape.’ I wanted to include that idea of ‘legitimate rape’ or ‘rape rape’ in Only Ever Yours but it seemed too important an issue to shoe-horn in to the narrative.
The Steubenville case and the Maryville case in the U.S both horrified and fascinated me but it was after the Slane Girl incident here in Ireland (in which a teenage girl was caught on camera performing oral sex on a number of men at a music concert and was vilified by the media) that I knew I wanted to write about this topic. Although the Slane Girl case wasn’t about rape, it just highlighted for me the disparity between how we view male and female sexuality and how misogynistic that was.
We normally think of sex as a loving and/or fun thing. Can you tell us what it's like for Emma when she realises what happened to her, that sex was used to hurt her? Not remembering, but seeing those photos?
Emma’s initial reaction is utter panic, not at that fact that she’s been raped but because of how humiliated she feels. The shaming that she receives from her peers and her community is actually far more damaging to her than the act of sexual violence. Of course this wouldn’t be the same for all victims but for Emma, a girl who has been brought up to believe that how she is perceived is far more important than her own internal feelings, this is soul destroying.
Asking For It isn’t just the story of Emma’s rape, but also of how she’s treated afterwards, how she’s affected by rape culture and victim blaming. It was astonishing and heart breaking to see just who sided with the rapists – and even how people changed and treated her differently, even if they didn’t come right out and blame Emma.
None of us exists in a vacuum. We have been brought up in a deeply patriarchal society in which men and the male voice are given much more authority than the female. Because of this, (And studies on unconscious bias would corroborate this) most people are much more inclined to believe that men are the truth tellers because they are logical and rational. Women, in comparison, are seen as over emotional, too sensitive, likely to overreact. Is it any wonder then that women are so often doubted when they say that they have been raped?
Women are also held up to much higher moral standards than men and nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to sex. Boys will be boys, we are told, they just can’t help themselves. Women must be the gatekeepers, they must protect their modesty and their virtue.
It’s all complete bullshit, of course, but when you’ve been fed this narrative time and time again since birth, it’s difficult to reject.
I was amazed by the comments from strangers - who heard about "the Ballinatoom Case" through TV/radio/newspapers - who blamed Emma, even though they didn't have the full details. And the excuses – she was drinking, she was on drugs, she was wearing a short, low-cut dress – she was asking for it. The sympathy from these people - people so far removed from it all - for the rapists whose lives were being "ruined" was astonishing.
This is rape culture. The rush to protect the perpetrators and to heap blame on the victim is abhorrent but it happens all the time. Some of this is because I think many people simply don’t want to believe that such a horrific crime has happened and are hoping that the victim may be ‘confused’. The rape prevention programs that have focused on measures women need to take to protect themselves also play a part. Although trying to help, they have reinforced the idea that women need to be the ones to prevent rape from happening. The natural extension of that is the idea that if and when rape does occur, there must have been something that the victim could have done to prevent it.
How does rape culture and victim blaming make Emma feel about sex and her own sexuality?
Emma has always viewed sex and her own sexuality as a way of controlling how other people see her, particularly men. Sex is a performance for her, she is more concerned with how she looks and if her partner is having a good time, she never stops to consider her own pleasure.
I finished this book feeling angry, scared, and so upset. But I also felt the urge to do something, to fight back. Is there anything you would suggest the average person can do to fight against rape culture and victim blaming?
We need to share our stories. So many people have been the victims of sexual assault or unwanted touching but we have been too ashamed to speak out for fear of being shamed. The more we talk about it, the more we will realise that we are not alone, that this problem is epidemic and that we NEED to work together to fix it.
Also, if a friend tells you about their experience of sexual violence – believe them, unequivocally.
What research did you do for Asking For It? Was there anything that surprised you?
I visited the Rape Crisis Centre in Cork, I spoke to victims of sexual violence, I read memoirs and first person accounts of survivors. I spoke to people working in education and in law, I asked a barrister who specialises in these type of cases to read a proof of the book to ensure I hadn’t made any glaring errors.
The things that surprised me the most were to do with the Irish legal system which seemed to me to be designed to ensure that a victim would rarely if ever find justice.
What do you hope readers get from Asking For It?
I want the reader to finish this book and to be absolutely FURIOUS. I believe that this anger is the only way we will enact any real change.
What do you think about how teen fiction deals with sex, generally? And sex crimes in particular?
I know it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say but I want more teen fiction where sex is enjoyable and the participants don’t endure any horrific consequences. We also need to see more masturbation – particularly with teenage girls! (I, Jo, wrote about the lack of positive scenes of female masturbation in YA for Sex in Teen Lit Month II!)
Thank you, Louise, for such fantastic answers! What do you think of the points Louise has brought up? What did you think of Asking For It, and the light it shines on rape culture?
Be sure to check out Louise's website, and my review of Asking For It.
Also: Louise said we need to share our stories. I did this back in May; Don't Dismiss Your Pain: On Sexual Assault and Rape. I'm putting out a call for any sexual violence survivors who feel comfortable enough, to write on their blog about their experience, and tweet me or post a link to your post in the comments. Let's raise our voices and speak up.