Louise O'Neill: 'I’ve always been honest with you in these pages, for better or for worse'

Louise O'Neill: 'I’ve always been honest with you in these pages, for better or for worse'

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I don’t like confrontation. It makes me feel panicked, as if everything is falling apart and can never be repaired. 

My reaction tends to be an over-sized one, involving shouting or tears but underneath all of that, I can smell my fear. I once dated a man who reacted to these outbursts with amusement, a quirk of a smile as I became increasingly upset. 

I would stumble over my words, losing my train of thought until finally, I fell silent, and he claimed the victory as his own. If given enough space, I can make my point, I can be articulate and eloquent and persuasive. But if met with aggression or derision, I will inevitably fall apart. 

Later that night in bed, I will re-play the scene, berating myself for all the things I should have said, how I should have behaved.

This is, as you can imagine, an inconvenient quality for an opinion columnist. My job is to argue my point. 

It’s easier in print as I have more time to tease out the issue, choose my words carefully. But even when I think I’ve written something that’s measured and fair, I’m surprised by how vitriolic the reaction can be. Don’t read the comments, the adage goes, but when they arrive via email or your social media inbox, it can be more difficult to ignore. The anger is sometimes comical, but more often than not, I find it frightening. 

That anger was part of the reason why I left Twitter; I felt uneasy every time I opened the app, wondering what would await me. I’ve also noticed that it’s impacted what I write about in this column. It’s not as political as it was when I started in 2016; I hesitate now when I’m writing about a subject I know is contentious, no matter how passionately I believe in it. 

My column about trans rights from a few weeks ago is a perfect example. I am adamant that trans people deserve appropriate health care, recognition, and safety. I don’t believe that human rights are a zero-sum game nor do I believe that cisgender women will ‘lose out’ if trans women are afforded the right to live their lives peacefully. 

And yet I was anxious sending that piece to my editor, anticipating the inevitable backlash. (Of course, any criticism I received is infinitesimal compared to the abuse hurled at trans and non-binary people on a daily basis.) 

Part of my discomfort came from the knowledge that many of the harshest critics would be other feminists, people whose views I respect on almost every other topic except this one. It’s much easier to dismiss a faceless troll than it is an activist or writer I admire. 

But I’ve come to realise over the last number of years that there is nothing that will divide a room full of feminists more than two issues – trans rights and sex workers rights, and your opinion on both tends to fall upon generational lines. 

To be clear, I believe trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are valid. I support harm reduction policy laws concerning sex work and that sex workers should be at the centre of developing policy that directly impacts their lives. 

But I have found myself surrounded by like-minded men and women at conferences and seminars over the last eighteen months, and as soon as either of these issues are brought up, you can see people bristle with indignation. I have wanted to write a piece for this column about sex worker’s rights for years now, ever since reading “Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work” by Melissa Gira Grant. 

I’ve wanted to plant my flag in support of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. I’ve wanted to say sex work is work and as such, the same rights that all workers are protected by should apply. I’ve wanted to explain the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, and why the conflation of the two is harmful. 

I’ve wanted to acknowledge how complex an issue this is and how so much of it makes me feel uncomfortable, both as a woman and as a feminist concerned about the commodification of the female body, but since I am not a sex worker, I don’t have the right to centre my discomfort in this debate.

I’ve wanted to say all of these things, but my fear of confrontation has held me back. That probably makes me a bad columnist but I’ve always been honest with you in these pages, for better or for worse. However, as time goes on, I’m beginning to realise that this fear is an inherent part of my privilege. 

That while white, straight, cis-gender people have stayed quiet because they’re afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of being embarrassed or criticised publicly, black people have been dying. Trans people have been dying. 

Sex workers have been dying. I may not ever understand, but the very least I can do is stand. 

And so, I stand. I stand with you.

Louise says

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