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Author Louise O'Neill. Picture Emma Jervis
Emma Jervis Photography
Author Louise O'Neill. Picture Emma Jervis
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New play will put the issue of sexual consent centre stage

IN A small coastal Cork town, a beautiful 18-year-old girl is gang-raped at a house party. The morning after, she has no memory of what she did or of what happened. The award-winning story of the assault and what happened next is to be staged live in Cork in a world premiere, at the Everyman Theatre next summer. It won’t be easy to watch.

Prior to what was an extremely vicious sexual assault by a gang of young men, Emma O’Donovan is given drugs by the captain of the local GAA football team, and then engages with him — reluctantly, and silently hoping that it would soon be over — in rough sex. Does she actually consent? She clearly doesn’t appear to want it. Is this rape?

Later on someone at the house-party gives Emma another pill. She is gang-raped and later dumped semi-naked on the doorstep of her home. And, although the fifth-year second-level student has no memory of the degradation to which she was then subjected by several local boys, the internet does.

Social media, which is such an important element for teenagers’ social lives, and such a crucial medium for them in establishing their identity, certainly has — and in abundance, and for anyone who’s interested. By the morning after the assault, a shed-load of the graphic photographs taken of Emma being abused and degraded have gone viral on Facebook. The issue of sexual consent then becomes paramount. Some commentators insist that she was “asking for it”, as in the name of Louise O’Neill’s seismic, 2015, award-winning novel. They insist that Emma O’Donovan is a slut, a skank and a whore — but then, as we all know and as Louise O’Neill has pointed out, Irish society uses alcohol to blame the victims of rape and excuse their assailants. The same could be said of drugs.

Other people, of course, claim that Emma was gang-raped and deserves justice. She doesn’t get it. Emma is not a likeable heroine. She is spoiled, selfish, superficial, self-seeking, outwardly arrogant and razor-tongued, not to say utterly obsessed with her image; Emma O’Donovan is the product of an affluent Celtic Tiger boom upbringing if there ever was one. She casually abuses the goodwill of even her closest friends — she openly flirts with best friend Maggie’s boyfriend and callously advises another friend to keep her mouth shut after she is raped.

Asking For It by Louise O'Neill
Asking For It by Louise O'Neill

“Everyone has to fancy you, don’t they, Emma,” a friend mutters. “One boy just isn’t enough for you anymore.”

The captain of the football team has a girlfriend, but knowing this doesn’t pose any great moral obstacle to Emma who only wants to be admired.

“Boys with girlfriends are my favourite,” she ponders. “You don’t have to worry that they’re going to tell tales afterwards.”

Despite the pain of the very rough sex he insists on; despite the fact that she didn’t like it, she still gives him her phone number when he asks: “I must have been good; he must have enjoyed it if he wants to see me again,” she thinks.

It’s not easy to turn such a deeply unattractive, arrogant and yet totally insecure personality into a heroine. But that’s Louise O’Neill’s skill. The novel, Asking For It was harrowing. Its visceral depiction of just how easily a human being can be objectified and how quickly a whole community will jump on the bandwagon behind the rapists, made me shudder. It contributed significantly to a much-needed and very vigorous debate on the whole issue of consent and how it’s abused in our society because it shows unflinchingly how traditional Irish values clash with modern lifestyles, social media and teenage morals — and how, despite their outward easy-going attitudes, Irish people are so very, very quick to point the finger.

Can someone give consent to sexual activity when he or she is drunk or high? No. Should someone give consent to sexual activity because they feel they should (though they really don’t want to but all their friends say they’re doing it)? No. All of this is a message that comes across very strongly in Asking For It. It’s one that needs to be hammered into society’s psyche.

When it comes to sexual activity and sex, you actually do have the right to decide when and where and how you do it — and this includes kissing, hugging, making out, cuddling or touching someone in a sexual way. The problem with all of this that consent is a lot more complicated than just saying yes — people don’t always talk about touching or sex before it happens. Things are often communicated through body language, or eye contact. And of course, non-verbal communication isn’t always reliable, because it can lead to misunderstandings, or alleged misunderstandings. Or covert pressure. Or simply, the feeling that sometimes, it’s easier to just give in and get it over with.

Now, thanks to funding from the Arts Council, Asking For It is going to be adapted for the stage and all of these issues will once again be catapulted into the public forum. Which is great.

O’Neill’s utterly credible portrayal of the horrendous physical and psychological effects of being sexually assaulted as Emma was, of feeling ostracised and isolated as she did, and of descending into depression as her entire world slowly collapses around her, will be played out in front of us on the stage. Arts Council funding will be used by Cork’s Everyman Theatre to produce what is already being described as technically challenging presentation — a dramatisation which will take into account the extremely large part played by social media in O’Neill’s story. We’ll have to wait until next June to see it, though. But it will be worth the wait.

As a society we need to educate ourselves better about consent. And hopefully, the people who most need to see it will see it. Because all the classes, all the debates, all the workshops and all the lectures about what does or does not constitute consent to sexual activity are nothing compared to seeing this complex issue played out in the flesh.