When two sisters go to Magaluf to celebrate their A-level results only one returns home. The other is too humiliated to face her parents, or anyone, after a video of her performing a sexual act in a nightclub goes viral. Viral (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is a young adult book with lessons FitzGerald believes should be being taught in school.
Viral deals with the immediate aftermath of a video going viral, but did you question what the long term effects of these cases might be on young girls like Su?
With the ping of her phone, Su suddenly finds she’s been redefined by the world. She is now known for one thing, and one thing only. The whole book is about how she is going to cope with this in the long term. Is there a way to return to the Su who’s the medical student, the sister, the daughter, the swimmer, the geek, the kind woman, the good friend? I imagine anyone who has been “shamed” will go through a hefty process of self-definition and rediscovery – Who am I? Is that me? To get through it successfully, they’ll need a lot of love and support, and possibly counselling, to navigate the process of defining a new me, a me who acknowledges and learns from what happened, but will not be defined by it.
Is Viral intended as a warning to young girls?
To isolate a drunk young girl as the problem here, is to miss the point. Su finds herself in an environment where drink is cheap, obliteration the end goal, where bars and PR reps encourage boys to treat girls like meat. One week in that setting and it feels normal to watch an intoxicated girl do something out of character and dangerous. It’s okay to clap, take pics, tweet, film, upload. If you’ve shared something like this online, then you’re a part of the problem too.
The Magaluf setting is an exaggerated microcosm of attitudes to women in the world at large. It’s not young girls who are the problem – and therefore the ones who must change first. Rather a misogynist and exploitative culture which is often fuelled by cheap alcohol, and perpetuated and magnified online.
Do you hope it will provoke young adult readers to think about intoxication and consent?
It’s essential for young people to understand that consent means permission, and that permission can only be given if you’re in control, and fully understand the request. It’s also essential to have an understanding of your own physical responses to alcohol and drugs, and to plan your use. I have a son and a daughter, and I feel it is as important for both that they think and talk about these issues. I’d be in favour of courses at school that look at real-life experiences (without judgement) and ask questions like: What/how much makes me lose control? When I blacked out (and remembered nothing the next day) what had I consumed and what happened as a result, or what could have happened? Have I ever jeopordised my physical safety or the safety of others? Have I misread – or not even tried to read – the signs of consent? Have I had a sexual encounter that I don’t recall wanting, or even having? Education courses that cover these issues would be a tremendous step forward. In the meantime, parents need to talk openly to their children. And young adults need to talk to each other and reflect on their behaviour in order to acknowledge – and in order to avoid – the possibility of a life-ruining event.
As a mother how do you educate your own children on internet safety?
I don’t think any topic should be off limits. The questions some might think should never be asked are the very ones that should be. It’s essential to take practical steps too, of course, like parental locks when the children are young, and an understanding of where and when it is appropriate to go online. It’s also important to encourage self-respect, respect of others, self-awareness, and an ability to recognise and avoid material that is unethical or unsettling.
Do you believe internet porn is giving young people an unhealthy attitude towards sex?
Young people have access to everything, all the time, and could develop false views of how women should look and behave, and what men can achieve and expect. Access to violent and deviant sites online is also a huge concern, and young people need to be educated about sexual violence and abuse, and know how to identify and avoid worrying websites.
How did your background as a criminal justice social worker inform the novel?
My job keeps me current in relation to criminal law in Scotland. Internet offending particularly interests me, as the law is scrabbling to keep up with issues as they arise. Revenge pornography is now illegal in England and Wales, and will be in Scotland soon. But Viral is slightly different, as Su’s act is in public – with no right to privacy – and “revenge” does not appear to be the motive. This legal loophole seemed like a perfect focus for a story.