While it may seem like a melodramatic teen read, Asking for It addresses a topic that’s as important as ever: sexual assault. Frankly, this is the kind of novel that should be required reading for teens, not heavy classics like Dickens. In an age of social media attacks on young women, where dubious consent is the root of far too many sexual assaults, boys and girls could use a novel like this to help guide them through their young relationships and open up a healthy dialogue about sexual assault once and for all.
In her second novel, Louise O’Neill turns YA fiction on its head. Instead of focussing on an emotionally turbulent teen trying to navigate her way through their angsty youth, she gives us Emma, a thoroughly unlikable protagonist who is vain and vacuous, and treats those who care about her most like dirt. Emma is well aware of the effect she has on people, and relishes in her popularity and ability to bewitch all boys with her looks – and this part of her character is what makes the story work so well.
The last thing we need is more stories about rape that victimizes sweet, perfect, modest teen girls who do everything right and yet still find themselves attacked by a stranger on the street. Such a narrative risks desensitizing us to the reality of sexual assault by 1) making rapists a caricature, the ever evil villain in the shadows, and 2) brushing over the grey area, giving us no doubt as to what role she played in her own attack. I suspect O’Neill knows this, and thus made an intentional choice in writing Emma so easy to despise, and in making her attackers not evil strangers but Emma’s own friends. In this way, O’Neill highlights a core fact of sexual assault that too often goes ignored: regardless of the circumstances, rape is NEVER the victim’s fault. No matter how unsympathetic the victim, how drunk she was, what she was wearing or any other excuse you can think of – it is not her fault. Sadly Emma, like most victims of sexual assault, struggles to see it that way, and the second half of the novel sees her spiraling down, never receiving a glimmer of hope or justice. Bleak yes, but all too real, and therefore an important story for us all.
By making her protagonist drunk, a flirt, and having already slept with someone else that night, O’Neill forces us to confront our prejudices and shows the ease with which we garner support for a good victim living a quiet and pure life rather than an off-her-face party girl.
It is dangerous to think of female rape victims as good girls and bad girls, those chaste and those sexually promiscuous, those who didn’t deserve it, and those who maybe did. This is why Emma’s rape is so hard to be taken seriously by her family and friends, and was a particularly unpleasant part of the story for me. In the same way, I was struck by Emma’s previous dismissal of her friend Jamie, who confides in her about her own rape. Emma denied her the very support she would later crave in her own ordeal.We can be so quick to question such claims when they come from others, and yet when we put ourselves in their shoes we see the burden of forcing victims to prove their reliability and innocence. Asking For It shows how this public assassination of character, the dissection of the victim’s entire sexual history and of course, the disturbingly low prosecutions rates for rapists can deter victims from coming forward altogether.
For this reason, the ending of the novel rings truer than ever. We don’t get an uplifting third act. We never see justice being served and Emma picking up the pieces of her life and moving on. She is still lying in fragments while her friends and attackers move on without her, completely discouraged and disillusioned, replaying that night over in her head thinking “what if I had done something different….” It is heart-breaking, as O’Neill notes herself in the afterward, but anything else wouldn’t seem real. That is the skill of a good writer, I think – to resist the temptation to give your character the story you want to have, and instead sticking to the more believable world within the narrative. I’m sure for many readers this will serve as a wake-up call – a grim reminder that something needs to change if we want to help the Emmas in the world.
It’s an engaging read, a quick one and frankly, a rather pessimistic one. But for all these reasons, it is an important novel and one I would recommend to anyone.