Reading Asking For It by Louise O’Neill was like being slapped in the face and then kicked in the chest, repeatedly. From the start, it was not a pleasant read. I was literally so uncomfortable at certain points that I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a few minutes. And the worst part was, while the story is a piece of fiction, it’s terrifyingly realistic. It was easy to imagine that this had really happened. But that’s what makes this book so incredibly powerful. I was so consumed with this harrowing tale that I finished it in one night.
Asking for It follows Emma, a young 18-year-old girl who lives in a small Irish village. She’s beautiful, popular, does well in school, and has countless boys falling at her feet. And like many other “popular” girls, Emma likes to party. But one night, partying gets the best of her, and she wakes up the next afternoon with little recollection of the night before. It isn’t until pictures are plastered all over social media that Emma discovers what happened to her that night. And it isn’t a reality she wants to accept. But when the administration of her school alert the authorities (after discovering her peers viewing the photos on school grounds), Emma finally utters the unspeakable. She was raped.
What follows is a terrifyingly realistic narrative that left me equal parts angry and heart-broken. O’Neill brilliantly depicts the problematic way in which society tends to handle rape cases. Emma’s state of mind and lifestyle choices are called into question, and the boys who assaulted her are quickly given the benefit of the doubt (they’re such “good boys,” after all). Emma must face the scrutiny of her peers, the town, her country, and even the international community, as her entire life becomes a spectacle. Many are quick to blame Emma: she chose to drink that night; she took MDMA; she wore a provocative outfit; and she she’s had sex before. Many are quick to judge Emma and find she was “asking for it.”
And this is where O’Neill’s characterization of Emma truly shines. Because Emma was not written to be likable. She’s often vain and cruel to others á la “Mean Girls.” O’Neill pushes and pushes, testing the reader’s ethical and moral tenacity. It’s easier for society to accept that Emma somehow deserved what happened to her, that she was “asking for it.” But what Emma went through shouldn’t be rationalized into something that can be excused. Rape should never be excused. Emma was the victim of a horrific assault, and O’Neill expertly weaves a narrative that shows the devastation that so often follows. Regardless of the choices Emma made that night, she was never asking for what happened to her. No victim of sexual assault is.
The end of the story, while not what one hopes for, is the unfortunate reality of many victims of sexual assault. Our society has a long way to go before we can expect a happy ending for the Emma’s of this world.
Overall, I commend Louise O’Neill for writing such a brutal, gut-wrenching piece of social commentary. This poignant tale is not one that should be ignored. Definitely a must-read.
5 out of 5 flowers (because I didn’t have any star props to use in the photo)!