LOUISE O’NEILL was born in west Cork in 1985. She studied English at Trinity College Dublin and worked briefly at Elle magazine in New York. Her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, was published to widespread critical acclaim in 2014 and won the inaugural Bookseller Young Adult Prize. O’Neill was in Bath Waterstones on 1st August 2016 to talk about her second novel, Asking for It, about an 18 year old girl called Emma O’ Donovan who lives in a small town in west Cork. She’s beautiful, clever, and popular; she appears to have the world at her feet. One night she goes to a party, she drinks too much and takes drugs, awaking the next morning to find that she’s been thrown on the front porch of her house with no recollection as to how she got there. It’s only when photos emerge on social media that she begins to piece together exactly what happened to her the night before.
Few YA authors have dared to tackle rape culture, but O’Neill was stopped in her tracks by an interview in which Todd Aitken, who was running for the US Senate, was asked about his views on abortion for rape victims. Aitken replied that if it was a legitimate rape, the woman’s body would have its own ways of rejecting a foetus. Biological nonsense aside, O’Neill was struck by the suggestion of legitimate rape and the idea that some victims are somehow more acceptable than others. At the same time, she came across the Steubenville, Ohio rape case of 2012, when a high school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by members of the school football team, several of whom documented the incident on social media.
“I was really shocked by the reaction to that case. I remember seeing a report on CNN in which a female reporter stated it was horrifying to see young men’s futures’ ruined. Not once did she mention the victim’s future.” At first, O’Neill didn’t believe the same reaction could happen in a small Irish town, but soon realised it translated with frightening ease.
Asking for It is divided into two halves, before and after the party where the rape takes place. “Because what struck me when I talked to victims at the sexual violence centre, was that for many women it wasn’t necessarily just the attack that traumatised them, it was the reaction afterwards. It was telling friends and family. It was people being reluctant to believe them. It was people asking them what they were wearing or why they were there at that time of night, or why they were drunk.”
At first, the character of Emma doesn’t realise what has happened to her while she was unconscious, but is “re-traumatised on a daily basis because she’s no longer the girl she was, she’s now that girl that got raped.” The manner in which both she and her family are punished for unsettling the status quo rings disturbingly true.
It’s a book O’Neill hopes will provoke conversations and she realised early on that she needed to prepare her own family for the kind of issues the book raises. Her dad was the first person to read Asking for It and, as a former local football hero himself, she was worried he might take the storyline as in some way a criticism, but he ‘got’ the book’s message straightaway. “He was worried I might get caught in crossfire, but he also said it’s too important a message not to have the conversation.”
Social media plays a key role in the plot and whilst admitting to being a fairly high user, she views it as a double-edged sword. “It’s patronising to tell teenagers not to use social media because that’s how we communicate now plus it can also be an incredible tool and resource. Twitter in particular has introduced me to ideas I never would have come across – on class, gender, sexuality and body image. Those were not conversations we were having around the table at home in our small town.” But in the book, social media ruins Emma. Twenty-five years ago, she would have moved, gone to a school in the UK or US and started her life over again. But she can’t escape the internet. “We need to be careful what we’re putting out there,” O’Neill says.
O’Neill researched her novel by talking with staff and victims at the “incredible but underfunded” Sexual Violence and Rape Crisis Centres. She spoke with survivors at all different stages of recovery, including many who had managed to rebuild their lives. “You have to have that support available. I don’t see how you could recover without years of regular counselling, no matter how good your friends and family are. And I don’t know how the staff work with victims on a daily basis. They should be commended. Every day I get emails from people and I’m always honoured that people want to share their experiences, but it’s incredibly difficult to hear.”
O’Neill says writing the book has had a lasting impact on her outlook on life. “Before I wrote this book I had such a sense of trust in people’s innate goodness and I think I’ve lost some of that. Some of the stories are just horrifying. And only a tiny minority get justice. It’s dismal. Without giving away the ending, I wanted to readers to feel furious enough to say, we’re not going to put up with this anymore.”
O’Neill describes writing Asking for It as a fraught experience, barely leaving home for the six months it took to write the first draft. “It was pretty intense, immersing myself in that world. I had rape nightmares. At times, I just really wanted to be finished with it, but at the same time wanted to do the topic justice. I had met these incredible women and didn’t want any one of them to wish she hadn’t talked to me, to think in any way that I was just perpetuating any of the myths.” She admits to being uncharacteristically nervous before it came out, waking at 4am, developing psoriasis on her back and finding her hair falling out. The reactions from survivors who had read the book was a huge relief. “They started emailing me to say that reading Emma’s story had brought them some kind of comfort, that I had done a good job.”
Since the book’s publication, O’Neill says she has come to realise how flawed the legal system is. “I just did a TV programme for RTE and I was speaking with a barrister about how the majority of men who rape never see any jail time. And she said, she would rather have a system where you didn’t see innocent men in jail, even if that means guilty men go free.”
The experience of speaking out about such injustices has been ‘interesting.’ Whilst expecting the book’s subject matter to attract a degree of trolling, she was surprised by the reaction to a piece she wrote about a Dublin case. Around 220 Agricultural Science students had a Facebook group where they shared naked photos of girls they had slept with and rated them out of ten. “I was appalled and angry so I started talking and writing about it. Then I noticed how quiet men were about it. I realised it was because I made people who consider themselves to be good guys question what they were doing because they didn’t want to think about how what they were doing was objectifying women and degrading them. The trolling started after that.”
She “dashed off” a thousand words on her author page, which went viral. Within two days it had been seen by 500,000 people. Her immediate thought was excitement about the platform opportunity to talk about rape culture. Then the trolling began in earnest. O’Neill says what bothers her most is the impact on her family, the feeling that she has brought upset and negative energy into their lives. Just recently, her sister phoned in tears, after coming across a thread on an Irish version of Reddit.
In terms of direct abuse, O’Neill chooses to concentrate on the wider response. A lot of women – and men – are grateful that I’m writing about this. The attacks are not personal, it’s any woman that has a strong opinion. They just want to put you back in your box but I’m not going to shut up any time soon.
She’s always heartened by male support, but believes her books would be read more widely if she was a man writing on the same subject. “Men need to be just as much a part of the solution as women do. Rape advice has been focussed on telling women to avoid it by not getting drunk, not walking home alone, not dressing a certain way. And it’s not working. Women are still being raped. “
O’Neill has described herself as a feminist since the age of fifteen, but says her idea of feminism is always evolving and that writing this book has made her question a lot of her own beliefs and the realisation of how much we are all force fed by the media. “I like it that more and more people are identifying themselves as feminists. I feel comforted by it. In Ireland, women who’ve been raped don’t have the right to have an abortion and twelve women a day come to England for an abortion. I’m supporting the fight in to repeal the eighth amendment and draw so much comfort from being with other women, and men, who get it and don’t think you’re being over-sensitive.
O’Neill is ultimately hopeful attitudes to sexual violence are slowly changing. “Whenever there’s been a bit of a movement forward in feminism, there’s always a backlash and because of social media, those voices are really loud, but more and more people will not take it.” The viral reaction to the recent Stanford swimmer’s victim impact statement is a case in point. “People were like, we see this and we’re not going to accept this anymore. You always hope a case will be the tipping point, but I really do hope that this was. That woman has my total respect, for saying no, this will not be for nothing, I will talk about this for the greater good. Women shouldn’t have to be brave to talk about rape. That will only stop when women no longer feel ashamed. Refuse to feel ashamed. Speak up. Emma’s story is not fiction. There are new Emma’s every day and this has to stop.”