How often have you found yourself walking in the dark, senses on high alert, keys held between your knuckles, your heart hammering in your ears, as you walk briskly back home?
How often have you had to brush off the unwanted attention from a random stranger as you escape into the safety of crowded spaces?
How often have you found yourself sitting at a bar, wanting to unwind after a long day at work, but simultaneously needing to be hyper vigilant about your surroundings?
As women, I’m fairly certain that almost all of us have found ourselves in similar situations on more than one occasion. Constantly on guard, breathing a sigh of relief only once we make it safely home.
Asking for it
I came across Asking For It by Louise O’Neill on a feminist reading list last month, and promptly added it to my reading list.
This is the story of Emma O’Donovan. The most beautiful girl in Ballyatoon. Everyone wants to be her friend. All the girls come to her for beauty and style tips. Her closest circle of friends are unfailingly loyal, always making concessions for her and supporting her through everything.
She’s so lucky.
This is the story of Emma O’Donovan. The most beautiful girl in Ballyatoon, and she knows it. All the boys are crazy for her, and she knows that, too. In fact, she encourages it. She knows she can get any of them — even if they’re dating someone else. Even the boy on whom her best friend has a crush, though she wouldn’t do that to her, she’s got some bit of decency.
She’s such a bitch.
This is the story of Emma O’Donovan. The most beautiful girl in Ballyatoon. She’s tired of everyone thinking they know what she will and will not to. She wants to prove she’s more than her momma’s girl. That she’s more daring than they think, that she’s cooler than the other girls. Until she wakes up on her front porch and doesn’t remember what happened at the party last night. But everyone else does. There’s graphic photographic evidence of it.
She was asking for it.
This is the story of Emma O’Donovan. The most beautiful girl in Ballyatoon who is now slut, liar, skank, bitch, whore. She lives with the knowledge that “my body is not my own any more. They have stamped their names all over it.”
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is not an easy read. It is an important read, though. It tackles rape culture, the issue of consent and a flawed justice system — which is the same across the world — that instead of punishing the perpetrators further victimizes and shames the victim.
O’Neill makes it even harder for us to fully empathize with Emma. She’s manipulative, vain, self-centered, and selfish. By making the main protagonist so unlovable, O’Neill raises another issue with rape culture — how swiftly society rushes to fight for a rape victim when she’s an “innocent girl”, and how quick they are to throw promiscuous women under the bus.
We need to understand rape culture
It may seem like our society does not support sexual violence against women, but you just need to look beneath the surface to see how often it is trivialized, and how often we blame the victim.
“I didn’t know that if a woman was drunk when the violence occurred, she wouldn’t be taken seriously. I didn’t know that if he was drunk when the violence occurred, people would offer him sympathy. I didn’t know that my loss of memory would become his opportunity. I didn’t know that being a victim was synonymous with not being believed.”CHANEL MILLER, KNOW MY NAME
Rape culture is fostered by the use of sexist language (rape jokes, using the word raped loosely), the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence (“boys will be boys”, “20 minutes of action”, “locker room talk”). The loose acceptance of such behavior increases the tolerance towards crimes against women and creates a society that puts the burden of safety on women themselves.
Women, thus, are forced to police their own behavior and survivors are often blamed for the sexual assault, even though it is always the fault of the perpetrator.
We need to talk about consent
“When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer is always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off?”CHANEL MILLER, KNOW MY NAME
Even worse, when a woman is sexually assaulted, more often than not, the blame is put squarely on her shoulders.
What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Did you kiss him? Aren’t you sexually active? Didn’t you bring him back to your house? Why didn’t you say no? If you can’t even remember what happened, then how can you be sure it was rape?
Here’s the thing, though. Being drunk, sexually active, too shocked to say no, too drunk not to remember, bringing him back to your place or going over to his place are NOT grounds for rape. It is NOT to be construed as consent. It is NOT the woman asking for it. Because the woman NEVER asks for it.
In her powerful statement to Brock Turner, Emily Doe, whose real name is Chanel Miller, said:
“Future reference, if you are confused about whether a girl can consent, see if she can speak an entire sentence. You couldn’t even do that. Just one coherent string of words. If she can’t do that, then no. Don’t touch her, just no. Not maybe, just no. Where was the confusion? This is common sense, human decency.”
And yet, the perpetrator and the justice system so often get this wrong. They use a woman’s sexual activity, drinking history, and the clothes she was wearing to paint a picture of a woman who has no character, no morals. In other words, a woman who was asking for it.
What men — and many women too, thanks to patriarchal brainwashing — often forget, is that it does not matter how sexually active a woman is, how drunk she is, or what she was wearing. She has sovereignty over her body. She gets to choose. She gets to consent. And if she doesn’t, it is non-consensual. It is forced. It is rape. There should be no room for ambiguity here. And yet, there often is.
The other thing to question and push-back against is this: why is it a woman’s job to be on guard? Why does a woman have to be dressed “decently”, be home by a certain time, not drink, not party, not live her life? Why is a man not taught to treat women with respect, told that he is certainly NOT entitled to “20 minutes of action”, that “locker room talk” and sexist jokes and coming on to women is unbecoming of being a man?
Instead of blaming the victim, why is the blame not placed where it most certainly belongs: on the shoulders of the perpetrator? When someone is robbed, no one asks them why their door was unlocked, why they were sleeping at the time of the robbery, why they “tempted” the robbers with their wealth, why they were passed out on the couch. Why, then, is the burden of blame and shame put on the woman?
As O’Neill says in the afterword of Asking For It:
“We teach our girls how not to get raped with a sense of doom, a sense that we are fighting a losing battle.”
What will it take for us to build a world where girls don’t have to be taught how not to get raped and boys are taught that they aren’t entitled to “20 minutes of action”?
In closing, I’ll leave you with this beautiful short film by Chanel Miller
and this poem by Amanda Lovelace, from The Witch Doesn’t Burn In This One
“boys will be boys”
until the day
we raise our sons
the exact same
we assign to our
– you don’t teach, they don’t learn.
And if you haven’t read Know My Name by Chanel Miller, please add it to your reading list. It’s a powerful memoir that outlines her sexual assault, the trauma she faced due to it, and her soul wrenching fight for justice. It will make you cry, it will make you angry, it will make you think, and it will also give you hope.
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is also an important book with a very important message, even though I had some issues with the writing, mainly in the first half of the book.
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