“They’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand.”
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is a heart-breakingly realistic story about a very tough subject matter. Everyone should read it – and I’m going to tell you why.
It’s about eighteen year old Emma O’Donovan, who is your typical Mean Girl. She’s popular, manipulative and capital-B Beautiful. Because of this, she needs to be the centre of attention all the times, especially when it comes to boys. One night at a party, she gets sexually assulted by a group of boys from her school, and her whole life changes forever. It gets around the whole school, the whole town, the whole of Ireland (where this novel is set), even around the world. Suddenly, her friends don’t want to talk to her, her parents can’t even look at her, and everywhere Emma turns, she’s hearing that she was ‘asking for it.’
Not exactly an easy read, but a very important story nonetheless.
Not many authors will write books about rape culture, nevermind the many intersections that falls into it. I commend O’Neill for pulling out all the punches and showing us the harsh realities of victim blaming, slut shaming, consent, bullying, peer pressure, and harassment. Stuff like this is difficult to write/read/talk about, but O’Neill doesn’t coddle the reader, she doesn’t hold our hand and gently guide us through. We are thrown into Emma’s reality with full force, and shown the uncomfortable and disturbing truths of her life whether we’re ready to face them or not.
Another thing I admire O’Neill for doing is writing a main character who isn’t very likeable. It’s very brave, because as a reader you usually want to connect with the protagonist some way, and that usually involves liking them. But I really think that if Emma had been a likable, lovely, goody-goody character, the impact of this story would not have felt as strong in the slightest. I like that Emma is a bitch, is known for drinking and sleeping around a bit. Because having a character with ‘questionable’ morals (at least from society’s perspective) really makes you think about what happened to her Throughout reading this book, I often found myself thinking: But why is she doing this? Why is she acting like that? Why is she wearing that? What will people think?
And I felt really sad when I found myself thinking these things, questioning and judging Emma’s actions, because it made me realise just how much our society has influenced us, not matter how much we think we fight it. From basically birth, we are taught to think that people who act a certain way and dress a certain way, should expect bad things to happen to them. And it’s really awful. Using a goody-two-shoes, ‘nice’ character wouldn’t have given the story the impact it needed, because everyone feels bad when something bad happens to a good person. O’Neill cleverly uses an unlikable character to bring the point home: there is no excuse for sexual assault or rape, no matter who you are.
Another thing that I thought O’Neill did particularly well was show how powerful social media can be in today’s generation of school kids, but how it isn’t necessarily always for the good. The photos of Emma looking unresponsive and being taken advantage of circulate all over the school through the medium of Facebook and Snapchat, along with cruel and unsympathetic comments from her peers. And since she doesn’t actually remember the incident herself, these photos have now become her memories.
O’Neill’s writing is very honest and raw, nothing is sugar-coated, but also not made into a big spectacle. It shows the reality of what rape victims go through, whether they behave like Emma or not. Though I never really liked or connected with Emma, the second half of the novel made me hurt for her. It really pained me to see what she was going through, even a year after her attack. I wanted justice for her, I wanted everyone in her town to stop judging her, and instead to scorn the ‘football heroes’ whose lives Emma had apparently ruined. I wanted her parents to stop treating her like a leper. But most of all, I wanted Emma to come to terms with the fact that she WASN’T asking for it. I wanted to her to know that she, and anyone else who’s been abused or rape, doesn’t deserve to be taken advantage of in that disgraceful way.
The Afterword of the book, really reinforces the message of this novel. O’Neill writes: “We need to talk about rape. We need to talk about consent. We need to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming and the double standards we place upon our young men and women. We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of this world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they are believed.”
Asking For It, is not an easy read. But it’s important. And everyone needs to read it, because I can guarantee, you will never be the same again.
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. Not me, I am a liar until I am proven honest.”