Sexual violence and the blame game

By Lou Heinrich | 18 Nov 15

Asking for It | Louise O’Neill | Hachette Australia

In 2015, activists continue to protest victim blaming in sexual assault. In Australia, we have Reclaim the Night. We have Slut Walk. There was a march in 2013 in support of Melbourne’s Jill Meagher, following her brutal rape and murder.

We take to the streets again and again and again. To shout with rage: stop blaming us! To make a statement with our feet, with our swelling presence, with our cracked voices, to say: rape is not caused by women.

Rape culture, in which male sexual violence is normalised and the victims are blamed, is endemic. Men in power plea publicly for women to stop walking alone at night; male sexuality is pictured as animalistic and uncontrollable. When faced with a rape allegation, we continue to wonder: what was she wearing? Maybe she was asking for it.

Asking For It, Irish writer Louise O’Neill’s second YA novel, covers these murky waters of fault. O’Neill’s first novel, Only Ever Yours, explored performative beauty and sexual politics in a plot likened to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Asking For It, Emma is an 18-year-old Queen Bee, desired by all the local boys and feared by her gang of girlfriends. She has constructed a surface identity based purely on her appearance, and finds validation and worth in being found sexually attractive. She is at once vulnerable and hard; she disparages her friends in one breath, and asks if she is beautiful in the next.

Emma goes to a party in a dress that’s “black, cut down to the navel, and very, very short”; her brother calls it “a bit slutty”. She accepts drugs from a man 10 years her senior, they go to a bedroom, he forces himself on her, and then his mates walk in. Emma blacks out. The next day, her parents awake to find her passed out at the front of their house. Her dress is intact but her underwear is gone. Facebook soon reveals – with graphic photos – that she has been the victim of a gang rape.

O’Neill has painstakingly depicted a world that validated Emma’s body as “bait” and then normalised the violence against her.

Writing for The Guardian, O’Neill says: “too often society will only feel sorry for the victims of rape if they conform to a certain ideal – we don’t tend to have too much sympathy for a woman [who] is sexually assaulted if she was a sex worker or if her clothes were too tight and too short. Sometimes, in the most secret part of ourselves that we hide from the world, we secretly think that it was her fault if she was too drunk, too high, too promiscuous, too much.”

The second half of the novel deals with the fallout of the gang rape. Emma is covered in shame: “guilt paints itself on to my skin. I am tarred in it and feathered.” She barely leaves the house, and has pushed away her friends. Her parents are convinced that if she’d just behaved herself, remained a “good girl”, this wouldn’t have happened.

Emma, too, blames herself. She attributes her rape to her performative submission to the male gaze: “when he tells me I’m beautiful, it feels as if he’s saying that this was all my fault, that if I didn’t look the way I did then this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

O’Neill has painstakingly depicted a world that validated Emma’s body as “bait” and then normalised the violence against her. It’s a rich tapestry of sexism. It begins with Emma’s mother’s influence; she demonstrates that worth comes from beauty.

“My mother’s face appears in the mirror beside my own, bright red lips on powdered skin.” According to her mother, value is linked intrinsically to a transactional sexuality. She spouts poisonous phrases like, “Emmie, why would a boy buy the cow when he can have the milk for free?”

Rape culture is created by the male entitlement to the female body, and the depiction of male desire as unstoppable. “Ciarán [Emma’s father’s colleague] looks me up and down. I probably shouldn’t have worn such a low-cut top. ‘Well, well, well.’ He winks at Dad. ‘You have a heartbreaker on your hands there, Denis. I’d say you must be beating them off with a stick.’”

Rape culture is also crafted in the way rape narratives are transformed in their retelling.

“’Apparently she was off her face,’ the first girl says. ‘Olivia was talking about it last night and she said Emma O’Donovan was all over Paul O’Brien at that party, that he kept telling her that he had a girlfriend but that she, like, basically forced him to score with her anyway. God, she thinks she’s so fucking gorgeous.’”

This strand of schoolgirl gossip is echoed in the media’s reports on the gang rape. A local radio presenter complains about Emma’s generation: “skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked…what do they expect?”

A local newspaper opinion article complains, “Did anyone force her to drink so much? Did anyone force her to take illegal drugs, as it has been alleged she did? No. And yet she is asking us to place the blame upon four young men.”

There is photographic evidence of the violent exploitation of Emma’s body, and yet the town is siding with the boys who raped her. This notion would be absurd, were it not evident in reality, in examples like the Steubenville Rape Case.

O’Neill writes in the afterword, “Our society may not appear to support sexual violence, but you don’t need to look very far past the surface to see how we trivialise rape and sexual assault. Sexual assault (from unwanted touching to rape) is so common that we almost see it as an inevitability for women.”

In Asking For It, O’Neill unpacks the narratives around women’s bodies and their sexuality that create a culture in which sexual violence is excused. It’s an excruciating read that challenges our own hidden assumptions. The central question of the novel is: can a woman ever be held responsible for being a victim of sexual violence?

Asking for It is now available from Hachette Australia.

Lou Heinrich is a fledgling literary critic and proud book nerd who writes about pop culture and women. You can find her on Twitter here.