Asking For It: A must-read novel about rape culture

Louise O’Neil’s Asking For It hit me harder than any book I’ve ever read. She draws on sexual consent issues and incorporates them into this novel. Even though it’s fictional, it feels very real. 

Set in a community in Ireland, 18-year-old Emma and her friends attend a party one weekend where one of them is raped. Pictures of the event are then posted on Facebook for the world to see. Despite the victim being unconscious in the photos, she finds her family, friends and community asking questions like: How could you do such a thing? Were you asking for it? Why did you have to do that to yourself? 

There begins the infuriating rage that made me want to throw the book out the window. A short dress does not mean she was asking for it. Drinking too much does not mean she was asking for it. Yet those are the conclusions that the characters make, mirroring our society and its tendency to blame the victim.

In the story, the accused are four football players viewed by the town as heroes—so the victim becomes the person tainting the images of the football stars. People in the community make enraging comments such as “boys will be boys” or “they’re good boys really—this all just got out of hand” that tries to excuse their behaviour and make light of their crime. While the boys are innocent until proven guilty, the victim is a liar until proven truthful. 

O’Neil’s writing style allows readers to be inside the victim’s head and experience everything. The reader can hear the victim’s thoughts and feel her emotions to the point where it almost becomes painful to read. Her trauma became my own. 

This isn’t the kind of novel you read with a cup of tea near the fireplace. It isn’t a cozy or feel-good read. I did not enjoy reading it, but it awoke a fire in me and a need to make a change. We need to address this. We need to understand, as a society, what rape culture really is. Instead of teaching girls how to not get raped we need to teach our boys the meaning of consent. 

In an interview on the Late Late Show, O’Neil briefly explained rape culture and the language that revolves around it.

“People get really confused because they say ‘but we don’t live in a society that outwardly promotes rape.’ I think it’s much more subtle and insidious than that.

It’s when you listen to pop songs that tell women ‘we know you want it’ and talking about blurred lines. [...] This culture in which young men are sort of conditioned to believe that they are almost entitled to the female body.” 

O’Neil draws on these subtle messages that are sent to women and men every day and includes them in her novel. The victim is sent these messages and the readers get to experience how this affects her. We are put in the girls’ shoes, which is why the message in the novel is so important. We must be aware of how devastating rape and the aftermath of it is.