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Book Review: Asking for It, by Louise O’Neill

“It’s happened to loads of people. It happens all the time. You wake up the next morning, and you regret it or you don’t remember what happened exactly, but it’s easier not to make a fuss–” says Emma O’Donovan, a small-town Irish teen, to one of her friends who’s struggling with the memory and aftermath of a drunken sexual assault by a teenage boy in their social circle.

Foreshadowing alert! Behold, a basket full of teachable moments courtesy of a YA novel. Whoa, no way–not entertaining, you say.

Still happening, I say. Ewww, too hard to read, you say. No wonder rape culture thrives like a weed.

Let’s call Asking for It, by Irish author Louise O’Neill, edutainment and get on with it, shall we, lads? I was reminded of Asking for It when I came across a list of “six YA books that are great for adults” and, even though the recommended titles were all fine works, I found the list lacking in relevance for adult readers. Sure, you cried (You didn’t?

Monster!) when you read The Fault in Our Stars, but did you learn anything; think differently; behave in a new way after you read it? I, for one, already knew that cancer sucks rocks. Have greater efforts been made to cure cancer since Fault was published?

Doubt it. Cancer is pretty much beyond our control. Rape culture, on the other hand. . . .

Still, Fault is a wonderful book if you’re one of the ten remaining literate humans who haven’t read it. Impress me, though, and pick up Asking for It. After all, it does seem advantageous for adults to dig in to a YA novel exploring sexual assault and sex-shaming, given that far too many self-styled pussy-grabbing, NDA-hawking dinosaurs are still roaming the Earth.

Not to mention the fact that 53% of the 62.9 million Americans who voted for the current POTUS were white women, some of whom no doubt have or will birth and rear a pussy-grabber. #we’vegotalongwaytogo,baby Asking for It is a gut-punch of story about the devastating effects of teen rape and public shaming told through the awful experience of Emma O’Donovan, a saucy and good-looking eighteen-year-old ready to launch into adulthood, meaning: she looks like an adult, is vaguely familiar with her sexual power, and has no idea what she doesn’t know. Her life is changed forever by being gang raped at a high school party.

It’s not feel-good lit–we’re here to learn, people, remember? The book is hard, essential reading for parents of preteens, yes, probably best to consume this information before poopsie-cue (who is lovely and destined for great things as a result of the exceptional job you’re doing with him/her) goes off to high school and figures out that he/she knows everything and you know nothing. Get this done before you’re branded as square, with four corners (or however they’re saying it these days).

You know, like the HPV vaccine: you need it years before you have sex in order for it to work. I once argued unsuccessfully for hours with a parent of a thirteen-year-old girl, who’d already been caught kissing a boy, that getting the vaccine doesn’t give your offspring permission to have sex before he or she is ready. This mother couldn’t wrap her head around that idea and even sort-of joked that she wasn’t going to permit her daughter to go away for college.

Ooof, see ya around the university health center, hon. Similarly, talking about rape culture, binge drinking, and (gulp) oral sex parties with a preteen is undeniably difficult to initiate when you’re still trying to accept that the puberty monster will soon be moving in with your child. O’Neill’s novel allows parents and educators to delve into these topics by referencing Emma’s trajectory.

Emma and her crew fluff themselves up for a house party one night while the parents are out of town, but even before anyone can meet cute, alcohol, hormones, and kids playing at adulthood whip up into a devastating storm, and Emma goes from flirting to zonked-out to getting raped The Accused-style in a bedroom. She wakes up in a heap on her doorstep the next morning, bleeding and disoriented, with details of the party blotchy at best. “Girls are all the same,” one of the rapists says at one point, rolling his eyes. “Get wasted and get a bit slutty, then in the morning try and pretend it never happened because you regret it.” Photos of Emma’s sexual assault are posted to a fake Facebook page and there seems to be no forgetting or moving on from the horror.

Commence the shunning, online cruelty, and depression. I realize I was once one of these snarky beasts, but dayem, how much more menacing are teenagers when they have access to social media? In my day . . . well, you get it.

O’Neill’s characters–both teens and adults–are well drawn and the storyline is believable from start to finish–not an allegory that requires us to suspend our sense of what’s possible in today’s reality in order to make her point. You can place yourself in this novel. Emma isn’t the smartest, kindest, or most ambition young lady in town–“I have to smile and be nice and look like I care about other people’s problems or else I’ll get called a bitch.

People don’t understand how tiring it is to have to put on this performance all day,” she laments–which adds an instructive wrinkle to what happens to her. She’s got a jiggle in her wiggle and she knows it and doesn’t yet grasp that there’s no socially acceptable way for a woman to spend that type of currency. The female characters rib and shame each other for things such as being attracted to a boy or dressing in an unconventional way or even the suggestion that one of them might have masturbated.

And the boys are afforded everything when their future looks bright. Emma’s brother is allowed to hang a poster of a big-bosomed woman in her underwear in his room and he is also permitted to label is sister “slutty” for wearing a low-cut mini-dress. (strike one) What, you got drunk while wearing said mini-dress? (strike two) Now you want to hold a male who plays on a sports team accountable for non-consensual sex? (good luck) The way the town and the school population values Emma’s soccer star assailant in high regard is disgusting and utterly believable. Another perp is boy who lost a sibling, and another has been accepted to arts school–all redeemable figures given the aforementioned mini-dress and drunkenness.

The pressure for Emma to just get over what happened or doubt what happened, or even con her into thinking she asked for it are starkly realistic, relatable even. That’s why Asking for It is, perhaps, best read by parents of young men, because it’s clear we need more and better training beyond “no means no.” Amy Schumer’s Friday Night Lights reimagining comes to mind: “clear eyes, full hearts, don’t rape.” Got that, fellas? *Full disclosure: I Americanized the text of this novel as a work-for-hire freelancer for the publisher, Quercus US.

I did not have author contact and have no stake in the sales of the book.

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