LOUISE O'NEILL: I wonder if my ex-boyfriends thought female sexuality was something to be laughed at

It is Tuesday morning. I am packing and I hate packing. 

I have to pack two bags — one for my week-long residency in the Cill Riallig Art Centre which is full of thermal vests and fleece-lined bed socks, and the other for a weekend sojourn to Dublin immediately after. 

I have a date in Dublin so that bag contains ridiculous underwear of the sort that you only ever wear at the beginning of a relationship. 

“Yes, of course I wear bondage lingerie all the time, it’s so comfortable.”

It’s all too much for me so I take refuge under the bedcovers and am eventually coaxed out by my mother who helps me pack. 

And when I say help me pack, I mean that I supervise. 

And when I say supervise, I mean I yell at her for packing the dark grey hoodie when I clearly said the light grey hoodie.

She then places the suitcases in the car, buckling under their weight, before giving me a piggy back and placing me in the driver’s seat. (Okay, that last bit isn’t true.)

It’s dark by the time I arrive at the tiny stone cottage clinging to the edge of a sea cliff that is to be my home for the next seven days. 

It’s darkness of the variety that you only ever find in the country, a soupy blackness that envelops you.

The next morning, I stare at the view from my bedroom window, the knife-edge cliffs and snarling waves. 

It is a wilderness. 

Armed with a cup of green tea and a hot water bottle, I sit at the rickety desk and stare at the blank Word document, waiting. 

And I begin.

It is Friday. My phone rings.

It’s the Irish Daily Mail, asking me for a comment about an alleged revenge porn scandal at UCD. 

I have no comment to give because I have not heard anything about it. 

They email me an article from the College Tribune. 

I read it, about the male students who have allegedly created a Facebook group in which to exchange explicit photos of girls they have had sex with and rate them. 

I sit there in stunned silence for minutes, hours, days.

I get up, then sit back down then get up and scream; it is guttural, visceral, this scream is coming from some part of myself that I never even knew existed.

I pace the room, what can I do, what can I say, why is this happening again, and again, and again. 

My mind is bleeding out thoughts so I do what I always do when I feel like this — I sit at my computer and I write.

I dash out a short comment on Facebook. 

It is hastily written, ill-thought out, but I post it anyway. 

Within seconds, my phone starts to blow up. 

Notification after notification after notification.

The post is liked and shared. Within 36 hours it has been viewed by over 300,000 people. 

And I start to read the comments.

Some are vicious, openly scornful.

‘Not all men!’ ‘Lighten up love!’ ‘It’s just a bit of banter!’ ‘Those girls should have known better.’

But somehow what is worse is the countless young men who tag their friends on the post with smiley faces, their first reaction to my frustration and pain is to go ‘lol’. 

I try and reason with them. I am wasting my time. I go to bed and I cannot sleep. I am tired, so very tired.

I have never felt this alone.

With the paranoia that the night can bring I start to think of all the men that I have known. 

I think of when I was three, cuddling into my Granddad Murphy’s lap as he stroked my hair and told me I was the best girl and I wonder did he really think that, or did he secretly hate women too?

I think of my uncles and my male cousins and my male friends and how kind they all seem, and I begin to fear that their smiles might hide their sneers, that they might think I’m a stupid bitch who needs to stop complaining.

I think of my ex-boyfriends, how I stood naked before them and I wonder if they thought my body was something to be talked about with their friends, if they too thought female sexuality was something to be laughed at.

The next day my father rings. He is worried about me, he tells me. 

“Your mother tells me you’ve gone viral.” 

I can hear the desperation in my voice as I answer ‘yes’, but I’m right aren’t I? What happened was despicable, wasn’t it?

But all I can really hear is myself asking him if he still loves me. If he loves me even if I am ‘just a girl’.

He is measured, as he always is, and I feel my panic dissipating with every sensible, good, decent word that he says.

“You are doing the right thing,” he tells me. “I am so proud of you.”

And I remind myself that I have no other choice. I cannot un-see the ugly misogyny so I have no other choice but to speak out. 

I will keep fighting. Because I don’t care anymore if you are tired of me, tired of hearing me rant about feminism and the patriarchy. 

I don’t care if you think that I should stay quiet and know my place.

You can scream at me that ‘not all men think like this!’ and I agree with you. BUT ENOUGH MEN DO THAT IT IS A PROBLEM.

UCD released a statement saying that a subsequent investigation found ‘no evidence’ of this Facebook group. 

But ‘no evidence’ is not the same thing as ‘no such group exists’ and the gleeful, triumphant reaction of the men calling me a ‘deluded feminazi’ online when the report was published does little to reassure me that this scandal was an isolated incident.

Instead I believe it’s just one more example of a culture in which women are either sexualised without their consent or humiliated for daring to express themselves in a sexual manner. 

It’s not just ‘a bit of banter’, it’s never ‘just words’.

These are the building blocks to a world where a woman will hold her breath as she passes a large of group of drunken men on the street, praying that they won’t notice her; a world in which women clutch their car keys in their hands late at night, ready and prepared to fight if they are attacked.

You can argue that these are just the realities of the world that we live in and that women need to be prepared. 

I disagree. 

I don’t want to live in a world like that. 

I don’t want to keep having this conversation. 

I don’t want to have to look at my friends and think ‘one in five of us will be raped. 

I wonder which one is next?’ 

It’s time to take a stand. 

You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. 

It’s time to choose.

The next day my father rings. 

He is worried about me, he tells me. 

‘Your mother tells me you’ve gone viral’


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