Author and feminist Louise O’Neill’s documentary Asking For It aired this week on RTÉ 2. It focused on the issue of consent and Ireland’s attitude towards rape culture, sexual violence and the distinct lack of sex education we have for young people in Ireland. It sees Louise – who has written two successful books that deal with female sexuality and misogyny head on – visit informed representatives from bodies such as the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, the Criminal Court of Justice, and NUIG’s Department of Psychology.
The bottom line is that we need to do a lot more to educate everyone about consent. We need to teach people that it’s okay to say no, or to change your mind, and that your partner should respect that. Sex should be reciprocal no matter what the circumstances are. The documentary told us that we need to dismantle the savage undercurrent of rape culture in our society, covertly threaded into our day-to-day actions, thoughts and words.
While scrolling through Facebook this evening, I noticed a male friend had shared the link to the documentary. However, the accompanying status featured the words ‘disgraceful’, ‘one-sided’ and ‘man-hating.’ To make sure I understood his point of view, I watched the documentary again. Nothing struck me as inflammatory. It didn’t strike me as biased. There were a variety of interviewees, men and women, survivors of rape, and academics. Examples of sexual assault crimes were directly drawn from reported court cases that featured in the news. I definitely didn’t hear Louise O’Neill proclaim war on all men alá Braveheart and encourage us women to wear their innards as hats.[pullquote]I challenged his comment by saying that I thought Asking For It was not one-sided, but simply the other side. The side that is only coming to the fore now.[/pullquote]
So, puzzled, I did what I have done for a few years since I began to identify more as an agent than an observer or an object. Someone who calls out behaviour or opinions not rooted in knowledge and the correct context. A voice with a story; experience; validity, too often hushed or silenced by a louder voice, often male.
I challenged his comment by saying that I thought Asking For It was not one-sided, but simply the other side. The side that is only coming to the fore now. A chorus of lived experiences rising to the surface, telling you it straight, beseeching that you don’t ignore this reality. But when it is heard, in the form of an article, a blog post, a status update, or video, it inevitably unleashes a cacophony of comments designed to silence, shame and stigmatise the author. Some are loud and vulgar. Some are quieter and pointedly ‘wordy’. All are individual knife wounds.
‘How much had you had to drink? You should have been more careful.’
‘Rapists don’t look like normal people.’
‘Who’d want to fuck you anyway!’
So you’re left there, possibly bemused, possibly dumb-founded that what you thought was clearly rational and painfully factual isn’t enough for people to either believe you or to question their own internal bias. The figures, the reports and lived experiences all point to an overwhelming issue – rape perpetrated by men. And yes, I mean some men. Not all men. Does that lessen the severity? The knowledge that behind every headline is someone who has lost a core part of themselves to another. Someone who has already thought worse about themselves than any vitriol an online troll could throw. As Louise says in the documentary, an accused man is innocent until proven guilty; yet there is a subtext in our society that every woman is a liar until proven honest.
The male friend didn’t react well to my challenge. He was indignant. ‘We shouldn’t consider every man a potential rapist just because he was born male. We should learn to differentiate the rapists from the men. Rapists have deep seated psychological problems. Ordinary people don’t commit rape. It’s degrading to teach men about consent. We all know what it means. It doesn’t matter how many times you teach a rapist about consent, it won’t matter. That’s why they are a rapist, not a man.’
Around and around we went. Until I cracked. ‘LISTEN TO ME’, I said, ‘listen to me’. What about my side of the story? The point of view of a victim? Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. It was more important for him to prove a point, to defend every man than it was to hear me out. A woman. Who at 21 was extremely fortunate to just about escape a terrible, terrible situation. A woman who was taken advantage of. A woman who blamed herself and internalised the deep-rooted, coloured shame inwards, pointed directly at her gut with a sharpened blade. A woman who took three years to take heed of other women who would no longer bear that same heavy silence and to brave another look at those excruciating memories with a different perspective. [pullquote]As Louise says in the documentary, an accused man is innocent until proven guilty; yet there is a subtext in our society that every woman is a liar until proven honest.[/pullquote]
He could not defend all men. A lot of men don’t need to be defended. They understand. They know. They respect. They are aware. They are supporters. They are friends. They are listeners. They are with us. But there are some men who aren’t like that. Just like there are some women, too. And there always will be. But are we to wait for the wolves to emerge, teeth bared, as they claim their prey before we raise the alarm? Only then do we pick up our pitchforks and cry ‘Disgrace!’ or ‘Enough is enough!’
Or do we do something about it?
The man on Facebook argued that we all know what consent means – that we have all known about consent since childhood, when our parents wouldn’t allow us a sweet and we had to accept their decision. But a lot of kids will still try to get the sweet. They will manipulate their parents and smile sweetly at them. They might beg, wearing down their resolve. Or they will simply come back later when no-one is watching and take it anyway.
The only formal sex education that I have ever received in my life was a short session in 6th class about periods and what you could expect. Skip forward 4 years to Transition Year and there I was, sat in the middle of a crisis pregnancy talk where adoption was spoken about. How 1970s. And nothing in between and nothing after.[pullquote]What about the point of view of a victim? Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. It was more important for him to prove a point, to defend every man than it was to hear me out. A woman.[/pullquote]
Nothing to explain why I had periods. Nothing about how boys’ bodies worked. Nothing about contraception. Nothing about STIs or STDs. Nothing about the joy of intimacy. Nothing about respecting your partner. Nothing to say that my pleasure mattered too. Nothing about abortion. Or about consent. That I could say no. And that if they didn’t stop that I could still leave. But if I did, to be aware that smiling faces can turn on you as quickly as a light switch can flick on and off. That a person’s actions and words don’t equate with asking for it. Sex is not a punishment to inflict on someone who does not comply with your will, desires or needs.
So what can we do? If all the facts, figures, whispered conversations, court cases, victim impact statements and shared stories in the world aren’t enough? As frustrating and tiring as it will be, keep challenging people about rape culture. Keep calling their bias out. Keep the conversations going. Make sure that the young people in your life are educated about sex and consent. Talk to your peers about it. Keep your voice elevated above the ignoble abuse, whether you do it in your own calm, quiet way or by demanding attention, even if they dismiss your words or deem you aggressive.
But do it. Both women and men. For each other. We shall not observe. We will be heard.