Asking For It TV review: starting the conversation on consent

Louise O’Neill explores Ireland’s rape culture in this fascinating Reality Bites documentary

A clip from RTÉ documentary 'Asking For It'. Video: RTÉ

 

“That is sexual assault,” a journalist told Donald Trump, calmly and carefully, during the second US Presidential debate. “Do you understand that?” As Trump defended his now infamous words as “locker-room talk”, it was not at all clear that he did, representing a particular nadir for rape culture: a man campaigning for the most powerful job in the world who needed to have the concept of consent explained to him.

Louise O’Neill’s involving documentary for RTÉ’s Reality Bites series, Asking For It?, didn’t include that exchange, but it didn’t need to.

There is such distressingly ample evidence of rape culture, so much of it closer to home, that her efforts lay in deciding how to parse and present it. O’Neill, the author of the novel Asking For It, had already written a story about rape and rape culture in small town Ireland, alive to the sexual double standards of slut-shaming and legend-worshipping, and here she turned to the subject behind it. “I want to talk about us,” she said pointedly. “I think we live in a society that doesn’t want to talk about sexual violence.”

Her programme offered a brisk anatomisation of a culture that, for all its progressive advances, would prefer not to talk about sex at all, certainly not meaningfully, while interviews with feminists, psychologists and survivors provide necessary explanations of contentious terms. In a rape culture, sexual aggression is normalised (“locker-room talk”), victims are distrusted or blamed (“Did she drink too much? Was she wearing a short skirt?”), and, with much attention paid to inflammatory rape cases in America and Ireland with lenient sentences or a notorious display of supportive handshakes, justice becomes a vexed issue.

O’Neill features prominently in the programme, presenting it with seriousness, a sense of style and humour, and sensitivity; a personable approach that matters when sex and consent should be a matter of fluent communication. The documentary doesn’t want to be glib, but it knows that we need to make consent sexy. Consent, says psychologist Dr Siobhán O’Higgins from NUIG, is “affirmative, it’s ongoing . . . Do you mind if I take your jocks off?” In short, it’s a conversation.

For generations reared without decent or demystifying sex education and stifled by shame, now primed by porn and a hyper-sexualised culture, uninhibited communication is essential: “a vital form of protection,” as O’Neill describes it.

The programme knows that for things to improve, everybody needs to be involved in this conversation, preferably as early as possible (80% of rapes are committed by people known to their victims). Apart from two journalists asked to briefly explain “the male point of view”, few men are featured. “It’s you who are doing it to us,” O’Neill says at one point. “So you have to be part of the solution.”

Rape is an emotive subject for both genders, and more than once an empathic O’Neill is shown upset on camera, interrupting her interviewee and later herself. Her contributors are both impassioned and composed, from Mary Rose Gearty’s even handed and fascinating discussion of the law, to the rallying words of Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill, who spoke publicly about her attack last year, and downplays the perception of victims who speak out as “brave and articulate”. Discussion, like consent, requires clarity. “We cannot continue to see abuse as being between two people,” Ní Dhomhnaill says. “We’re all part of it.”

The point is persuasively made: we need to be able to talk about it.

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