Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Ugh, so many feelings. I’ve consciously been trying to write shorter reviews, but this is not going to be one of those. It will be spoilerific and angry—also, trigger warnings for rape and suicide. If you’re down for all that, buckle up—otherwise, I have literally more than a thousand other reviews you could read right now. Here’s one of the aptly-titled Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which is funny and uplifting. Asking for It is neither of those things.
But it is still amazing.
This was the first book in Hannah Witton, Lucy Moon, and Leena Norms’ Banging Book Club, a monthly club of books about sex and sexuality. Since it isn’t out in Canada until April, I ordered my copy from Book Depository in the UK. While they have free international shipping—so, yay!—it took a month to arrive—so, boo! They have a spoiler-free video up, as well as a spoiler-full podcast. I really enjoyed the podcast discussion; it was frank, and it echoes many of the thoughts I had while/after reading.
I read this book just as the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi is wrapping up. It’s huge news in Canada, and it’s so disheartening how the women who have been brave enough to testify are being dragged through the mud by men and women commentators alike. We continue to view rape and sexual assault as the most circumstantial of crimes and to question and harass people who make these complaints, essentially compounding their trauma. Asking for It is a concentrated dose of this social commentary.
So let’s get into it.
I was confused by Asking for It at first: Louise O’Neill is a fan of in media res, and she dumps you into the middle of Emma O’Donovan’s social life without so much as a by-the-way voiceover introduction. In the first few pages alone we’re strapped into a car filled with teenage girls, and I’m expected to start learning names? And who likes whom? Emma, while not full-on Regina George, is a bit of a Mean Girl, enough that you’re probably not going to find her very likable: she is vain, judgemental, and in some ways very shallow.
This serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it’s a way for O’Neill to comment on how Emma has been raised and socialized: many of the adults in her life encourage her to think of her appearance as her social capital, and throughout the book Emma emphasizes that she acts the way she does because she likes being thought of as attractive and fuckable. She reacts with snide jealousy whenever there is the slightest hint that one of her friends might overshadow her in these areas. Secondly, Emma’s characterization belies the portrayal of rape victims as “good” or “virginal” or “innocent.” Rape victims are people, and people are complex. And especially in the case of hormonal teenagers, people aren’t always very nice. O’Neill likes to make us work to sympathize with Emma at first, because she needs to point out that rape is rape is rape—any where, any time, to anyone.
Emma’s character, of course, becomes a central question in the narrative of the Ballinatoom Girl that erupts after her story becomes common knowledge. It’s telling that her closest “friends” are the first to turn on her when the Facebook pictures surface without Emma’s context (or lack thereof). The idea that Emma’s promiscuity and sexually-active lifestyle is well-known among the teenagers of Ballinatoom becomes an excuse—she was, as the title, suggests, asking for it. It’s so important to dispel this idea, for it is one of the ways in which rape culture keeps its claws sunk deep into our society: consent has to be an ongoing process. The fact that someone consented last week, or last night, or five minutes ago, does not imply consent at that very moment. It doesn’t matter how often Emma has had sex with anyone—no one should assume she’s DTF as a result of her reputation.
The fact that Emma herself seems to labour under this misconception is a heartbreaking but all-too-accurate part of Asking For It. The sex scene with Paul O’Brien is sooooo awkward to read … I was creeped out, almost to the point of ripping pages from the book just to make it go away. And it’s not just the rapey-ness of Paul’s actions or the way he treats her like an object to satisfy his lust … it’s Emma’s stream-of-consciousness reaction to what happens. She confides that she actually prefers the sexual tension that happens before sex—she likes being pursued, tantalizing and teasing men, especially in places like parties where others can see how adored she is. This is how she has been socialized to view herself: her self-worth is so tied up in how others value her body. In contrast, she seems never to have had sex for sex’s sake, and so she views that act in a very utilitarian light.
One of the “best” moments in the book happens just prior to the rape scene: Emma victim-blames someone else. Her “friend” Jamie is freaking out about being around a guy who took advantage of her, and Emma is not having any of it:
“It’s happened to loads of people. It happens all the time. You wake up the next morning, and you regret it or you don’t remember what happened exactly, but it’s easier not to make a fuss—”
“But that’s not how it happened.” She stares up at me. “I told you what happened.”
“But I wasn’t there with you, was I? How do I know what really—”
“But I told you. I didn’t want … I didn’t want to.”
“You didn’t say no.” I crouch down in front of her, my hands on her shoulders. “You told me you didn’t say no.”
“But—” she shrugs my hands off her and looks at me with such despair that my skin crawls—“I didn’t say yes either.”
So, yeah. Emma pretty much throws the title of the book in Jamie’s face (and Ali literally does this to Emma, later). This is a great demonstration of internalized sexism: our society doesn’t just pit men against women but also women against other women. Although there is clearly an irony factor O’Neill is going for here, the scene also establishes that Asking for It is not about rape so much as rape culture.
So then The Scene happens less than twenty pages after that, and I wanted to flip the table.
I love how O’Neill uses repetition to capture the way that Emma tries to shut out her discomfort. She keeps saying things like “I don’t feel well” and “I don’t know.” This is a harrowing experience: O’Neill pulls no punches, with Emma’s internal monologue thinking all the while about how she needs to behave in order to be perceived the right way. It’s staggering: rather than just “oh, he’s hurting me; I don’t want this” she’s focusing on how she doesn’t want to be thought of as a slut but also doesn’t want to come across as a cold bitch.feel lik
See, it would never occur to me that such things would go through someone’s head while having sex (consensual or not). That’s just not something that my experiences and my gender and privilege have led me to consider. So I really appreciate being exposed to these perspectives. I feel like I have a robust understanding of rape culture and consent, but I still learned a lot from Asking for It.
O’Neill kind of faked me out with The Scene, because it isn’t actually the rape that makes the news: that comes afterwards, and Emma can’t remember it. After skipping a year so that she can focus on the fallout of the entire town learning about that night, O’Neill shows us the many ways in which Emma’s suffering is not confined to that one night. This is the deleterious effect that rape culture has on rape victims.
I could go on at even greater length about the second half of the book. I’ll focus on two things: Emma’s own state of mind, and the way her family behaves.
What really got to me about the second half is how Emma is still struggling to process that night and everything that has come afterwards. When she first sees those photos, she slips from “me” to “the girl”, using this as a coping mechanism. Much later, she describes how she is almost obsessed with looking for “worse” cases online—she doesn’t want to feel alone. Yet even though she has filed a complaint and had people side with her, she still feels guilty. She still interprets a lot of behaviour, even behaviour that might be supportive, as furtive accusations against her.
I am fascinated by that—because this is all from Emma’s perspective, we cannot know what people’s intentions are behind the actions she interprets as blaming her. While some are obviously victim-blaming (like Father Michael, the bastard), others are more ambiguous (like Maggie’s behaviour). At one point Emma comments to us that Maggie seems to expect a cookie for trying to comforting or supportive. It’s an interesting observation and a reminder that even when we think we are being supportive of victims, they don’t necessarily see it that way (and they are under no obligation to).
Then there’s Emma’s parents. The whole scene where Emma’s mother is drunk and off-loading on Emma is awkward beyond belief. I’m like, “What are you doing to your daughter right now?” Their palpable relief when Emma announces her intention to withdraw her complaint is disgusting, culminating in her mother’s ultimate betrayal: “They’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand.”
The most screwed up thing is that a year into this, Emma still believes, on some level, that this is all her fault. Bryan, who initially is horrible to Emma and then becomes her greatest champion, says, “I thought this was your fault,” and Emma confides to us, “It was my fault, but I couldn’t bear for Bryan to think that.” It’s not rational, and there are plenty of people reassuring her that she is not to blame, just like we’re told to do. But you know what? It hasn’t helped.
And I am so angry that people made Emma into this broken person, and I am so angry that our society is such that and people grow up thinking any of this is normal. Because those boys who perpetrated Emma’s rape are victims too—not in the same way as Emma, not on the same level! But they were socialized to act the way they did. Rather than “boys will be boys” bullshit, it’s a case of “patriarchy will make boys be rapists”: women deserve not to be raped, and men deserve not to be raised in a way that tarnishes their respect for women. Patriarchy and rape culture hurts us all.
I want to conclude by offering my thoughts as an educator. Having never been an eighteen-year-old girl, and with sex never really a big part of my high school experience, I can sympathize but not identify with Emma and her group of friends. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that I identified instead with Ms McCarthy, the teacher who notices some other students looking at the photos of Emma on Facebook and sets the legal wheels turning that blow this whole thing up in Emma’s face. Thankfully, I have never had to deal with this particular situation. But I’ve sat where Ms McCarthy sat and listened to children talk about sensitive issues; I’ve had to tell them I can’t promise not to tell anyone else what they share, because I am obligated to report. And there are times when I have felt utterly helpless: sometimes the gulf between you and your students is just so inconceivably vast that even when you’re less than a decade older than them, you can’t cross it.
I love that O’Neill manages to portray McCarthy as a human being, not just a representative of authority, even through Emma’s biased eyes (it’s the little details). McCarthy says all the right things, is clearly trying to be supportive, talks about believing Emma and being there for her. She does what I like to think I would do.
And it’s absolutely completely one hundred per cent ineffective and unhelpful.
Just as I’m angered by rape culture’s existence, I’m upset by the inadequate systems in place to help victims. It’s not for lack of trying, as we see in McCarthy’s rigorous adherence to procedure. But if this is the result, then those procedures are failing the people they are meant to help. O’Neill illustrates how powerless we can be: I like to think that, as a teacher, I can be someone my students would want to come to if they were in this position. But I know that no matter how much they might like or respect or feel comfortable around me, they would still see me as an adult who couldn’t possibly understand what they are going through. (And maybe they are right.)
I don’t have answers for these problems. But we need to be talking about them, and we need to find a way to do better. Hence why I love Asking for It. Certainly it’s not unique in its deft handling of rape, rape culture, and victim-blaming. Nevertheless, there are so many great elements at play that elevate it into a masterpiece (yeah, I’ll use the M-word). It captures the moment in time right now where teenagers leverage social media light-years ahead of adults, and the downsides of this activity. It is brutally honest in the way that rape tears down a person, psychologically, and stops them from building themselves back up.
At its core, Asking for It is about consent. It is a cautionary tale about the way we are failing to inculcate the next generation with what it means to consent, with how to ask for it and how to give it. Those boys were not being good boys, and they should not have done all those terrible things to Emma. Yet Emma’s behaviour, the fact that she did not feel comfortable saying “No”, shows that she clearly hasn’t been given the right tools. She’s eighteen, nominally an adult—and we let her down. We need better sex ed, and we need it now.
So I’ll leave you with those thoughts and this link to Laci Green’s video about consent. And I’ll remind you that there is hope, as seen in the case of two Grade 8 girls petitioning to add consent as an enthusiastic “yes” to the Ontario currculum.