I read Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It some months ago. You know the saying, ‘read it and weep’? That’s what happened when I sat down with this book one lazy Saturday afternoon. I sat there, unable to keep myself from turning the pages as the tears spilled down my face and horror clutched at my chest. When I turned the final page, closed the book, I went into my boyfriend’s room, climbed into the bed, bundled myself into blankets, and sobbed. I can’t recall ever having read something quite so harrowing. But what is it about Asking For It that’s quite so difficult to stomach? It tells the story of 18 year old Emma O’Donovan, a mildly unlikable character who is obsessed with being the most attractive, the most popular, the most fancied girl of all the girls her age – and older, in some cases. She’s horrible to her friends. She’s inconsiderate. At a party, dressed in a short, low cut little black number, she’s drinking. She’s taking drugs, at the prompts of the boys she’s dying to have like her. She’s asking for it.
And then she’s gang raped.
But it’s all her own fault. Her friends, her family, the local community all agree. She shouldn’t have taken anything. She shouldn’t have dressed that way, acted that way, drank, took drugs. She shouldn’t have put herself in that position. It’s all her own fault, really.
It’s the same for every girl, ever.
Take me. Age thirteen. Walking to the corner shop to get some milk. Two fully grown men in a van, beeping the horn and leaning out the window to get a really good look at me as I walked by. I was wearing shorts. I was asking for it.
Age fifteen, at a Green Day concert. The guy standing behind me has spent the last two songs shifting himself into a good enough position so that he could rub his erection against my back under the pretense of dancing along to the music. It was just me and my friend at that show together, but we’d been separated by a person or two. I was asking for it.
Age eighteen, in my first job. At the office Christmas party. My boss asked me where my boyfriend was. I told him I didn’t have one. He turned to his friend, much older than me, and said within perfect ear shot ‘She’s all yours.’ I didn’t have a boyfriend. I was asking for it.
Age nineteen. Celebrating a friend’s birthday. We went to Dicey’s. I got cornered by three guys when I went to the bar to get myself a drink, and they got hostile when I made it clear I wasn’t interested in them. My friend had to rescue me. When I made it clear he was a friend, and not another interested male party, they offered to buy him a drink. I’d gone to the bar alone. I was asking for it.
Age 20. This day last year. I was walking home from work. I’d taken a bus I didn’t normally get just to avoid standing at the stop in town for too long. I don’t like standing on Aungier Street by myself. It feels unsafe. I’m exposed. Asking for it. I walked up the road – ten minutes from my house, there abouts. A guy walking a bike on the path up ahead of me waits until he’s within earshot. Starts shouting abuse. Calls me a slut. Says he’d ‘do me’. I was wearing a skirt with snowflakes on it, tights and over the knee socks. The same outfit I’d worn to college that morning. I shrug it off, startled. Obviously I was asking for it. The guy circles around again. Walks toward me. Reaches out, puts his hand up my skirt. Calls me a slut again. I pull away, terrified. He laughs and keeps walking. I start running. I’m on the phone to my boyfriend. I get to the top of the road. He’s circled around again. I’m sobbing, I can barely see. He comes out of the park at the top of the road. There’s no one else around. He reaches out to touch me again. I’m vulnerable. Exposed. I do the only thing I can do. I run at him, screaming. He calls me a slut, and a whore, a few more times, jumped on his bike and pedaled off. I run the rest of the way home. I’m upset, but I was asking for it.
Disagree with me? Tell that to the media. Tell that to every, single, solitary person that puts the blame on women for existing. Every story, every comment, every day time TV chat show discussion that idly suggests that girls shouldn’t drink, or dress a certain way, or be in certain places alone. Tell that to every school in every country. Plaster the walls with this book. With the words that will break your heart. Put it in every library. On every bookshelf. Make sure the world sees and reads and knows about this book. Let it destroy you. Then think about it, over and over again. Think about how this is the reality of being a woman. That the fear of being hit by a car or held at gunpoint in a robbery is nothing compared to the fear of walking outside your house and being afraid of other men.
All men don’t deserve to have so many women afraid of them, but I see gangs of teenage boys and I walk as far away from them as possible. They could be your brother, your boyfriend, your friend, and I’ll still run away, just in case. I delight in having male friends who are willing to look after me. Not because I am weak, or because of any other reason – but female friends are not as well respected as male ones are when it comes to girls asking for it. Age 21. In a shop in London with my best friend. Guy who works there comes up to us. Asks where we’re from. We say Ireland. He’s making us uncomfortable. There’s a vibe. I don’t like it. He asks which one of us is going to be his girlfriend. It’s banter. We’re girls. We’re asking for it. I take my friend’s hand suddenly and say ‘sorry, she’s my girlfriend’. The guy laughs. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says ‘I’m down for a threesome.’ I realise my mistake. I should’ve told him we had boyfriends. That would’ve been safer. We aren’t respected. There are enough men in the world willing to terrify a girl, any girl, because they can. There are enough men in the world who aren’t, but that doesn’t matter. We cannot distinguish between who is safe and who is not until we are otherwise shown. We are afraid, because everything we do is asking for it. Our gender determines whether or not we are a subject of ‘banter’ or not. You see feminists getting a bad rap for ‘hating men’. We don’t hate men. I don’t hate men. There are a number of wonderful men in my life. But there will always, always be more out there who will look at you and think you are asking for it.
If you haven’t read Asking For It yet, go get it. It will change your outlook on life. It will change the way you look at other people. It will change the way you talk about someone who had someone else take advantage of it. Let it crush you like an empty can. Let the words wash over you. Let it permeate your sleep and haunt your dreams. Let it tell you all the ways we are seen to be asking for it. Let it teach you everything that’s wrong with rape culture.
On a final note, I want to share some advice I was given by the really nice Garda who took my statement this day last year. He took every word I said seriously. And when I finished telling him exactly what had happened, he looked at me and said
‘If someone ever touches you, or even looks at you in a way that you don’t like. You call us. Three numbers. Dial them. If you’re not sure if it’s a Garda issue or not, call us anyway. You don’t get in trouble for calling. We tell you what the best thing to do is. Never feel like someone is putting you in a position you can get no help in. Call us. I’d give that advice to anyone.’