Author Louise O’Neill speaks with Emily Horgan about her second book, Asking For It, which has the likes of Marian Keyes gushing praise and has sparked a national discussion on rape culture and consent.
Our culture often couples ‘rape’ with the idea of ‘blurred lines.’ Questions about alcohol intake, clothing, and past promiscuity pad out these perceived ‘grey areas,’ focusing more responsibility on the victim to explain why it was that he or she was assaulted than on the perpetrator themselves.
As with many things in Irish culture, discussions around sensitive topics such as victim blaming, consent, or lack thereof, have been what can only be described as sparsely addressed. Which makes it refreshing and important to discuss Cork born author Louise O’ Neill’s latest novel, Asking For It, which challenges the way society treats rape.
It seems the only ‘grey area’ in Asking For It is between what is truth and what is fiction – every incident throughout is uncomfortably mirrored with real life cases; young characters that could easily be our peers and emotions that are so sharply portrayed that they could be plucked from any teens’ subconscious. O’ Neill explains that it was an “accumulation of events” that urged her to write the novel.
“When I was finishing writing Only Ever Yours [O’ Neill’s first novel, whose rights have just been signed to Killer Content, an American TV/Film agency], I remembered Todd Akin, a politician from the US, was running for Senate at the time. He had been asked whether he thought abortion was acceptable in any circumstance. The person interviewing him asked him ‘What if a woman is raped?’, and he said ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, then the body has ways of shutting that down.”
This idea of there being two streams of rape is a controversial yet popular one in modern culture, with the likes of actress Whoopi Goldberg referring to the Roman Polanski case as “not rape-rape.”
Other sources that inspired Asking For It are the Steubenville and Maryland cases.
“The similarities between the two were so uncanny. Small tightly knit community in which the local football team were heroes. There was a party, too much to drink, a girl passed out and was gang raped by members of the football team and the photos were circulated on social media afterwards.”
It wasn’t this particular aspect of the cases that interested her the most, but the community’s blatant disregard for the victim and also the utter lack of comprehension that the men involved in these cases had around the crimes they committed.
“They seemed to have this sense of immortality and it was really indicative of that culture, that male entitlement to the female body that manifested itself.”
And while these cases seem to be a million miles away from our fair isle, O’Neill was quick to rectify any doubt that Ireland is any different in our approach to rape culture.
“In Ireland in 2009, 50 people, including a local priest, lined up outside a court to shake the hand of a man who had just been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, right in front of the victim. Back in 2003, another Kerry footballer went home with a girl and he said if a girl brings him home to her house and into her bed, that’s enough indication for him. She had bruising to her eyes, ears, stomach, pelvis; her front tooth was loose. The court put it down to ‘rough sex’ and he wasn’t prosecuted.”
And thus, O’Neill put pen to paper and wrote Asking For It, which, according to Marian Keyes’ recent article in The Irish Times is: “the most relevant, most exciting book about Ireland in a very long time”.
Emma, the protagonist, is a just turned 18 year old girl from a small fictional town in Cork. She is popular, intelligent, bitchy and promiscuous. After a night of drinking and drugs, she is raped by members of the local GAA team. O’ Neill explains that Emma’s drinking and drug taking is a crucial factor of the story.
“We’ve been brought up in a culture that encourages us to hold women to higher moral standards. We’ve been brought up in a culture that encourages us to believe that victims of sexual violence should have taken measures to ensure it never happened to them. 41% of Irish people [according to a study done by the Irish Examiner] believe that a woman is partially or fully responsible for her rape if she was drinking or taking drugs. So my intention was that while the reader is reading this, they nearly become complicit because the fact that some of her behaviour isn’t exactly sympathetic. Because she behaves in that way, the reader is almost complicit in blaming her.”
The morning after the night before, compromising images of Emma and the boys involved appear on social medias and being commented on and “liked” by peers. Frightening, dark and upsetting, Emma struggles to understand exactly what happened that night and how to handle the aftermath.
O’Neill’s novel tackles the most sensitive of topics in an intelligent and informed manner that gives justice to all of the cases the novel was inspired by. It is down to her writing voice, which has a way of carrying the reader through Emma’s darkest thoughts to the point of sheer immersion, that make the book so truly unsettling, unnerving and utterly important for readers of all ages.
“This is for people of all ages and people of both genders. Its an important issue that needs to be addressed in both young men and women because at the cusp of the book is the issue of consent. And that’s something that we need to be educating not just young women but young men, and men and women in general.”