I have never read anything by Louise O’Neill before, although this is her second novel. Perhaps because it is in the young adult section. Fortunately, I am a teacher and so I have access to young adult fiction without really having to look for it- I just walk into the school library. I have to admit though, whenever I am in a bookshop, in real life or online, I do tend to check out this section. I do it for several reasons- what is being marketed at the young adults I teach, what are they actually reading, and finally (most importantly) there are some brilliantly written and fantastic pieces of literary fiction that goes ignored by adults because it has been mislabelled- young adults are still adults, and all adults should engage with it. That is not a blanket endorsement, clearly young adult fiction suffers from the same problems as fiction marketed at older people- some of it is awful, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed en masse.
Back to the book. This caught my eye because its title is something I have been thinking about a lot. One of my students recently pointed out that she had been reading some startling statistics about young people’s understanding of what is meant by consent.
- 31% of young men said they would try to have to sex with someone who didn’t want to;
- 20% of young men would try to have sex with someone who was asleep;
- 33% of young men thought that having sex with someone who said no, was not rape;
- 1 in 16 girls aged 13-17 said they had been raped.
Statistics can always be contested. These come from a Guardian article published in 2012, and there are certainly more up to date surveys (I will not digress into a criticism of self-report here but maybe at a later date). We also know that the public understanding of consent is blurred. We know this anecdotally, but it is pervasive in the media, and in court cases. What was she wearing? How much had she had to drink? How many people has she slept with? Has she slept with him before? Did she fight him? These and a million other questions imply, or worse, actually accuse the victim of being responsible. We do have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe, but we also have a responsibility to keep others safe. That means looking after each other. Very few rapes are committed by strangers. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect our friends to look after us, whatever we are wearing etc. etc.
This book considers all of these issues (and more) from the point of view of an 18 year old girl. A girl who has been sexually objectified by everybody she knows since before she knew what sex meant. Her idealisation based on her looks mean this is the only way she can ascribe any value to herself is based on how boys respond to her; her only value is her looks. It also means it is the only way she knows how to judge other people. “She’s hot, but she’s boring.” Being boring isn’t a problem, although there is something in her that feels the sting. Her community is resolutely moral, traditionally so i.e. Men go to work, sow their wild oats; women cook, clean, look sexy but never put out (who buys the cow if the milk is free). The scene is set. I don’t want to spoil this book anymore. It deserves to be read by children and adults alike. The disclaimer on the back of my copy says it is not suitable for younger readers, but it is certainly suitable for anybody in secondary school, including the teachers- and parents should read it too. It is horrific what happens, but it is not unlikely, in fact it is completely credible. It follows logically from the way we sexualise the young, that sexuality comes to be something they expect, need and judge each other (and themselves upon). Our constant and insidious denigration of young women (and all women) means that young men, and society as a whole feels no need to respect what a woman says, especially when she says no.
This book disturbed me, and I think it should have done. I have been thinking about it for the past few days, and I am still not sure what I think, but the double standards are made very clear by the tagline on the back: They’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand.
How often do we excuse some sections of society, while blaming others?