Louise O'Neill: 'It doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes. It’s an adult man’s job to say no'

I’m not on Twitter anymore and given everything I’ve heard about the site since - the viciousness, the constant outrage and in-fighting - I haven’t felt enticed to return.
Louise O'Neill: 'It doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes. It’s an adult man’s job to say no'
It’s everywhere, this sexualisation of young girls. The jokes about “jail bait” and “if there’s grass on the field, play ball”, insinuating that once a girl has pubic hair, she’s automatically sexually available. File photo.
It’s everywhere, this sexualisation of young girls. The jokes about “jail bait” and “if there’s grass on the field, play ball”, insinuating that once a girl has pubic hair, she’s automatically sexually available. File photo.

Yet sometimes, I am reminded of the power of Twitter, and why I was so drawn to it in the first place.

One of those reasons was the democratisation of authority, how it gave a voice to those who were often marginalised by the media – women, people of colour, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, travellers etc.

#MeToo wouldn’t have happened without social media. Neither would the Black Lives Matter movement.

This weekend, there was a resurgence of #IBelieveHer tweets, with many Irish women and men sharing their experiences of harassment, assault, and violence within Irish comedy, music, film, and literature.

Their pain was palpable as they told their stories, re-opening barely healed wounds because there’s power in numbers, isn’t there?

People are still reluctant to believe one victim, or even two.

But when there’s a dozen women, with eerily similar tales, the patterns of abuse carving a line down two or more decades? That’s difficult to deny.

Some of the names mentioned were familiar to me; I’d been hearing whispers about their behaviour for years, since I was a teenager myself.

And now I can’t help but wonder about the enablers – their peers and the people booking the comedy gigs and tending the bars and organising after-parties for the literary festivals.

Did they not notice the trail of young women, limping away the morning after? Did they care?

In 2013, I read a piece by Emily McCombs on the now defunct website, xoJane, called “The Myth of the Teenage Temptress”.

It stopped me in my tracks and seven years later, I still think about it.

It made me re-evaluate my own past, to wonder about all the attention I received when I was a seventeen-year-old girl from men who were much older than me, in their late twenties or early thirties, if not more.

Looking back, it wasn’t because I was especially pretty or that I was ‘special’ or ‘mature for my age’, as these men were wont to tell me.

The sole reason they were attracted to me was because I was young.

It’s everywhere, this sexualisation of young girls. The jokes about “jail bait” and “if there’s grass on the field, play ball”, insinuating that once a girl has pubic hair, she’s automatically sexually available.

The proliferation of ‘barely legal’ porn, where impossibly young girls – sometimes dressed in school uniforms to really hammer home the point – are engaged in hardcore sex acts.

The wild stories about famous rock-stars in the 60s and 70s having sex with fourteen-year-old groupies because ‘things were different then’.

The 1999 Rolling Stone cover featuring a teenage Britney Spears in her underwear, playing into the Lolita trope.

Megan Fox on the Jimmy Kimmel chat show in 2009 talking about one of her first jobs as a fifteen-year-old.

They couldn’t shoot her with a drink in her hand because she was underage, so the director, Michael Bay, had her in a bikini, “dancing under a waterfall, getting soaking wet”.

Fox reiterates she was only 15 at the time, saying, “That’s kind of a microcosm of how Bay’s mind works”.

Kimmel quips, “that’s really a microcosm of how all our minds work,” as the crowd laughs at the sexualisation of a girl of Junior Cert age.

In 2002, Donald Trump said of Jeffrey Epstein, “…he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side".

What we know now of Epstein, of the pyramid scheme of young girls that he procured for the sole purposes of sexually abusing them, the comment seems even more egregious.

But Epstein’s predilection for “under-aged women” (a term that is often used rather than saying “children”, which is what a 14 or 15-year-old girl actually is) was well-known in his circles; his private jet was jokingly referred to as the Lolita Express.

If he had been trafficking five-year-olds across the world, would people have looked the other way quite as readily?

Or do people still think that having sex with a teenage girl is merely unsavoury rather than a criminal offence?

In ‘The Myth of the Teenage Temptress’, McCombs wrote, “It doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes. It’s an adult man’s job to say no.”

This is important. Adolescence is a time for exploring your sexuality in a healthy, safe way.

In other words, teenagers are hormonal and horny and thinking about sex a lot.

That doesn’t give adults the right to take advantage of that, to argue that it was consensual because the girl ‘wanted it’.

What teenager, impulsive and reckless, doesn’t think themselves emotionally capable of giving consent?

It’s only later in life, when they look at their daughters or nieces or godchildren, that they may become terrifyingly aware of how young they really were.

They may see that what they once viewed as ‘love’ and ‘passion’ could just as easily be termed grooming by predatory older men who should have been held accountable for their actions.

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