Photo: Clare Keogh
While her recently published novel, Asking For It, dictates conversations about consent, Louise O’Neill talks to Eva Griffin about rape culture, digital boundaries and making our voices heard.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison’s advice could be the cornerstone for Louise O’Neill’s latest novel, Asking For It. The Clonakilty born author, already well known for her patriarchy-smashing debut, Only Ever Yours, wanted to start a particular conversation, to dig deeper into the issues that Ireland isn’t too keen to discuss. With her second book, she’s asking us to stare into the face of rape culture.
Set in the fictional Cork town of Ballinatoom, Asking For It splits the life of 18 year old Emma O’Donovan in two messy halves; before and after her rape. The book has dropped into our laps at the perfect time, as #AskConsent posters hang proudly on Dublin’s buildings and bridges. For O’Neill, the subsequent discussion surrounding her book has been the goal from the outset. “The most important thing for me was always the topic, the conversation that it would start… I feel very privileged to be a part of that and to be able to add my voice to that in whatever small way that I can.”
Though the logistics of bringing down rape statistics are far from simple, increasing people’s awareness seems like a manageable task if someone simply speaks up. “I think the most important thing sometimes is just that we talk. I do think that women especially, sometimes we’re told that our voices aren’t worthy of being heard and our stories aren’t worthy of being told.”
Representation is vital, and O’Neill recognises that there is still something unacceptable about how women’s stories are received in literary circles. “There was a study recently where they took the main seven literary prizes in the world and of course the shortlists and the winners were slightly more skewed towards men, but what they found very interesting was when you actually looked at it, most of the women that were nominated were writing about men. It’s very rare for a woman writing about a woman to ever be nominated because I think that our stories are sometimes relegated to the domestic sphere and not seen as important as stories about men.”
“Issues that really affect, that primarily affect women, such as abortion or such as rape… sometimes we don’t hear those stories and I hear people say to me ‘I don’t know anyone who’s been raped or I don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion’ and I feel like telling them ‘you do!’ It’s just that there’s such a shame and such a stigma attached to both of those experiences that women are silenced in them and they don’t feel able to talk about it.”
O’Neill sought out these stories, and found that women often have too many to tell. After hearing tale after tale of groping, sexual coercion and rape, she claims that, rather than sexual violence being an anomaly you sometimes hear about on the news, we’re in the midst of “an epidemic”. Not only is rape far too common a crime, but the prevalence of rape culture in our use of language is only exacerbating the problem. Todd Aiken made ludicrous assumptions about “legitimate rape”, spouting nonsense about the female body’s supposed defence mechanisms. Whoopi Goldberg questioned whether Roman Polanski’s assault of a 13 year old was “rape rape”. Then, in the midst of the Steubenville and Maryland cases coming to light in 2012, the small towns rallied behind their local sports heroes turned rapists, and O’Neill had had enough. “I think it was very indicative of a larger problem in which the patriarchy as a whole has that sense of entitlement towards women and towards the female body.”
Most shocking about both cases was that the rapists circulated photos and videos of their crime online. “They just couldn’t fathom doing this and not putting photos up on social media… They didn’t even think that there might be any consequences, they didn’t seem to realise that what they were doing was morally reprehensible but also that it would have serious legal ramifications… They felt that they could just do whatever that wanted with this girl’s body.”
O’Neill was glued to the coverage, but still in the midst of writing her first novel. “I was so interested by it and I wanted to put it into Only Ever Yours but I felt like I was sort of shoehorning it into the narrative and it was too important an issue to not deal with in a responsible way.”
When it came to writing a follow-up to her deconstruction of ideal femininity, the narrative was instinctive. “As a writer, you write the story that comes to you. This was just something that I felt very passionately about. It was something that I really felt I needed to get out of my system and explore.”
Published by Quercus under their children’s literature label, both of O’Neill’s novels seem to fall on the furthest end of the spectrum. She deals with what is considered ‘mature’ material. Ultimately, the age of a potential reader doesn’t seem to be a concern style-wise. “With either of these books, I didn’t really set out to write a book for a young adult audience… I can’t see that if I was writing a book for adults that my style of writing would be that much different.”
In fact, O’Neill believes that the younger the reader, the better. “I feel very strongly that the younger you get someone, the younger you radicalise someone, the younger that someone adopts these sort of ideas; it is easier. It’s easier to adopt these sort of values and belief systems as a teenager, rather than when you’re in your fifties and patriarchal values have become deeply entrenched.”
This belief stems from her own difficulties in understanding the nuances of sexual boundaries. “I didn’t know what consent really meant, not until I was in my mid-twenties definitely. I didn’t really understand because it just wasn’t something that was talked about. When you heard about rape it was always someone being dragged in an alleyway at knife point and that was rape. I think that I didn’t realise that there was other types of rape and other types of sexual violence and they were just as prevalent, if not more so.”
The idea of boundaries has become murkier in the age of the Internet. Digitising our private lives has removed privacy from the equation, especially when sex is involved. Sharing intimate photos with a sexual partner is no longer a safe practice and the rise of revenge porn at the seedy hands of Hunter Moore has been a particularly worrying development. But when rape is involved, the permanence of the act is then not only inscribed mentally and physically, but digitally available and ready for consumption.
“Once it’s on the Internet it really is there forever,” says O’Neill, echoing the sentiment of her novel. “I suppose that interested me because I think before, if something like this had happened, someone like Emma could have just left. She would have gone to university in Belfast where no one would have known about it. She would have gone to America when she finished. She could have left it behind. But I suppose there was this sense that she was never going to be able to escape this. That was just so awful, that sense of ‘I’m never going to be able to outrun this, I’m always going to be labelled with this.’”
“I think the most important thing sometimes is just that we talk. I do think that women especially, sometimes we’re told that our voices aren’t worthy of being heard and our stories aren’t worthy of being told.”
“That sense of permanence about the internet is something that maybe I think young people or teenagers don’t sometimes grasp and I’m not interested in policing young people and I’ve always said this. I’m not interesting in saying to parents ‘this is how you should keep control of your children’ because adolescence is supposed to be a time of pushing the boundaries and sort of rejecting your parents and testing and exploring who you are as a person and your sexuality and everything; that’s what adolescence is about. It’s about figuring out who you’re going to be and what your adult identity is going to be once you come of age.”
O’Neill accepts that the internet is a key part of this exploration, but is worried that teenagers aren’t always capable of handling it alone, and can find themselves in dangerous situations. “I think the problem is that we don’t teach them, we don’t give them the tools with which to use this incredible resource in a responsible and safe manner and I think that’s probably the issue.”
The sharpest end of the double-edged sword that is the Internet is of course, trolling. It would seem that someone like O’Neill, who is vocal about feminist issues and women’s rights, would be ripe for targeting. Thankfully, she has remained unscathed. “I don’t ever search for my name on Twitter, I don’t look up Good Reads or I don’t look up Amazon, so maybe I protect myself in a certain way. Maybe if I googled ‘Louise O’Neill’… would it come with ‘what is this bitch on about?’”
Hopefully not, but rape can be a contentious issue, and O’Neill was aware of what she was getting herself into. “Whenever women talk about rape in general, it’s this topic that people get very defensive about and really angry about so I was sort of preparing myself, but it’s actually been overwhelmingly positive and most people are like ‘yeah this needs to be talked about, let’s just have this conversation.’ Sometimes maybe we don’t give people enough credit… I think sometimes we underestimate, or maybe we think that Ireland is more conservative than what it actually is.”
The myth of old, conservative Ireland goes hand in hand with Catholicism, something that O’Neill grew up with but has steadily moved away from in time. “I really loved it, I did, and I loved that sense of community, of going to mass and all of that, but I think as I get older I just can’t morally support an institution that, number one, has been possible for the systematic sexual abuse of just so many children and the covering up of it which is even more horrific, and their stance on women, on contraception, on abortion, on homosexuality, on sex before marriage… there’s just a list of things where I’m like ‘well, none of my values align with this’ so why would I be supporting this kind of institution?”
She is quick to point out, however, that turning your back from the church doesn’t involve shunning people with a strong faith. “One of the best women I’ve ever met in my entire life, I mean she is a pure saint, is a nun and, you know, I have priests in my family and they’re these really good people and they’re doing really good work and they really believe in the work that they’re doing but the Catholic Church as an institution is just corrupt in its very core, it just has so much blood on its hands.”
“I think with Catholicism what’s very interesting is the way that the Virgin Mary is held up as this sort of ideal of femininity for us to emulate and you’re like ‘but she’s a virgin mother?’ It’s just this really odd dichotomy where it’s like ‘oh yeah, sure that’s what I’m supposed to be aspiring to be’, so I think that that hasn’t helped.”
The F-Word features very prominently in O’Neill’s vocabulary, and her Twitter page is an array of feminist observations often dripping with humour, but, like anyone, she wasn’t always so astute. “I would always say that my first introduction to pseudo-feminism was so funny when you think about it because it was a girl band manufactured by a whole load of men in suits… The Spice Girls. Girl power!”
Margaret Atwood soon set her straight, with her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale inspiring O’Neill’s feminist views at the age of 15. She was soon hungry for more. “By the time I went to university when I was 18, I was really drawn towards anything that had to do with gender politics, gender literature and sexuality study and post-colonial women’s writing… So I always find it really interesting when people say ‘you know, I don’t really read that many female authors’ or ‘most of the authors I’ve ever read are male’ and I just think all the authors I’ve ever read are female!”
O’Neill has rightly been inserted into the ever-growing list of trailblazing women authors; writers with nuanced opinions who spark difficult conversations. It won’t be long before the next generation are thanking her for setting them on the path that Atwood carved out for her.