Not since the Suffragettes calling for Votes for Women and the second wave of feminism in the 1960s has there been such a focus on women’s issues. Aside from the remaining pay discrepancies faced by women in many industries, the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and the remaining casual sexism experienced by many day in day out, one of the most pertinent and enduring issues is the subject of sexual consent. Dealt with in excruciating detail in Louise O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It technically belongs in the Young Adult genre but is an important, angry commentary that should be part of anyone’s reading list who has an interest in social and ethical issues and more importantly on the list of those who still subscribe to a victim blaming mind set.
Emma O’Donavan is eighteen, pretty and smart. She hangs with her friends, eyes up boys and revels in the attention her carefully construed nonchalance affords her. A typical teenage rivalry with the other pretty, smart girl in her group is offset by her dismissal of another, a girl she both envies and is repulsed by. Ali’s parent’s wealth puts her in the popular group but her needy nature and plain looks demote her in the pecking order. The teenagers are in that awkward position where they’re old enough to drink, to vote, to make decisions that will potentially decide the fates of their professional lives, and thus think they’re mature enough to drink and take drugs to excess, and make responsible decisions concerning their sexual health.
Of course it does an injustice to teens to say that they’re the only ones to bitch about and bully their friends, drink and take drugs to excess and make irresponsible decisions. Emma’s life comes totally undone in one night, and while in the aftermath her friends and peers freely ostracise and demonise her so too do many of the adults in her small town and later nationally. Her mother takes to hiding the growing number of empty wine bottles clinking in the recycling bin from her father and it’s a 28 year old GAA star who gives Emma a party drug, which she willingly takes.
The recent case in America that the novel is based on the widespread international outrage that ensued when it was revealed that the outpouring of support in the case went overwhelmingly to the perpretrators of a gang rape – popular football players with college scholarship sponsored careers ahead of them – rather than the victim of the crime, who was blamed for ruining the lives of these promising young men. She was, you guessed it, asking for it by dressing revealingly and getting drunk. A lot of the defences of the rapists are the same in the book; that the victim had been flirting outrageously all night, had had consensual sex with a man who already had a girlfriend, had drunk to excess and had taken drugs. These are all seen as legitimate excuses for the boys and men who commit the crime.
Pictures emerge on Facebook the next day, graphic images of Emma obviously passed out on a bed while she is surrounded by four men either gleefully defiling her by vomiting on her face or posing next to her, or commiting sex acts on her. It takes a teacher on a chance viewing to tell Emma that it looks non-consensual, that she is clearly unconscious and that this is a blatant case of assault. It seemed utterly astonishing to me that Emma’s friends, the other girls in school, even her brother would upon seeing the umpteen images jump to the conclusion that she was a willing participant in the photoshoot and that they thought she was a ‘slut’, ‘whore’ ‘skank’, just like those hundreds of strangers and those known to her who comment on the pictures, deriding and humiliating her. But in a culture where a woman can’t walk down the street without being given the ‘compliment’ of a leery hello or a whistle, then to be called a bitch if she ignores it, maybe it’s not so hard to believe. Too many rapes and assaults still go unreported, largely due to the shame and guilt felt by, even inflicted on, the victim.
Asking For It is not subtle. It demands attention. It doesn’t hold back. And that’s why it should be given to every teenager in the country, their parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and it should be discussed amongst them all in an open, understanding and honest debate. There are things parents and guardians don’t want to face up to about their adolescent children, especially in this age of technology that their offspring understand far better than they ever can, but intentional ignorance is not going to stop them growing up in this dangerous world or help to change the attitudes of the next generation.
- Aoife B. Burke