Irish author, Louise O’Neill’s controversial second novel Asking For It was eye opening. I read it recently and as a journalism student I found it to be a fantastic and informative read. The fictional story is extremely true to the world we live in today and holds important lessons for young adults growing up in the social media age.
Set in Cork, Asking For It follows the life of 18-year-old student Emma O’Donovan during her summer before sixth year. Emma is the girl everyone loves to hate but secretly wants to be. She is beautiful, confident and strong willed. She has three friends who she is in silent competition with, wanting to be the centre of attention at all times. They all in turn want to please her but are slowly beginning to realise how selfish and disloyal she can really be. The dynamic is an odd one, but one most young women can unfortunately relate to or have experienced at one point in their lives- the ‘bitchy girls’ phenomenon.
The book reaches it’s peak when one night at a house party Emma, who had consumed both alcohol and drugs, becomes the victim of a gang rape perpetrated by some of the communities sporting heroes. Making the event even more controversial is that earlier in the night Emma had engaged in consensual sex with one of the boys. This brings the theme of the book into sharp focus, which is the issue of consent. This issue has been in the public eye a lot in recent weeks with the UCD revenge porn scandal, the sexual consent workshops becoming mandatory in Trinity College and also the recent spree of sexual assaults on young women in Shankill, Dublin. It’s clearly very current.
Sarah Gilmartin from The Irish Times wholeheartedly agrees with this thought stating that “provocation is at once a central theme and a governing force behind the book. This is an important novel that tackles the complex topic of sexual consent fearlessly, at times relentlessly.”
The following day Emma is found on her doorstep surrounded by rubbish, scantily clad and covered in bruises and vomit. Her parents find her and she has no recollection of what has happened to her. Living in the land of online and social media however, things are rarely left unseen. Photographs emerge on Facebook of Emma surrounded by a number of her ‘friends’, the boys responsible for the sexual attack. The photos show her naked, legs splayed, with the boys doing unspeakably degrading things to her. As you might expect, the entire town of Ballinatoom, where the book is set, sees these pictures and an investigation is launched.
Surprisingly, O’Neill shows the devastating effects that this has on Emma. She is almost seen as the girl who cried wolf because her previous behaviour would lead most to believe that she would have lead these boys on. The blame is placed on Emma, as if she was- asking for it. The author’s description of Emma’s character is what makes the lesson in this novel so striking. No matter what kind of person you are, no matter what you are wearing or how you behave towards someone, you do not deserve to have something like this happen to you. You are NEVER asking for it.
The entire community goes against Emma including the Catholic Church and the Gardaí. No-one wants to believe that these boys from respectable families would do such a thing. The traditional Irish attitudes of ‘what would the neighbours think’ can be seen as almost everyone in the town seem to turn their backs on the O’Donovan family, leading Emma’s mother to somewhat of a nervous breakdown. Emma herself spirals into a deep depression and attempts to end her life by suicide twice in the months shortly after the ordeal. This proves that although we are developing a more accepting and understanding attitude in Ireland towards controversial issues, this backward and deafening silence can still be heard at times.
What makes Asking For It so brilliant is the terrifying reality that this could happen to anyone. Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook allow for the accessibility of images instantly and once they go up on the internet they can never be taken down. It seems like such a simple act to upload an image to your personal social media account, but there are dangers attached to it. Other issues that are brought to the fore in the novel are the dangers and prevalence of the alcohol and drugs culture in Ireland, levels of low self-esteem in young women, and mental health awareness.
This book holds many lessons and is a must read for young women and men alike. Louise O’Neill gives the perfect description of what it’s like to be a young woman growing up in Ireland today and the battles that we face. She should be applauded for her accuracy and skill in this, and for being able to relay such a thing through such a shocking yet stunning story.