**Trigger Warning: mention of rape and sexual assault**
When you pick up a novel titled Asking For It you know it’s not going to be an easy read. The Barbie-esque naked legs on the dust jacket give a blunt introduction to O’Neill’s stark writing style.
We meet Emma, the thing that first struck me about her was her obsession with her appearance, she feels very much like a product of the 21st Century social media explosion. She has a constant fear of looking like she’s doing the wrong thing, being unattractive, and requires constant validation. She arrives at school and is immediately met with compliments, if this part of the book were a movie, she’d be slow motion walking through a car park with her adoring fans around her. This is a daily occurrence for Emma and it’s what she expects. Her mother also reinforces this concept that her appearance is most important, commenting on Emma’s posture and telling her she looks beautiful every day.
There is a constant requirement with Emma to make everything appear effortless, the way she looks, her attitude towards people and her grades at school. This seems to be in direct conflict with the way she perceives the people around her, she assumes all her friends achieve these things effortlessly and the second they appear to break or struggle, she celebrates that. This is written to come across as cruel and self-centered however it is easy to see that Emma is a product of her environment, she truly believes that beauty is the most important thing in the world.
Throughout the story we see hints towards Emma’s kleptomaniac tendencies which is a very literal manifestation of her want to own what her friends have. Psychologically kleptomania can be acquitted to the need to overcome a loss which is symbolic of her lack of healthy relationships, either with her parents, friends or pretty much anyone she encounters. In so far as romantic relationships go, Emma needs to require constant validation that she is attractive to the opposite sex. No matter if it’s the boy next door or her best friend’s boyfriend, she has to know that they are attracted to her in order to fulfil her self-worth, the higher up in her school’s social ranking, the better.
And then we get to the night of the party. Emma drinks a lot and takes some pills and after a series of drunken encounters, takes a guy off to have sex. Then she changes her mind. If consent is given it can still be revoked at any time and the wishes of the non-consenting party should be adhered to. If the removal of consent is not agreed to then that makes the sexual act rape no matter if it has previously been given. What then follows we only find out in bits and pieces over the rest of the book because Emma herself cannot actually remember. Emma is gang-raped by four boys, from the pictures they distribute over the following days we can discern that she was most likely unconscious the entire time.
Emma has been set up as a self-centered and cruel character with an obsession with the way she looks and a disregard for the feeling of others. This characterisation then affects the way the rest of the small town around her feel about this event – and to an extent, the reader too. O’Neill brings to the forefront, the slut-shaming aspects of our society with the attitude the people around her have to these photos which are released. Because people are familiar with Emma’s need to feel attractive and be admired at all times, they automatically assume this was consensual and attention-seeking. It takes a teacher questioning Emma for her to even consider that what happened to her could be classed as rape.
At this point, O’Neill begins to explore the flawed prosecution system – the book is set in Ireland, but it is not much better anywhere else when it comes to sexual assault. Because Emma has just turned 18, it is already harder to prosecute, Child Pornography is a lot easier to prove than rape. In the US, the conviction rate for possession of Child Pornography is 97% however the conviction rate for actual sex crimes against children is only 46%. Shocked? Just you wait. The most up to date statistic I could find on my, granted fairly simple Google search, for rape conviction numbers came up with a statistic from 2005 for the UK. 5.7% of reported rape cases result in conviction.
Rape is worryingly difficult to prove and this proven by these statistics. For the rest of the story we follow Emma as she sinks into a downward spiral of depression until she, frustratingly for the reader, decides to drop the charges. We end with a feeling of disappointment and frustration that she hasn’t battled through and stuck with the case but this is sadly a very accurate portrayal of the justice system. The reader is hoping for a nice, clean ending where she empowers herself but sadly that is not the reality.
It is frustratingly hard to find any up to date statistics on this subject, surely seeing as nearly half a million adults in England and Wales are sexually assaulted each year, we need to be increasing the resources dedicated to this subject matter, not cutting them? Why is it that looking for statistics on the rape conviction rate for this article I went to Rape Crisis – the country’s biggest rape charity – the only accurate statistic was from 2005 – over 10 years ago? This needs to change.
What I learnt from this book is that whilst we talk a lot about rape and sexual assault, very few of us really understand it and the problems surrounding these issues. There is still an enormous stigma surrounding the word ‘rape’ and the justice system needs to start working on the side of the victim not the perpetrator. The law is outdated and views are still unbearably old fashioned when it comes to sexual assault, for instance, were you aware that for the official classification of rape, it only occurs when one person penetrates another with their penis without consent. If a victim is forcefully penetrated with an object, it is classed as ‘Sexual Assault by Penetration’. This proves how out of date the justice system is with modern society and this simply isn’t acceptable, we have to stand up for the victim.
Conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. (Kelly, Lovett and Regan, A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, 2005)
Written by Tender Youth Board member, Ruth Scott