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Louise O’Neill on writing Asking For It: Unblurring the lines about rape

Horrified by the shaming of a US rape victim, the author started to think about how a small Irish community would have reacted, where the football team are local gods and where boys will be boys but girls must be virgins

Louise O’Neill: with both Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, I had this strange, indelible sense that I had to be the person to write those books, that it was meant to be in some way. It’s a bit like falling in love, when you somehow just know that the person standing in front of you is the person you’re meant to be with

As a writer, people often ask you where the ideas for your work come from. It’s an almost impossible question to answer – it could be the lyrics of a song, a conversation overheard on the bus, an editorial in a newspaper. Sometimes the idea will come to you fully formed, as if it swam to you from the ether, needling its way into your consciousness. Other times, you have the germ of an idea and you have to tease it out to its logical, or not so logical, conclusion.

Every author is different but I know that with both Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, I had this strange, indelible sense that I had to be the person to write those books, that it was meant to be in some way. It’s a bit like falling in love, when you somehow just know that the person standing in front of you is the person you’re meant to be with.

I had almost finished the first draft of Only Ever Yours in August 2012, when, during an interview with a local news station about abortion, an American politician called Todd Aiken made the claim that victims of what he described as “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant. “If it’s a legitimate rape,” he said, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” It seemed to echo Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the Roman Polanski case in 2009 in which she said that it wasn’t “rape rape”, as if everyone understood that there were certain levels of authenticity in rape cases and that only some of them should be considered valid.

I tried to include those phrases in Only Ever Yours, with a character commenting that it wasn’t “rape rape” but when it came to the editing stage, I felt it was too important to be shoehorned into the narrative like that. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, however, and then in December 2012, news of the Steubenville rape case broke in the US.

Statistics suggest that a sexual assault takes place every two minutes in the States, and yet there was something about this case that captured the attention of the nation. A small, close-knit community that made heroes of their local football team. A party full of drunken, horny teenagers. A young girl who had too much to drink, her friends laughing while her body was violated. Photos and videos taken, shared online, forever seared into the collective consciousness of the public. It was utterly horrifying and yet I was weirdly fascinated by the case, by the nonchalance of those young men, their seeming conviction that they were entitled to use that girl’s body in whatever way they wanted to.

The reaction to the case was also telling. While most people were horrified, a CNN reporter expressed her grief that a guilty verdict for the perpetrators would ruin their “promising” futures, and Serena Williams told a Rolling Stones journalist that the rape victim “shouldn’t have put herself in that position.” “Why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember?” Williams added.

It seemed unbelievable to me, given the hold that this case had on the public imagination and the national conversation that it had sparked regarding rape culture, that a song such as Blurred Lines, with its lyrics about “good girls” and “I know you want it” would be declared the “song of the summer” in 2013 and was the longest running number 1 single in the US for that year.

I was at a birthday party in September 2013 when I expressed my frustration about that song, about the idea that women are good girls who need to be persuaded into sex, when the topic of the “Slane Girl” came up. It was still being heavily analysed in the newspapers and I argued that even the name “Slane Girl” was indicative of a deeply engrained double standard. Why not “Slane Boy”? I asked a group of men in their early twenties, why is it always the woman who is held to a higher moral standard, why is it always the woman who is expected to “behave”? They all scoffed at me. She was a dirty slut and a whore. What if it had been your sister? I asked them. Would you want to see her just thrown to the wolves for public entertainment? If she was my sister, one of them told me, I would be so disgusted, I would never speak to her again.

The Maryville case broke in Missouri a month later, the details eerily parallel to what happened in Steubenville. As a reporter for Jezebel wrote: “Is Maryville the new Steubenville? The details of both cases are strikingly similar: Teen drinking. Football players in a small town. Alleged rape and sexual assault caught on video. Twitter and Facebook harassment.”

Once again, I watched in horror as the victim was blamed, slut shamed, shunned by her community. And I started to think about what would have happened if this case had occurred in an Irish context, in a small community in which the football team were local gods, where boys will be boys but where girls are expected to safeguard their virginity, to behave themselves in a ladylike fashion. Would that community do the right thing, would they know that rape is always the fault of the rapist, that it has nothing to do with how much the victim was wearing, or how much she had to drink? Or would they turn their faces away, whispering under their breath about how she was a slut, how she had sex with anyone who wanted her, how they always knew she was asking for it?

And then I knew. I knew I had the story that I wanted to write, that I needed to write. And in January 2014, I began working on Asking For It.

Asking For It is published by Quercus Children’s Books, £12.99