Emma is the epitome of the popular girl. She is thin and perfect and beautiful, and everyone wants to be her. She has a solid group of friends, she knows how to socialize, and she likes getting a response from boys; in fact, she will behave in certain ways just to get those responses. At the latest party, she has set her sights on Jack Dineen, local football star, but when he picks someone else, she figures Paul O’Brien, football captain, might make him jealous. But then it all goes wrong: she is raped; she is filmed; the film is posted online.
‘How could you behave like that?’ people ask her in the following days, ‘Why would you do that?’ And, ‘You’re disgusting,’ they say. It never occurs to anybody that she didn’t allow it to happen. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t really remember any of it at all; she doesn’t want to call it that word. And when it finally is called ‘that word’ it definitely doesn’t make anything better. Days and weeks and months of turmoil and trouble and arguments and hate and questioning follow. Will there ever be an end? Will her friends ever talk to her again? Will anyone ever really believe her?
This is a very difficult book to write about, not just because of the content, but I think because of what the content means. Emma herself is actually quite hard to like, she’s so focused on everyone else’s perceptions of her. And she’s difficult to understand sometimes too, but I think this is because she’s real. She’s not two-dimensional, and this allows her to have ideals and wants that conflict with one another, something that I think is perhaps not what I’m used to seeing in fictional characters, and that, ironically, makes her harder to understand or relate to directly. She doesn’t want to rock the boat but she wants to stand out – but for being pretty, not for making a fuss, whilst she hates her mother’s constant commenting on what she needs to do to be pretty and popular. Her parents, too, are contradictory, and impossible to like. They support her; they don’t support her; they refuse to understand her and only see what they choose to see.
Louise O’Neill touches upon all of the many, varied aspects of sexual culture, rape, feminism, consent in this book, bringing it to the foreground and shoving it in our faces. And when I say ‘shoving’ it, I mean it in a ‘waving the obvious, the facts’ at the world way, a ‘how can people ignore this’ way. There is the language used to describe girls who have sex (or, equally, if they refuse sex); the ‘banter’ that invades everyday conversation that’s anywhere from mildly to majorly derogative, offensive or invasive; the manner in which social media escalates things; and, of course, the concept that when someone is raped it is somehow their fault, that they brought it on, and has nothing to do with the rapist committing a criminal act, their ability to decide what is right and wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.
I like O’Neill’s style of adding Emma’s sideways thoughts into the text, using brackets that give the impression of the thoughts being extra-curricular, barging in unwanted, the things you don’t want to think about but can’t help doing so. It’s very effective and makes Emma even more real, even more conflicted. And boy is O’Neill is an excellent writer. Here she touches on some of the themes from her debut, Only Ever Yours, but it’s a disturbing book in a different way to Only Ever Yours, which picks up the concept of perfection and the woman’s “place” and takes it to an extreme level to demonstrate how disturbing it is; Asking For It is disturbing because it doesn’t need to create a dystopian world to make its point – what happens today is horrid enough in its own right.
This is probably not a book to read if you are a person who has been raped; it doesn’t strike me as one of those stories that, if you see yourself in the characters, you will find solidarity and peace from a relatable experience. This is because it’s a book based on real life, a book based on what happens to the majority of people who are raped and abused – in other words, this is probably not a book that will give you the courage to stand up and say, I was raped, these people attacked me, I didn’t ask for it. What Asking For It does do is highlight the perverse and frankly disgusting attitude much of our society has to cases of rape, that the victim must essentially prove their innocence rather than prove their attacker’s guilt. That the process essentially forces this person to be raped all over again.
Needless to say, Asking For It is not really a book to be 'enjoyed', but it is absolutely a book to be appreciated, and it’s a book that I hope will be read widely by boys and girls, men and women, and everyone in between. While it might not be a book to help those who’ve suffered through similar, I hope it will make people stop and think about what consent is and what consent means and how they might be behaving, and if it makes even one person stop and think about their actions, about the things they say, about whether its nice to ‘rate’ a photo of someone, then good.
I could talk a LOT about the things that take place in this novel, and how they’re represented in the media and the world, and what it’s doing and I am certainly tempted to do so – consent, rape culture, the whole idea behind those three little words, ‘asking for it’ – but I think the better thing to do is for you to read the book yourself, because it lays things out pretty well on its own. So go do that – and then find lots of other people and start a discussion with them about it.
P.S. You should also go read this excellent article from Louise, My Journey to Feminism.