Why Everyone Should Read Louise O’ Neill’s Novel ‘Asking For It’

So just why should everyone read Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It? Edel Carmondy lays it straight.

“She was asking for it”.

“Did you see what she was wearing?”.

“Didn’t you know she’s a slut ?”.

“Her own fault for getting drunk”.

These are the kind of statements that are still frequently hurled at rape victims . These are the kind of things that Emma, the 18-year-old protagonist of Louise O’Neill’s harrowing and thought-provoking novel  Asking For It, heard in the aftermath of her brutal gang rape. It has been said O’Neill writes with a scalpel and in her sophomore novel she takes an unflinching look at rape and it’s aftermath.

Emma is beautiful, intelligent, envied and popular. She’s the ultimate mean girl of her school. She drinks, she takes drugs, she dresses scantily and she sleeps around. So when she is raped by her town’s golden boys and graphic photos of her attack are plastered all over Facebook, nobody cares. She had consensual sex with one of her rapists at a party earlier and she was intoxicated. She’s labelled a slut, she was ‘asking for it’. The burden of blame is placed on her, not her rapists. She and her family are shunned by their tight-knit community. Everybody from the local Gardaí to the parish priest to her supposed friends abandon her. Every character is in some way complicit in Emma’s attack. The novel’s women, as well as the men, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, support rape culture. By making rape jokes, by staying silent, by judging a victim based on their sexual history and how they dress and how much they drink, they all in some way allow Emma to suffer and her rapists not be held accountable.

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Cork born O’Neill has launched a crucial and frank dialogue when it comes to rape culture and victim blaming, particularly in Ireland. Ireland, not known for its progressiveness, only criminalized marital rape in 1990 and has an extremely low rate of convictions.Victim blaming is a cruel reality in modern Ireland. According to a survey published in the Irish Examiner, a startling 41% of Irish people believe a woman is partially or totally responsible for her rape if she is intoxicated. 37% believe she is responsible if she flirts with a man and  26% if she is dressed revealingly.

Asking For It is simply a book everybody should read, regardless of gender or sexuality. Cat-calling, sexual harassment and assault are everyday realities in Ireland. As college students we needn’t look too far to see this, just look around any nightclub on your average Thursday night. This kind of behaviour is worryingly just brushed off as something women are used to. Something that is considered inevitable and nearly expected. This kind of behaviour feeds a toxic culture which allows assault to go unchecked.

Asking For It challenges a reader’s perceptions on rape. The belief that rape is something that is committed only by hooded strangers who leap out of bushes is a common one, despite research that shows a rapist is more likely to be known to a victim. The idea of consent is murky to many people, a person who is inebriated can’t consent but worryingly this still isn’t an accepted fact by many people. Asking For It is unblinking in its portrayal of Emma’s ordeal, it is a novel that makes you angry. Angry over what transpired, angry over how she was treated and angry over the fact it is sadly all too true to life. 

Asking For It raises important issues, particularly for college students. Over the past few years sexual assault within UCC has become a topical issue. Our university doesn’t offer mandatory consent classes, unlike some campuses in the UK and in the USA, A study last spring, which was conducted by Know Offence, showed that 15% of UCC students reported “non–consensual” sexual experiences. While over one–third of students surveyed experienced  “unwanted physical contact” in a university setting. The study also found that a frightening 82% do not know which university authorities they should report a sexual offence to.

Recently, UCC’s Motley magazine published a survey that showed 68.84 % of students feel that UCC has a prevalent lad culture, 68.31 % support mandatory consent classes and 70.68 % believe more education regarding consent is needed. Thankfully much needed dialogue about consent has been opened up on campus, UCC’s Feminist Society, Know Offence and various student publications have all taken a stand. But individuals need to educate themselves on consent.

We live in a society that teaches don’t get raped, opposed to teaching don’t rape. This damaging culture allows lazy and unfounded generalisations, myths and stigma to surround rape and its victims, Rape culture damages everyone, indiscriminate of gender. Rape culture, double standards, lad culture, slut shaming and victim blaming to some may seem like buzz worthy phrases made up by angry internet feminists but they’re not. They are very real and very harsh everyday realities of our society.

The question was Emma really ‘asking for it ‘ is predominant throughout the novel but the real question is why does our society hold a victim responsible for the actions of a criminal. Everybody should read Asking For It.

Rape and consent concern us all and we all need to take a long look at our perceptions of the subject.

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