Trigger warning: The following post contains discussion of rape and sexual assault.
Emma O’Donovan is the most beautiful girl in school. And she knows it. Everyone wants to be her friend, or more if they are able. She sees a bright future ahead of her. Then one night there’s a party. There are drugs and alcohol. When Emma wakes up the next day, dumped on her porch without her underwear, she finds she can’t remember a thing from the night before. It isn’t until school on Monday that she learns of the horrifying truth. She was raped by four boys, and the whole night has been broadcast to everyone she knows through the deeply disturbing photographs her attackers posted on Facebook.
In the months that follow, everywhere she goes, Emma is called a liar and a slut. Local people blame her for ruining the lives of her attackers. Meanwhile, online she is invited to share her story on feminist blogs, and #IBelieveBallinatoomGirl is always trending.
Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, is probably the most important young adult novel to come out in a long time. Louise O’Neill fearlessly tackles the issue of sexual consent, victim-blaming and rape culture.
‘Our society may not appear to support sexual violence, but you don’t need to look very far past the surface to see how we trivialise rape and sexual assault. Sexual assault (from unwanted touching to rape) is so common that we almost see it as an inevitability for women. We teach our girls how not to get raped with a sense of doom, a sense that we are fighting a losing battle.’ – Louise O’Neill.
Emma is not a likeable girl. She is, however, a product of a society in which we tell girls that their sexuality is their only currency. Emma’s thoughts are consumed with her own attractiveness. She constantly compares her own physical appearance to that of her friends. But it’s what she has been taught to do by every single person who has ever told her that she’s beautiful with the implication that’s all she ever need be. Which is pretty much everyone in her life, by the way. Creating Emma as this vain and arrogant person only served to increase the intense sense of disconnection with her body she experienced after her rape. We see Emma transformed from someone wanting to be the centre of attention to a girl who can’t leave the house, who sees her body only as a thing to which her darkest experience occurred. Before the rape she spent endless time caring for her body, smoothing creams over her skin to moisturise it and protect it from the sun, afterwards, she doesn’t even shower because she can’t bear to see herself naked. Her body is a vessel that carries her sadness from room to room, but it is not her own anymore.
The victim blaming that Emma suffers made me want to start tearing my hair out, I was so angry. Not only local people, but journalists and television presenters, couldn’t wait to tell everyone that Emma’s attack was her own fault because of the way that she was dressed, because she was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, because she had a promiscuous reputation anyway. All these awful words only confirmed to Emma what her mind would not stop telling her: It was her own fault.
To be clear: a short dress is not a justification for rape. A girl being under the influence is not a justification for rape. The responsibility for rape lies with the attacker, not the victim. I don’t understand why our society makes something so simple seem so complicated. Emma is clearly unconscious in the photos circulated online and yet her town seems immune to the implications of this fact, namely that there was no consent. And sex without consent is rape.
Louise O’Neill examines in excruciating detail the experience of a rape victim. The endless wait for the legal battle to even reach court and the knowledge that even if it does, in Ireland at least, the conviction rate for rape is 1%. She takes us through the horror of having to see your attackers when you attempt to simply go to the shop, and the endless torture via social media. She shows how a world can shrink to nothing when you know deep in your heart that even your closest loved ones don’t believe in you, that even they think what happened is your own fault. Reading about Emma was almost physically painful in its reality.
I know educated people of my age who are guilty of victim-blaming. Last year a lecturer at my university was convicted of the sexual assault of a sixteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty. And yet still the prevailing conversation around my university campus – even now – is that the girl shouldn’t have put herself in the position in the first place, she shouldn’t have been drinking and shouldn’t have been alone with him. A lot of people are saying she probably made it up. Even though he has pled guilty and been convicted, the community still absolves him of any responsibility. It’s disgusting.
Read this book. It’ll tear your heart out and leave you hopeless, but it sparks a conversation we desperately need to have.
‘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.’ – Louise O’Neill.