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'We need to teach women in Ireland how to say yes to sex'

Author Louise O’Neill talks to ahead of the airing of her new documentary Asking for It tonight. / YouTube

CONVERSATIONS AROUND CONSENT often centre on when ‘no means no’ or that the absence of a no doesn’t mean yes.

As simple a concept as that seems, the mere idea of university classes on consent cause controversy – and have done so on this island.

Following the publication of her book Asking for It just over a year ago, author Louise O’Neill has continued to explore the issue.

“When I first had the idea for Asking for It… I started writing it in January 2014. I didn’t set out to start a conversation around consent,” she told in an interview this week.

I had read about cases in the US – the Steubenville case and the Maryville case. And then a few things happened at home – the Magaluf girl and Slane girl. I was really interested in exploring Irish attitudes to both sexuality and sexual violence.

“I began to realise that consent and issues around consent… is where the battleground really lay. This is where the conversation needed to take place around and where education needed to happen.”

But, as O’Neill learned through conversations with parents, teenagers, sexual violence victims, lawyers and other experts for both her book and upcoming documentary of the same name, Irish people are not good at talking about sex.

Ireland has “gone from the Virgin Mary to hyper-sexualised instead of being just sexual”, she explains.

“My fear is around this idea that we don’t want our girls to be promiscuous so they need to guard their virginity. By pretending they aren’t sexual beings, we are teaching them that they need to behave that they are reluctant and the guy needs to persuade them.

Again, that is such a dangerous thing to bring into a sexual relationship – particularly at a young age, that idea of persuasion, that is where the crux of consent lies.

“It hasn’t been said that it’s ok for them to be sexual beings, to explore their sexuality, to say, ‘Actually, I really enjoy this… can you do this? Can you not do this?’

“They are sort of taught to be a little bit more passive for fear they may come off as seeming promiscuous.” / YouTube

“I think it’s interesting when people have this idea that talking during sex or checking in with the other person to see if they’re ok, that that is ruining the mood… because really good sex is about communication. It’s about saying, ‘This is what I don’t want, but also, this is what I do want.’

“That’s a problem on both sides… I think that young women, particularly in Ireland, have not been taught how to say no – but they haven’t been taught how to say yes either.”

The ‘murky area’ of consent is the subject of tonight’s RTE2 programme, where O’Neill speaks to rape survivors, legal experts and others about how Ireland treats victims of sexual violence.

In a particularly stark scene, O’Neill has an almost-visceral reaction to being brought into a courtroom to see what a rape victim would face during a trial.

“Even thinking about it now, still makes me feel a little bit sick,” she told

“… How traumatising would that be? The person who has inflicted the most horrifying experience of your entire life upon you and you have to just walk pass them.

“It just made me feel so nauseated and claustrophobic… I don’t know, I just feel like so much has to change.”

She speaks more about the experience in this short clip: / YouTube

O’Neill understands many women’s reticence to report incidents of sexual violence given Ireland’s low prosecution rates and society’s reaction to some cases.

“We are very loathe to use the word rape. And I think that’s interesting … there is a burden of shame with it which is so wrong.

“I think there is a feeling around women that they don’t want to use it, because if they use that word, you nearly become it. It’s a label that’s put on you that you feel like you’ll never be able to get rid of.”

However, she believes it is important for women to report rape and sexual assault to ensure the system becomes better at dealing with it.

The problem is – someone reporting now, will have a very different experience to someone who was reporting even five or 10 years ago – it’s still not a very sympathetic environment for a victim.

“You know when you look at the statistics and you realise how unlikely it is that you’ll ever get to court, not to mention getting a conviction… I think it just puts up barriers straight away.

“For a lot of women, they’re like, ‘Why would I bother?’

“On the one hand, I’m like, ‘No you need to report. We need to report’. But on the other hand I can totally understand why people wouldn’t want to. That’s a real failing, I think, at a legal level.”

Louise O’Neill’s documentary Asking for It will air tonight on RTÉ2 at 9.30pm.

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