Asking For It was one of those books that sat on my shelf for many years because I needed to ~feel right~ to read it. It all sounds a bit woo woo, but I do believe books come into our lives at the right time. Somehow I just knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a book which I knew would be difficult.
It is indeed brutal. O’Neill’s prose is razor sharp and Emma’s story cuts deep. Emma is 18. She’s pretty and popular. She’s not a ‘likeable’ character. She’s bitchy to her friends, she uses her good looks to influence people, and judges others on their appearance.
This all changes when photos of Emma, unconscious and being assaulted, are posted on Facebook by a group of boys after a party. Emma had consensual sex with one of the boys, she agreed to drink and take drugs. Soon the whole village has an opinion about whether she was “asking for it”.
The novel highlights the complex emotions around sexual assault, for victims and society in general. O’Neill said she hopes readers feel “furious” by the end of the book. I certainly did feel white-hot anger boiling inside me as I read this.
I felt rage over our low reporting rates, dismal conviction rates, and disgusting outdated attitudes. Most of all I was furious with myself because it reminded me of the internalised sexism I perpetuated for too long.
Slut-shaming and internalised misogyny
We never meant to hurt anyone. All we were doing was whispering to each other; about how short her skirt was, how low that top was, what people would think of her slutty outfit. I’m so ashamed I ever talked like this, but it was usual among my group of friends.
Even my parents would say things about girls showing too much skin or not looking after themselves on nights off. They didn’t even realise they were teaching me to see some women as deserving of assault, to save my compassion for the people who weren’t asking for it.
As I learned more about feminism and formed my own political views, I slowly dismantled my internalised misogyny. I vowed to never call another woman a slut, or any of the other slurs leveled at women on the basis of their sexual history. I stopped believing in the toxic messages I’d been fed about women, about gender, about our place in the world.
Bustle explains internalised misogyny as a byproduct of a patriarchal society where women are seen as inferior. Basically, women end up shaming and undervaluing themselves and other women because of the patriarchal precedent they’ve grown up with. This Buzzfeed article sums up some of the most common ways we play into these beliefs.
Slut-shaming is the most cruel way our internalised misogyny manifests itself. Surely I’m not alone in having falling into that trap of shaming other women? Of shaming myself?
One of Emma’s most repelling characteristics in Asking For It is her internalised misogyny. When a friend confides that a sexual encounter with another boy wasn’t consensual, Emma tells her it would be easier not to make a fuss, to pretend it never happened. Perhaps I found it so hard to read because it wasn’t too far away from what I could have said as a teenager.
Ashley Nkadi writes beautifully on Afropunk about internalised misogyny, explaining that we must dismantle these beliefs if we are to become true feminists. “When you come across another woman, support her,” she writes. “Do not force respectability politics on other her. Do not police her clothing choices. Do not criticize her size, sexuality, beauty, intelligence, or worth. Because a reflection can only bend so much before it breaks.”
The myth of the perfect victim
Emma’s abrasive character is one of the reasons Asking For It is such a challenging read. It confronts the myth of a perfect rape victim head on.
The idea of a ‘perfect victim’ is one Bri Lee explores in Eggshell Skull, a phenomenal condemnation of the legal system’s response to victims of sexual abuse. In this she explains the way juries would react to certain victims, and how that could predict the trial outcome. We’ve all seen it discussed on social media, haven’t we? She was so drunk. She was coming onto him all night. What did she expect going out dressed like that? *insert eyeroll emoji*
This myth reinforces the victim blaming associated with rape and sexual assault reports. It suggests there are things the victim could have done differently to change the outcome be it wearing a longer skirt, or not accepting that spiked drink. Ultimately, it removes blame from the perpetrator. It’s ridiculous and yet it continues to persist, like the idea that good looks equal good character.
As Shahida Arabi writes in a powerful piece for Thought Catalogue, the myth of the perfect victim is damaging and deeply ingrained. It’s slowly be unravelled by #metoo, but for every person brave enough to finally share their story there are others questioning its validity. That has to stop.
In Asking For It, this trope is shattered. In an interview with The Journal, O’Neill says she wants “to make the reader almost complicit” in Emma’s shaming because of her actions prior to the rape. She wants readers “to have that frightening moment of realising you are blaming her as well”.
The Slane Girl and why women can’t make mistakes
Although Asking For It is fictional, O’Neill based it on several real incidents. The book was published in 2015, prior to the #metoo movement. I do wonder how much of the story would change were it published now, since it does feel like #metoo has made substantial gains in the response to victims.
One of the key incidents the book was based on was that of the so-called ‘Slane Girl’. In 2013, photos circulated from an Eminem gig at Slane Castle outside Dublin showing a 17-year-old girl giving a blow job.
Within days the photo had gone viral and #slanegirl was trending on Twitter. Some websites published the girl’s full name, but the boy remained anonymous.
The parallels with Emma’s story in Asking For It are obvious. She becomes a national talking point, simultaneously an example of everything that’s wrong with modern girls and with the culture of slut-shaming. Emma becomes reclusive, unable to deal with the viral and at many times vitriolic response.
This behaviour isn’t isolated to Ireland and it hasn’t been stopped by #metoo. Last year, Australian politician Emma Husar announced she would quit politics after being viciously slut-shamed.
Writer Julia Baird condemns the culture around Husar’s slut-shaming in The New York Times, writing that weaponising a woman’s sexuality was “an ancient practice” in Australia.
“We witness prominent men cheat on their wives or girlfriends, or otherwise make evident that they are sexual beings, without such revelations leading to convulsions. Women who do the same, however, are still pilloried: sluts, whores, tarts, strumpets, harlots, trollops,” Baird writes.
Another Australian politician, Sarah Hanson-Young, took her abuser to court and shone a spotlight on slut-shaming in (what should be) a professional environment. In Hanson-Young’s case, she was told by another politician during a parliamentary debate to “stop shagging men”. Ironically, the slur happened as Hanson-Young spoke about how to stop violence against women. Hanson-Young is pursuing a defamation claim which is expected to play out in court in April.
In Australia, Baird notes, “the potency of slut shaming stems from its enduring nature”. Prominent men, like our former deputy Prime Minister, seem to avoid the lasting stain of cheating scandals and return to work, slapped on the back by the blokes down the pub. But women carry the burden of those slurs through their tattered careers.
Baird explains just how important Hanson-Young’s defamation suit is: “If there are consequences for trying to shut down or shame women on the grounds of sexuality, even if it’s just vehement, broad public disapprobation, the weapon will be blunted.”
Women are not allowed to make the same mistakes as men, I’m sure we all know that already. But nowhere is this more pronounced than sex ‘scandals’ and accusations of promiscuity.
Asking For It ends on an unsatisfying, albeit utterly realistic, note. But as you walk away from Emma’s story it’s hard to imagine she could shake off the images, the slurs, the torrent of virtual abuse the same way those ‘lads’ involved would be able to. I’d like to think this wouldn’t be the case post-#metoo, but sadly I know we’ve still got a long road to travel.