Not long ago, one of my editors asked me which book I thought every sixteen-year-old should read. I immediately replied:
Asking for It, Kate Harding's feminist analysis of "rape culture" in the U.S. Inflicting a 259-page book upon the nation's youth that, among other things, details some of the most heinous rapes of the past decades may sound sadistic. But I didn't suggest it as a moral lesson to guilt boys into believing their sexy feelings doomed them to a life as future predators, and terrify the girls into changing their behavior, lest they become future victims. Exactly the opposite: As I wrote here last year, dark as Harding's book is, I found it surprisingly uplifting, a "plea for wisdom, moral clarity, love, and cooperation between men and women, and great sex between sane, consenting people of all ages." I now wish to add a second book to that hypothetical curriculum, one that happens to share a title with Harding's: Asking for It, the second novel for young adults by Irish writer Louise O' Neill, released in the United States this month, which depicts a brutal rape closely resembling two American cases that made international headlines: Daisy Coleman (whose name we know because she chose to speak publicly about her own rape), the fourteen-year-old high school cheerleader in Maryville, Missouri, who accused two popular senior athletes of raping her and her thirteen-year-old friend, then dumping her body on her doorstep, where she spent four hours in subzero temperatures. In a similarly notorious case in Steubenville, Ohio, an unconscious girl was dragged from party to party, sexually assaulted and physically desecrated in front of multiple witnesses, then humiliated with photos of her own assault posted on social media. O'Neill's novel, set in Ireland, makes use of details from both American nightmares: her main character, eighteen-year-old Emma Donovan, is raped and then abandoned on her parents' porch, exposed cruelly to the elements (in her case, she gets sunstroke and blisters on a hot day). And as in the Steubenville case, she is ritually humiliated by her friends and classmates when photos of her assault surface on Facebook. Stories ripped from the headlines from Law and Order to true crime often suggest pulp paperback, not serious literature. But this is not that kind of book and O'Neill is not that kind of writer. Like Harding, O'Neill is unabashedly feminist (her first novel, Only Ever Yours, depicted an anti-feminist dystopia closely resembling Margaret Atwoods's Handmaid's Tale). The novel became an instant classic upon its UK release last year: Patrick Sproull of the Guardian called O'Neill "the best YA fiction writer alive today"; Jeannette Winterson said O'Neill "writes with a scalpel"; Only Ever Yours won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. My proposed course, Asking for It 101, might not pass muster with the same school boards that for two decades insisted American teenagers in many states were OK with abstinence-only- based sex education that refused to consider that any teenager, girl or boy, might want to consent to sex until President Obama mercifully issued an executive order to defund these programs, starting in 2017. But it should pass muster. Every sixteen-year-old who reads these two books in tandem would understand how crucial it is for people of any age to cherish their right to decide where and when and how to consent to sex with a person they actually want and when that right to autonomy is violated, to label it the crime that it is. Harding's nonfiction approach provides a rigorous critical, historical, and intellectual foundation to understand rape culture, and the tools to fight back: With her trademark wit, she meticulously dissects and eviscerates the myths and outright lies that enable rapists, and she provides devastating comebacks to anyone who would dare to argue otherwise. But in a work of fiction, O'Neill achieves something that may only be possible in that form: She demands that readers themselves become first- person witnesses to Emma's rape. We know what happened in that room, because we, too, were there. Nonfiction, first-person accounts of rape can, and do exist. But they often come at devastating cost. Both Daisy Coleman and her mother have spoken publicly about her rape, in essays, articles, and a Netflix documentary. Unlike the vast majority of victims, Coleman did report her rape within hours (she went to the hospital so fast her blood alcohol level was still spiked seven hours after her assault). But sexual assault charges against her accuser whose grandfather was a state representative were soon dropped, despite strong forensic evidence. Her mother was fired from her job as a vet within months of the assault, and the family left town. Soon after, their house literally burned to the ground. Sexual assault narratives often follow a collection of numbingly similar narrative arcs: in Emma's story, a pretty, popular girl being assaulted by older, popular boys deemed untouchable due to their wealth, social connections, or athletic prowess. (Another familiar story is that of the unpretty, unpopular girl targeted by the same group of boys, who decide no one will believe someone like her could interest someone like them anyway.) But rather than calling it cliché (or worse, falsehood) it seems mythic, something closer to archetype. Beauty is the oldest form of female power; its history so entrenched, even in allegedly post-feminist times the ways in which beautiful women are elevated and punished for their perceived power still follow predictable patterns. And the oldest, most extreme form of punishment to put women in their place happens to be rape. Emma is raised to think of her beauty as currency: it pays for her friendships, her popularity, beautiful clothes, handsome boys, and may, one day, bring her love, adventure, and financial security. ("You can have all of this," says her glamorous aunt, gesturing around her London apartment. "It'll be easy for you, with the way you look. And you can hold a conversation, which always helps.") Other cultures may sacrifice their prettiest virgins to the gods; for Emma, the price of beauty is constantly managing the effect her body has on others. Sex is required (though pleasure clearly is not), but it has its own complicated set of rules: Sleep with too many people, and she's a slut. Sleep with too few, and she's a snob. But when even her dad's golfing buddy looks her up and down, there is no possible way to avoid rejecting (and therefore pissing off) a virtual army of suitors. Scolded by one friend for "encouraging" an older boy, she worries she might hurt his feelings ("I don't want him to think I'm a bitch"); she consents to an unwanted hook-up because "It seemed easiest to go along with it." The night she is invited to a party with older boys, she remembers the guy who called her "hot, but boring as fuck," so she takes a pill when it is offered. Going in for a kiss, she thinks: "This is the price of my beauty and I am willing to pay it." She does consent to go into the bedroom with an older boy, but when the sex becomes violent, she is afraid to tell him to stop. And then she remembers nothing, until she wakes up, bloodied, blistered, and half dressed on her parents' front porch. Something else we'd learn in Asking for It 101: Being a man does not make you a rapist. (Emma's two strongest defenders are boys: her brother, Bryan, who channels the pure righteous rage her parents should but cannot summon, and her childhood friend Conor). But many men who get away with sexual violence are likely to do it again More than a year before, Emma's friend Jamie claimed to have been raped at a party by one of the same boys. Emma herself encouraged Jamie not to tell; not to use that word, telling her, "No one likes a girl who makes a fuss." For Emma, there is no choice. Within hours, photos of her assault are posted to Facebook, and the fuss is made for her. They are graphic, ugly photos: Four boys, all of whom have known her since childhood, not just assaulting her sexually but mocking and desecrating her prone body. Hundreds of likes, dirty comments, slut, skank, whore. She was asking for it. Emma is still the girl who does not make a fuss. She blames herself. But in this, too, she has no choice: Once a school administrator sees the photos, the state files a case against the boys, also without her consent. What happens next may be worse than the actual assault. While the boys go to school, parties, and soccer matches, Emma becomes a virtual prisoner in her own home. She is blamed for ruining the boys' lives, for the town's sports team losing their matches, even for the city's drop in tourism. Her father barely speaks to her; her mother covers up her resentment in bottles of wine. The minister who baptized her as a child delivers a sermon denouncing her and praising the men she accused: As Emma puts it: They are "innocent until proven guilty. I'm a liar until proven honest." Emma is no feminist superhero; unlike Harding, she does not provide a model others can use to fight back. "I would have preferred to see that as well," writes O'Neill in her afterword, "but, sadly, it didn't feel truthful." Unlike Daisy Coleman, she never does speak up for herself; like Coleman, she turns the blame on herself and attempts suicide several times. But O'Neill's empathic approach has created an important thing: a work of fiction that can help readers believe in the reality of injustice and suffering. Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.
Reviewer: Amy Benfer
The Barnes & Noble Review
Try to be brave, grown-ups. O'Neill's second novel may be scary, but it is riveting and essential. Teenagers will recognize its difficult truth and devour itbehind your backs, if need be…Emma always seems incontrovertibly real. What's terrifying is that the world she lives infull of misogyny and deep, communal denialdoes too.
The New York Times Book Review - Jeff Giles
O’Neill (Only Ever Yours) again examines the ways in which society devalues the bodies and lives of girls, this time taking on the subject of sexual assault. Emma O’Donovan, 18, has always been praised for her beauty, and she walks a line between cruelty and kindness to bend everyone to her whims. One night Emma parties too hard, drinking and taking drugs until she passes out. The next day she learns that she was the victim of a Steubenville-like gang rape, and the boys involved have plastered horrific and explicit photos of the assault online. Soon everyone in Emma’s tightknit Irish community has taken sides—mostly against her—and as a trial nears and the world watches, even Emma’s family abandons her. O’Neill’s treatment of how communities mishandle sexual assault and victimize its victims is unforgiving, and readers will despair to see Emma helpless in the face of injustice. It’s a brutal, hard-to-forget portrait of human cruelty that makes disturbingly clear the way women and girls internalize sexist societal attitudes and unwarranted guilt. Ages 12–up. (Apr.)
Named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the American Librarians Association A School Library Journal Best Book A New York Public Library Best Book A Bustle Best YA Book "Try to be brave, grown-ups. O'Neill's second novel may be scary, but it is riveting and essential. Teenagers will recognize its difficult truth and devour itbehind your backs, if need be . . . You may be staggered by Emma's inability to make a self-respecting decision, even as her story goes international. But you'll be lit up with pain and rage on her behalf, and grateful for the few who stand by her." Jeff Giles, The New York Times "You won't come away from [ Asking For It] feeling happy, but you will come away from it feeling angry and anger is a healthier emotion than despair. If, like me, you're a parent, I might advise you to buy it for your daughters, but actually it would do more good if I begged you to buy it for your sons. . .Young women already know what's between the pages of this book. It's the other people in that room who need to read it." LitReactor "Who is Louise O'Neill? You better brush up, because everyone's about to start talking about her . . . The feisty, funny, and feminist author . . . we've been waiting for, that might actually change something." Bustle "A harrowing novel on the issue of sexual consent . . . This is brave and clever writing." Sarah Gilmartin, Irish Times "O'Neill's writing infects, inches its way under your skin, assaults you with tiny, relentless pinpricks." The F Word "Any piece of writing that deals with rape is going to be affecting. What makes Irish author Louise O'Neill's latest work of fiction so traumatic and infuriating is that the writing was motivated by multiple real-life cases of sexual assault." Broadly, Vice "A must-read in today's rape culture, this novel is a follow-up to O'Neill's first (also wonderfully feminist) novel, Only Ever Yours." HelloGiggles "After reading last year's Only Ever Yours, Louise O'Neill is one of my absolute favorite new writers . . . The title enough should help you see where the story goes from there, and it's going to make you furious, but that's why it's so important." Bustle "This harrowing examination of sex and sexual assault for teens and young adults . . . deserves the broadest possible audience, and to be widely discussed by teens, parents, and educators. With the precision of a scalpel, O'Neill delicately carves out the subtlest ways Emma learns that beauty is supreme, and with equal accuracy hammers home the double standard that still applies to both women and men. The images are haunting, the topic is difficult, and the ending is frustrating yet sadly all too believable." Common Sense Media (5 Star Review) "Vital reading for people everywhere . . . It's clear that O'Neill is blazing her own path in literature." Guardian "Louise O'Neill is the best YA fiction writer alive today. Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman, and John Green are all exceptional authors, producers of the finest YA books in recent years, but none of them match up to Louise O'Neill." Guardian "Louise O'Neill is having a moment . . . Her aim? To get people talking. To get people angry. To make people furious." Aoife Barry, The Journal "You must read this blistering, biting YA novel about sexual consent . . . It's a difficult, confronting, and vital read." Elle (UK), Best Books of 2015 "An electrifying new novel . . . Far from being mere fiction." Deirdre Reynolds, Irish Independent "A powerful cautionary tale that will appeal to older teens as well as to adult readers." Booklist "O'Neill's powerful novel digs into deep questions about rape culture that are difficult to read but essential to consider. More graphic and grim than Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, this UK import nonetheless is an important read for mature teen audiences." School Library Journal (Starred Review) "Louise O'Neill may still be relatively new to the scene, but the Irish author is already earning comparisons to feminist literary legends like Margaret Atwood, and being declared the best YA fiction writer working today . . . Asking For It . . . will find its way deep under your skin and send a chill down your spine." Refinery29 "A brutal, hard-to-forget portrait of human cruelty that makes disturbingly clear the way women and girls internalize sexist societal attitudes and unwarranted guilt." Publishers Weekly "Asking for It raises hard questions about how society treats rape victims in a way that few other YA books on this subject tend to do. O'Neill's writing is unflinching in its depiction of Emma's pain: raw and harrowing and terribly real. It is provocative in its brace and honest exploration of rape culture and victim-shaming. This powerful book begs to be discussed, and will stay with readers long after they put it down." Worlds of Words
Gr 10 Up—Emma O'Donovan is an 18-year-old living in a small Irish town. She's beautiful but all too aware of it and loves but is in constant competition with her best friends. But when she is raped by four popular "good" guys at a party, Emma becomes an object of rumor, hatred, and resistance. O'Neill's writing is ruthless in its exploration of rape culture but full of subtlety and understanding. A complex and essential look at how society so often treats and views survivors of rape.