Asking For It author Louise O’Neill talks to Gemma Fraser about rape culture, society’s fear of female sexuality, and how it feels to be the rising star of feminist fiction
“It was my third birthday,” says Louise O’Neill, speaking to me over the phone the day after the launch of her second novel Asking For It. “I remember the dress — a very pale lilac with white stars on it — and everyone kept telling me that I was such a pretty girl and that my dress was so pretty. And I remember feeling really sort of warm on the inside when I was getting these compliments. This was positive attention, positive reinforcement, and it came from looking a certain way, looking physically pleasing.”
O’Neill is describing the moment she first realised that a girl’s beauty had value, perhaps more value than anything else she had to offer; that, while boys are praised for intelligence or bravery, girls are praised for being “pretty” and “good”.
“I’m much more conscious of that now when I’m speaking to young children,” she tells me. “You’ll notice that straight away with a boy you’ll make comments like, ‘How’s school?’ or ‘What games are you playing at the moment?’ and with a girl you’re sort of, “Oh, I love your dress” and “Oh, aren’t you gorgeous?”. And I try to subvert that and try not to fall into that trap of automatically complimenting a girl, no matter what age she is, on how attractive she is.”
It’s a theme that runs through both her novels: the brutally satirical Only Ever Yours, in which girls are raised only to be beautiful and subservient to men, and now Asking For It, which tells the story of Emma O’Donovan, an Irish teenager gang-raped then shamed and vilified on social media. Both novels are harrowing and honest. Both are deeply, courageously political.
“With Only Ever Yours, from the very beginning I knew I had a message and that this message was important. I felt that I was hungry to read books that reflected my own political views and I thought that if I was hungry to read that sort of literature, then there had to be thousands of other women who felt the same way.”
Its sensitive subject matter has led to the launch of Asking For It attracting a great deal of media attention (our interview is the eighth O’Neill has given that day, with another still to go). Inspired by the Steubenville case in Ohio and the Maryville case in Missouri, the book explores issues of consent, victim-blaming, internalised sexism, sex shaming and rape culture. With so much buzz surrounding Asking For It — as well as Only Ever Yours scooping numerous literary awards last year — several reviewers have hailed O’Neill as an important new voice in feminist fiction.
Is she comfortable being labelled as a feminist writer? “Oh, absolutely. It’s like when people say to me, ‘Are you comfortable being called a feminist?’ and I’m like, ‘That’s like asking me if I’m comfortable being called a decent human being.’
“But I don’t necessarily think I’m ‘the new voice of feminist fiction’,” she adds, keen to stress that she is not the only current YA author dealing with feminist themes. “I suppose there’s that sense of collective consciousness in that we’re all consuming the same information and the same media, watching the same TV shows, listening to the same music, being confronted with the same news stories… I think there are quite a few female authors who feel very angry at the prevalence of misogyny and sexism in society and want to use their voices in whatever way they can in order to bring about change.”
And O’Neill is most definitely angry. Asking For It is many things — disturbing, heartbreaking, sharply observant — but above all, it’s furious. An author who cared less about these issues, or who had never been personally affected by them, simply could not have told this story in such an effective way.
O’Neill doesn’t give the kind of bland, practised answers you might expect from someone on their eighth interview of the day. She’s open and friendly, but she doesn’t hold back when we get onto difficult topics. It’s clear she wants to use the platform she has now to make her voice heard, to start conversations, to spark debate. “There’s nothing wrong with commercial fiction or a book being merely entertaining,” she explains, “but that’s not what I’ve set out to do.”
She is particularly interested in — and infuriated by — the double standard she explores in Asking For It: that Emma is expected to be “a good girl” while her rapists are defended on the grounds that “boys will be boys”. Why does she think this mindset persists?
“It’s constantly reinforced by the media. I think we sometimes underestimate the power of art. We think of it as just a reflection of the world around us, but actually a lot of the time it’s giving us a prototype on which to model ourselves or a type of behaviour to emulate. And so if you’re being shown that men who sleep around or have multiple sexual partners are to be celebrated, but that women who do that should be shamed, it’s very easy to let that subliminal messaging soak into your subconscious as it were.
“We live in this culture in which women are hypersexualised without our permission, sometimes without us wanting it. There’s the interesting dichotomy in which we’re encouraged to look sexy and act in a sexy manner, but anything to do with female sexuality — female desire, masturbation — is seen as a taboo subject. It’s a very confusing message to give to young girls.”
O’Neill grew up in a Catholic community similar to the fictional Ballinatoom in Asking For It and has written previously on her troubled relationship with the Catholic Church. To what extent does she feel organised religion is responsible for this warped attitude towards female sexuality?
“There’s a real fear of female sexuality within the Church and I think that has led to very strange attitudes towards women in Irish society. The ideal woman is the Virgin Mother. She’s a mother, she’s given birth to the son of God, but she’s never had sex. And this is what we’re supposed to be emulating.”
But despite this, she doesn’t feel that Asking For It would have been a different story, or that the community of Ballinatoom would have been more supportive of Emma, had religion been taken out of the equation. “I think Asking For It could have happened in a small English town, it could have happened in a small French town… I don’t necessarily think that Catholicism was responsible for [the community’s] reaction to Emma, but I do think the Catholic Church in Ireland has an incredible amount of blood on its hands and I would never be afraid of expressing that belief. I’ve met some incredible nuns and I have priests in my family who do amazing work, but the institution as a whole is corrupt at its very core.”
Emma O’Donovan certainly doesn’t live up to the Catholic ideal of womanhood. She steals, lies, manipulates, drinks heavily and has an active sex life (albeit one which comes with its own issues of consent and power imbalance). And, following her rape, she makes choices that some readers may find surprising. O’Neill has already stated that she wanted to get away from the idea of the “perfect victim”, but why did she choose to depict Emma reacting to her trauma in this way?
“You just don’t know how people are going to react to situations,” she explains. “It’s like when someone is grieving and they act in ways that would seem really bizarre to another person. That’s what I wanted to try to convey with Emma. And I’ve had that reaction from people — ‘I don’t understand why she wanted to make a joke out of it,’ ‘I don’t understand why she wanted to pretend it didn’t happen’, ‘I don’t understand why she slept with loads of people afterwards.’
“What was interesting in my research was that all the victims of rape had such disparity in their reactions. Some were incredibly angry, others were afraid to leave their homes. Some recovered relatively quickly — they felt like they could put it behind them, they went into counselling and really dealt with it — while others years later were still trying to piece their lives together.
“But the one commonality in all those stories was the sense of shame and guilt and responsibility. They all felt that they should have behaved in a different way. ‘I shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt, I shouldn’t have had so much to drink, I should have got a taxi home, I shouldn’t have walked in that area, I shouldn’t have trusted that friend of mine. I should have known better. I should have been better.’ And that’s so heartbreaking to me, because that is what society has done to women.”
Less than a week before our interview, Chrissie Hynde made headlines for a Sunday Times piece in which she spoke about her own assault at the hands of a biker gang and stated that women who dress provocatively or behave in a way which could “entice” a rapist should take responsibility for the consequences. What did O’Neill make of her comments?
“She is a physical manifestation of rape culture. The fact that, decades after she was brutally assaulted, she still believes that she was in some way responsible… it was unbelievable. And that’s why we need to keep harping on, drilling it into every person’s mind — rape is only ever the fault of the rapist.”
But rape and sexual assault are always difficult, delicate topics to discuss. Asking For It is likely to provoke strong reactions, not all of which will come down on Emma’s side. Some people may read the book and be moved to speak out in support of girls like Emma. Others may well leap at the opportunity to deny the existence of rape culture or agree with the sort of views expressed by Hynde. Some people will wish to avoid confronting the issue at all.
As if to illustrate this, our conversation is interrupted by a woman aggressively approaching O’Neill in the public bathroom serving as our interview location. “I think she was saying it was not an appropriate topic to be discussing.” The encounter is deeply unsettling for O’Neill. “I was really bothered by it,” she tells me later on Twitter. “[I] feel like I triggered her massively. I hope [she’s] OK.”
Is she prepared for potentially extreme reactions to Asking For It? “Well I wasn’t prepared for that woman who just really upset me,” she admits, the smallest trace of a wobble still in her voice. “When I wrote this book I really wanted to start a conversation. I felt this was something really important that needed to be discussed. But are you ever really prepared? There’s been so much buzz around Asking For It and so much tension and it’s hard to prepare yourself, I suppose.
“The thing about rape and sexual assault is how sensitive people get about it. I follow these incredible feminist women on Twitter and the vitriol that’s thrown in their direction whenever they dare to speak out against rape culture… it’s just really bizarre and very unsettling. It’s so representative of everything that is rape culture, the fact that women can’t talk about it or feel they have to stay silent.”
What would she say to women or girls who, like Emma, feel that it’s easier not to speak out, not to cause trouble, not to “make a fuss”?
“This culture is so deeply entrenched and ingrained that we need to be constantly fighting against it. We need to be raising our voices. If we stay quiet, if we accept the misogynistic element of our society, then nothing will ever change.
“And it’s not only incredibly harmful to women, it’s so reductive to men because there’s almost this belief that men are natural rapists and they just can’t control their baser, more animal instincts. It’s so insulting to so many men that this narrative is constantly reinforced.”
O’Neill has previously hinted that she may one day return to the future world she created in Only Ever Yours, writing from the point of view of one of the Inheritants, teenage boys who are raised to behave in a stereotypically ‘masculine’ way and view women as property to which they are entitled. Is that still something she’d like to explore?
“I sort of felt when I finished [Only Ever Yours] that I was done with that story, but people were really demanding. ‘Oh, we’d love for you to go back…’. If I were going to do a prequel I think it would be interesting to look at how a very patriarchal society is harmful towards men as well. Those very stereotypical gender roles weigh heavily on men too.”
While the main antagonists of Asking For It are male, the real villain of the book — one which has inflicted terrible damage upon Emma even before her rape — is the patriarchy itself. O’Neill doesn’t reduce her male characters to chauvinistic monsters in order to hammer home a point; the most likeable characters are arguably Emma’s brother Bryan, often the sole voice of sense and compassion within the O’Donovan family, and her childhood friend Conor, respectful and supportive of Emma throughout her ordeal.
“Conor and Bryan are probably my two favourite characters [in Asking For It],” she says. “I didn’t want it to seem as if I was painting all men as these horrendous characters. Even the boys that rape Emma, they’re just a product of a culture that really encourages men to think that they’re entitled to the female body. As a writer, you try to give all your characters well-rounded personalities. No one’s 100% evil.”
Does she hope Asking For It will appeal to male readers too? “I suppose with any book you hope that the story will be compelling enough for the book to transcend gender. With Only Ever Yours I was definitely gearing it towards women, but with Asking For It I really hope the readers will be both men and women. I think it’s an important book for young men especially to read.”
Asking For It is a necessary book, highlighting problems which are so often downplayed, downgraded or downright ignored. But perhaps the biggest problem is that O’Neill felt compelled to write this story, to ask these questions, to highlight these issues in the first place. It’s an affecting and haunting work of fiction, but it’s also a rallying call to fight as hard as we can against rape culture in all its forms so that stories like Emma’s need never be told again.
It’s Louise O’Neill, raising her voice. And she’s well worth listening to.
Asking For It and Only Ever Yours are both published by Quercus.
Read our review of Asking For It here.
Photo credit: Denis Minihane