Traolach Ó Buachalla
“I kept on telling Louise when we were filming that the term continually reminded me of the use of the word ‘homophobic’ during the gay marriage debate. There is a reaction to the term ‘rape culture’ just as there is a reaction to the word ‘homophobic’. It sounds far more aggressive than its most non-aggressive expression. People focus on the word ‘rape’ rather than ‘culture’. People can’t even conceive of something so seemingly benign actually being something so dangerous. When you’re least aware of how deeply [rape culture] permeates – that is the real danger. We are all complicit in [perpetuating] all the cultures we are talking about, be that homophobic culture, rape culture, anti-traveller culture, or racism. We are complicit because we are raised to be complicit and it always takes somebody else to open your eyes to it”. Traolach Ó Buachalla is a documentarian. Asking For It, his most recent credit shown on RTÉ 2, explored the subjects of rape culture and consent, and was based on the bestselling and award-winning novel of the same name by Irish writer Louise O’Neill.
Requiring little in the way of convincing, Traolach briefly met Louise O’Neill prior to filming and, purposely, had yet to open the book. Accompanying him on holiday to Mexico, he read it on the flight. And then he read it again. He recalls its effect: “I was startled. I was startled by how much of it seemed so plausible. So much of the selling of the book has been based on this 'extraordinary' and 'extreme' thing that could possibly happen. And it just resonated with me so much – none of the facts or the events within the book but the reactions. They made it crystal clear to me that this is a thing. And it was probably the first time I started to become truly aware that we are living within the confines of a rape culture.
“Once you open your eyes to it, you really start seeing it everywhere. Generally, the rule of thumb for any documentary I have made is that there’s normally a chink of interest. Then that just grows into this huge thing that you just have to become almost evangelical about it. And I did. It is one of the most important documentaries that I have made”, he continues. Given this impact, there was only one approach to take when it came to shooting, “it was an opportunity to hold up a mirror and to make a polemic. I didn’t want to have a debate on television as to whether or not rape culture exists – it does”.
Drawing on a particular scene from Asking For It, Traolach illustrates this last point: “Louise and myself spent hours with one of Ireland’s leading senior counsels, Mary-Rose Geraghty. She was very clear that you have to go to court and you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this other person did this thing to you. It’s actually really legitimate and really fair and there’s something really honourable about it. But, there are twelve people, twelve members of a jury, who are deciding this notion of beyond reasonable doubt. If those twelve people are people who even just conceivably think that what you were wearing could possibly have been a factor in whether you were asking for rape or not, then the system is not fair. It is immediately not fair. You are being judged by your peers and your peers have been raised in a culture, a rape culture, a culture that even allows the thought that a victim could possibly have provoked that kind of crime. So, it’s not fair”.
We turn to examine the inseparable issues of rape culture and consent as they occur between men who get off with men, and how a robust and mainstream conversation around these issues is currently nowhere to be found. Traolach puts this down to society's entrenched understanding of gendered power-asymmetry: “So much of the rape culture discussion ends up being framed as the less powerful woman being dominated by the more powerful man. And people find that a very easy set of characters to understand. But you bring two men into the equation and the power play you are talking about changes completely”. This speaks to his, and surely many others’, experience as non-straight men: “I’ve gone out with men who completely and utterly controlled the physical space. As gay men, we all know what it’s like to walk down dark alleys at night with the fear of violence. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why gay men are perhaps more open to hearing about rape culture than many straight men are – they’re a little more aware of that fear”. Although perhaps those who are not straight may have some insight, no man will ever truly experience the daily ordeal women face in this regard. It is also important to not lose sight how differently issues of consent may play out between lesbians, amongst bisexuals, and amongst members of the trans community.
In any case, as Traolach sees it, addressing the issue of consent demands deeper conversation about our sexual conduct more generally, the two being so inextricably bound: “The notion of consent for me is about a greater issue regarding how we express ourselves sexually full-stop. And I think gay men, like a lot of other men in this country, engage with their sex and their sexuality in the uninhibited arena of being drunk or there being drugs and there is very, very little conversation about our sex lives that’s not within the scoring world. I say this from experience and not from any place of judgement. We need to create a space in which we can all explore what we want to explore but where we’re as safe as we can possibly be in terms of our mental, emotional, and physical welfare. We don’t talk about consent enough but, with that, we don’t talk about why we’re having sex enough, how to have sex, or all the different reasons to have sex. Men are raised to see sex as something they pick off a tree – score, achieve, dominate to get – it does not arrive out of communication with another person where you both decide you’re going to get your rocks off”.
One scene in Asking For It sees Louise discuss [mainly straight] porn with a cohort of students from Galway, exploring how it can at once microcosmically represent, and feed, rape culture. The same more or less holds for gay porn. Traolach explains: “I do find it interesting how so much of gay sex and porn, so many of the images that are presented to you as a gay man, are ones of there being a power imbalance. It kind of replicates the [perceived] power imbalance between a man and a woman. It’s in the really dominant verbal top and the submissive, pleasing bottom. There are way more [images], but that is the predominant message. From that comes the power imbalance and the whole question of, ‘at what point is somebody consenting to behaviour that might possibly be demeaning to them?’. And it’s not that society might say it’s demeaning to them but that they are finding demeaning for themselves”.
I introduce another example of consent as it arises amongst gay men; he who directs unsolicited verbal and physical attention towards women and their appearance. As if we have carte blanche to act in such a way simply due to an absence of sexual attraction, it is often dangerously framed as a playful cliché. I suggest it is just another form of historically socialised behaviour. Traolach goes further: “There’s that. Then there’s also the person who feels the minority and looks for something or someone to oppress themselves; subordinating another historically marginalised subject just to have someone below them. I think gay men can be women’s greatest allies up to a certain point. And then it can turn”.
On this, Traolach suggests such behaviour stems from an inability to recognise women as sexually autonomous beings with their own agency and prerogatives: “As a gay man, I know what it’s like to penetrate and be penetrated, so I’m not talking solely about the physical action, but this notion that there are these organs over which a woman has no control; that bleed once a month, that can create life, that can give birth, that can kill you. I think that creates a serious anomaly in all the conversations we have and we’re really far away from having an equal conversation in sex.
“I find myself really checking myself sometimes over my reaction to some of my closest female friends when they say something to me about their sex lives. I might find myself saying in my head, ‘you’re such a prude!’. Then I say to myself, ’what the fuck are you doing here?’ But, you forget, and doubly so as a man who has sex with a man, you are being less exposed to that other relationship between women and their bodies – you forget that there may be a deeply different relationship for women with their sex lives than what there is for men.
“For a woman in Ireland, I imagine that it must take a lot of emotional strength, intellectual rigour, and thought to force themselves and force their body through that wall of, ’sex is for getting pregnant’ to a place where it might be about communication, intimacy – enjoyment”. The inequity inherent is readily apparent, perfectly encapsulating the toxicity of the landscape as it currently stands. Socialised to see the denial of women’s bodily autonomy as default, the cultural shift required to dismantle all of these notions is monumental. That said, Traolach believes change is possible, albeit incrementally.
Approaching the end of our conversation, I am despairing somewhat; clutching at nothing really, in the hope of finding some optimistic note with which to conclude. Traolach fares better: “What I do know to be true is, even if we don’t feel we are making any major inroads for ourselves, the fact that we are having these conversations and talking about them even a little more openly, will impact on how the next generation is raised. The ingrained inequality in how we treat our children from day one, based on their sex, is the most substantial change that we could possibly bring about. The hope is cross-generational. That is the real trickle-down effect that can work: how the next generation raises their kids”.
Note: If you feel in anyway impacted by the content of this story, please click here to access a list of national and local support groups for those affected by domestic and sexual violence.