Both on our campus and in the national news, “rape culture” has become a recent buzzword, catapulted into the forefront of our thoughts and conversations. When reading news articles, it’s easy to feel enraged about Donald Trump and “pussygate,” or fume over Brock Turner’s grossly expedited jail sentence and marvel at how anyone might question the integrity of his victim. And while these are unquestionably serious—and awful—examples of the prevalence of rape culture and minimization of sexual assault that pervades our country, they can sometimes distract us from how we conduct ourselves in everyday life. Peel your eyes away from the headlines for a few moments, and it becomes evident just how insidious rape culture is, how it’s not merely possible but also likely that ordinary, well-meaning people will become complicit in perpetuating a society that’s hostile to survivors of assault, and to women in general.
This notion—the silent ubiquity of rape culture in our everyday thoughts and actions—is exactly the topic explored by Louise O’Neill in her recent novel Asking for It. At the novel’s start, we’re introduced to Emma O’Donovan, a high-school aged girl living in the small town of Balinatoom, Ireland. By all accounts, Emma is your stereotypical mean girl: intelligent, attractive, popular, and primarily concerned with maintaining her image as the most desirable girl in school. Emma and her best friends Ali, Maggie, and Jamie dominate the social scene, and are lauded and admired as only the popular clique can be – though Emma is quick to remind you that she’s the most laudable and the most beautiful of them all. In short, they have it made, high school wise: They’re young, beautiful, and sought after. What more could they want?
But things aren’t as rosy as they seem. In an interesting, stream-of-consciousness-style narrative, readers are given access to Emma’s thoughts, both those she chooses to share, and those she endeavors to repress. From her subconscious musings, we’re aware that Emma subsists on the approval of others. Much like the evil queen from Snow White, Emma’s self-concept relies on the glowing reflection projected back at her from the outside world, and her self-worth stems from male approval and female envy. One of Emma’s friends resents her deeply for garnering the affection of a boy she herself has long harbored feelings for. A second friend continues to face profound psychological and social backlash from an assault that occurred at a party the year before—an assault that Emma encouraged her to “forget about,” for the sake of their continued popularity.
Matters come to a head when Emma, having blacked out at a party, awakens to discover that she has been assaulted, and that pictures and videos of the assault have begun to circulate on a Facebook page under the headline “Easy Emma.” We follow Emma as she decides to press charges against her attackers, as international news outlets pick up her case, as many in her small community turn against her, and as she spirals into a crippling depression from the physical, mental, and emotional devastation of the assault. We observe Emma’s family unraveling, see her withdraw from her friends and loved ones as she’s berated again and again with lewd comments and hostile threats from people who consider her a liar and a dirty slut. And in the end we see rape culture triumph over the victim as Emma decides that the fight for justice is no longer worth the pain and exhaustion.
What makes O’Neill’s work so chilling and so poignant is that Emma exists inside all of us, an analogy for cultural norms that we tacitly allow and even unknowingly embrace. In a rather Brechtian maneuver, O’Neill highlights harmful attitudes that ordinarily might not get a second thought: women exist to please men; you’re a tease if you flirt but don’t give him any; even if you didn’t really say yes he’s cute and popular so you should be happy about it. But when presented outright, so firmly entrenched into the mind of an ordinary teenage girl, they are shocking, disheartening, and downright frightening. Alienating the reader in this way allows for a level of meta-cognition for the rest of the novel. As you read through the aftermath of Emma’s assault, and wonder how in the world her classmates, the members of her church, and even her parents could subscribe to the harmful norms that blame her for being too promiscuous, for drinking too much, for wearing too little, you simultaneously know, because you already saw Emma espouse the same exact sentiments before becoming their target.
O’Neill further does an exceptional job of highlighting the disparity between responses in international media, and the reality of a survivor’s day to day struggle. For every XoJane and Jezebel article, for every message of solidarity, comes a dirty look from someone at the local market, or an email with instructions on how she might suffocate herself. And in the media outcry surrounding her case Emma loses her identity, reduced to “Balinatoom Girl.” While it’s clearly important and appropriate to protect the identity of an assault victim, the juxtaposition between the public and private personas are stark. “Balinatoom Girl” is the symbol of a generation combatting rape culture, a figure for victims of assault and proponents of women’s equality to rally behind. By contrast, the real Emma, who lies at home watching news stories argue about Balinatoom girl’s integrity, is broken and afraid, a stranger in her own body.
I can’t say it more simply than this: everyone, and I mean everyone, should read this book. Rarely have I encountered a piece of literature so scarily accurate and illuminating that reading it, you might almost think it borders on absurd. As I finished the last paragraph, sitting bolt upright in my bed at three in the morning (because I told myself at midnight that I’d read a few pages before bed, and then subsequently couldn’t put it down), I found myself questioning everything I knew to be true. I consider myself a strong advocate for women’s rights, but didn’t I also cast a sideways glance at that girl next to me at last weekend’s mixer wearing the body con skirt and top cut down to her navel? My male friends are respectful and strong allies of women’s rights, but can I predict what they discuss behind closed doors? Do they talk about my friends and I as pieces of ass? If I were assaulted, would anyone believe me? Would I be able to believe myself?
Especially in today’s world, it’s imperative that we introspect about how our unconscious biases might fuel rape culture. For a stark wake-up call, I could not recommend Asking for It by Louise O’Neill more.