In Asking For It, the main character’s flaw is her arrogant over-confidence in her own appearance. It’s very clever of Louise to use vanity as Emma’s flaw as it’s a trait that everybody can relate to. We have all been secretly pleased that the person stood next to us in a photograph looks bad or been smug when our profile picture got more likes than a friend’s because it makes us feel better about ourselves in a way that is so selfish we’d never say it aloud. That’s why it’s so easy to immediately dislike Emma because when we read her thoughts, they remind us of the nasty side of ourselves – the side that we like to pretend doesn’t exist.
In this story, it’s particularly important that the reader hates Emma because we need to feel that she would deserve anything bad that might happen to her, before it actually does. It’s the contrast between intensely hating Emma and then suddenly feeling deeply saddened and completely enraged by what’s happened to her that makes this book so powerful. From the first word Louise has our emotions on puppet strings and is able to provoke such intense feelings page after page. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt as angry at a book as I did when reading Asking For It and the distinct lack of a reasonable voice of authority creates such a difficult read.
I think that it was right for this book to be set in a real world as opposed to a fictional or dystopian setting as there is no denying the truth that sexual violence and sexual abuse are still not taken seriously. We may like to believe that we live in a society that supports victims, that helps them rebuild their lives, and that brings justice to those who have been hurt but so often that just isn’t the case.
Emma is the perfect character to tell a story of sexual abuse because she ticks every box on the ‘well, she asked for it’ list. She wears short dresses and short skirts and no underwear when she goes out; she gets drunk on vodka and wine and shots; she likes to flirt and have sex and kiss lots of people; and she loves being the centre of attention. It’s so disturbing that we live in a world where any of these characteristics are considered more to blame than the rapist, that our society places the responsibility of consensual sex on a drunk person instead of on the rapist. This book makes the twisted views that society holds so blatantly obvious that there is no option but to realise that we’re wrong.
Every single day women and men are sexually abused but stay quiet out of fear. They stay quiet because they are too embarrassed to admit what happened or because they feel that they’re to blame. If you’re punched, you have physical bruises that you can take to the doctor. No-one asks if you’re telling the truth about having been punched because no-one would believe that it’s something you wanted.
But when it’s sex it’s treated differently because you’re supposed to enjoy it, you’re supposed to want it to happen and the fact that you didn’t says something bad about you, as if it’s your fault for not wanting it. Still there is a feeling that rape is only rape when it’s forceful sex but of course, that’s not true. Sex becomes rape when a person does not provide consent either by saying ‘no’ or by not having the ability to say ‘yes’; minors cannot give consent, drunk people cannot give consent, people under the influence of drugs cannot give consent.
Rape and sexual abuse happen all the time without people realising that it’s occurred and I’m so grateful that Louise has brought the issue to the attention of YA readers. Many of those who will read Asking For It will be of an age where they’re being educated on how to protect themselves against rape when they’re out with their friends and it’s so desperately sad that that’s the case. I hope that Asking For It will open people’s eyes to the hideous truth so that we can change our attitudes towards victims by teaching people that no matter what a person wears or how they act, it’s not the victim’s fault for being raped.
Louise has told Emma’s story with such clear conviction that everybody who reads Asking For It will take something positive from it. This is a disturbing and harrowing read but it’s a book that I was unable to look away from; I couldn’t stop reading this and devoured it in less than a day. Yes, the subject matter is difficult in many places but it’s nothing that doesn’t happen to real people every single day. Victims of rape and sexual abuse deserve for us to read their truths so that we can improve our own behaviour and protect people from it happening in the future. Louise O’Neill has once again written something that is bold and brilliant, and that will make a real difference.
Asking For It will be published by Quercus on Thursday 3rd September.