Asking For It

Asking For It

Rarely have I read a book which is as relentless as ‘Asking For It‘ by Louise O’Neill. I was familiar with ‘Only Ever Yours’, but I didn’t expect this novel to be as harrowing and essential as it is. Trigger warning: this article discusses rape, depression and suicide.

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Rape culture is a complex set of beliefs which encourages societal normalisation of sexual objectification and violence, minimising the legal and societal repercussions for perpetrators of rape. While rape unfortunately happens to people of all genders, rape culture is most prevalent in terms of male attacks on women. Men and women are taught that rape is inevitable and the dynamic between these two genders becomes one of predator-prey, casting men as wild sexual aggressors and women as helpless victims and objects to sate men’s lust. It goes without saying that this kind of dogma is dangerous, and does a disservice to all genders by prescribing these kinds of behaviours and attitudes when people are far more complex, and hopefully capable of treating others with respect.

Rape culture often includes victim-blaming, using the victim’s sexual history or appearance as a reason to excuse the rape, citing things like: “She was asking for it“, “Why was she out at that time alone?” and “What did she expect?” Rape culture fails to recognise a fundamental truth that if someone does not or cannot give consent to sexual contact of any kind, then it is rape. That’s the bottom line. We need to do a much better job of teaching people what consent and healthy relationships look like.

Asking For It‘ follows eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom. The atmosphere is almost stifling; family ties go back generations and every town event is rife with social slights and speculation. The novel splits between ‘Last Year’ and ‘This Year’, juxtaposing Emma’s optimism for graduation and the promise that university life might bring, with the fraught O’Donovan family working through the impact of that fateful event.

O’Neill presents a fair portrayal of being a teenager, but with a harder more bitter edge. Let me clarify, there is a severe absence of body-positive, encouraging and supportive interpersonal dynamics, which I hope is not the case for most teenagers. Emma is a dislikeable protagonist, which at times makes it harder to sympathise with her, but also makes her a complex and tangible character. She is beautiful and intelligent, but also jealous and petty. Many of her unappealing traits stem from insecurities and, what seems at times, the toxic social milieu of Ballinatoom. Emma’s friendships with her female school friends is predominantly competitive and bitchy, and Emma herself has been explicitly part the system that perpetuates rape culture by telling victims to stay silent. Emma already has some unhealthy ideas around sex. Instead of seeing sex as a way of experiencing pleasure, she tends to see the act as a way of gaining male approval, which is linked to her obsessive body monitoring, and there are implications in the text of non-consensual acts happening in the past.

The incident itself had stark comparisons with the very real travesty of the Steubenville case. In ‘Asking For It‘, Emma is gang raped while she is unconscious at a party, and photos are spread across social media by her peers. She remembers very little of the night itself, found by her parents and brother the next morning abandoned on her doorstep. O’Neill juxtaposes the two halves of the book with gathering momentum to a crisis which completely alters Emma’s life. In ‘Last Year’, it is the party, whereas in ‘This Year’ it is Emma’s decision to drop the case against her attackers.

The reader only gets glimpses into Emma’s life immediately after the rape. Her world becomes even more stiflingly small as her social circle moves on without her, and the wider community resent her for bringing negative attention and particularly for ‘ruining’ the lives of the boys who raped her. There is also the impact of global social media; Emma resents the fact that she has become an icon or martyr for the cause of rape victims, and understandably cannot move past the personal destruction within her own life.

O’Neill’s technique of repeating comments from the Facebook photos of Emma’s attack becomes a sickening mantra for both Emma and for the reader. Emma has been reduced to those words and those photos because she has no memories of her own of that night. She is pressured into making the rape allegation itself, and she cannot ‘move on’ with her life because her sense of selfhood has been damaged by the violation of her body. She is expected to be ‘fixed’ by a therapist or find closure in the impending trial, but Emma experiences severe depression and tries several times to end her own life. For her, there is nothing else.

Emma knows these boys, they were her friends or acquaintances. I think it’s important to note this: most victims know their attacker. Immediately after her attack, Emma engages in sexually promiscuous behaviour as a way to reclaim her own body, but she later worries this will be used against her in the prosecution. The same occurs with other factors, such as her being on illegal substances on the night of the party. While Emma’s case never goes to trial, O’Neill highlights some ridiculous and disgusting aspects of the justice system when it comes to rape convictions.

I’ve already written so much and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I’m sure that’s how Louise O’Neill felt while writing ‘Asking For It’. I was in a state of shaking anger and hot tears for the entire time I read this book. And so we all should be. Because no one is ever asking for it.

Here are two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill, which is how I first heard about her

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