Let’s Talk Teenage Narcissism, Sexual Consent and Social Media A good book is one where you reach the end and you feel a glow of satisfaction; but a great book is one which, as you turn the final page, leaves you with a sense of unease. The characters stay with you long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. You […]
Asking For It by Louise O’Neil Review
Let’s Talk Teenage Narcissism, Sexual Consent and Social Media
A good book is one where you reach the end and you feel a glow of satisfaction; but a great book is one which, as you turn the final page, leaves you with a sense of unease. The characters stay with you long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. You are left pondering and questioning yourself, your morals and your beliefs. In short, you come away a changed person, wanting more. Needing more.
And that’s what happened when I picked up ‘Asking For It‘ by bold new YA writer, Louise O’Neil.
Firstly, I’m sceptical about describing a novel as Young Adult. For me, YA immediately conjures up images of supernatural romances or teen quests set in a post-apocalyptic world. This book is Young Adult only in as much as it bravely confronts issues faced by 15-21 year olds of today. Issues that I didn’t have to worry about as a teenage girl living in a world before Facebook, but issues that petrify me now that I have two young daughters of my own. This is a book that needs to be read by men and women of all ages, teenage girls and boys. Especially boys.
‘Asking For It‘ is a fictional account of the events leading up to the night that changed eighteen year old Emma O’Donovan’s life forever. The night she went too far with the town heartthrobs; and her misjudgements, and their crimes, were laid out in all their sordid glory for the world to see the next day on social media.
My first reaction upon picking up the book and reading the blurb was ‘Oh, this is another story about the rape of an innocent teenage girl and how her perpetrators are brought to justice.’ But no. O’Neil is smarter than that. ‘Asking For It‘ is not neatly cut in half with the Good Guys on one side and the Baddies on the other. This isn’t a tale about savage men and naive young girls, nor is it about the dangers of teenagers overindulging in alcohol and drugs, or whether or not girls should dress in short skirts and high heels. There’s nothing didactic about this book, this isn’t a moralistic read – it teaches you nothing except that there is more than just one side to every story.
The novel’s protagonist, Emma, wants attention. Much like any teenage girl, she wants men to want her. She dresses her perfect body in a way that makes her feel desirable and she gets a kick out of it, to the detriment of her reputation and her friendships. She is the pretty girl we all had in class, the veritable Cheerleader of high School Rom Coms and the Cool Kid that every girl wants to be friends with.
But what I really enjoyed about this character is that she’s not nice. We’re not meant to like her, but we do care about her because we understand her.
No matter how unlikable she got I was still rooting for her the more I read. I wanted to shake her and hug her. I wanted to let her learn the hard way and protect her from her own stupidity. I was adamant that she maintain her right to act and dress as she chooses yet I also wanted her to simply love herself on the inside. I didn’t just question her, I actually came away questioning myself.
Because what woman hasn’t been a confused, pretty, sexy, insecure, bolshy and calculating ‘Emma’ at one point in her life?
I know I have.
I’ve experienced more than one occasion in my youth where I have woken up in a place where I shouldn’t have been, with someone I shouldn’t have been with, dressed in nothing but shame and amnesia. But Facebook didn’t exist then, my mistakes were mine and mine alone. The question of whether it was my fault for giving the wrong impression, of their fault for taking advantage of my less than lucid state, was only mine to ask. If I could come to terms with it then it affected no one else – my wrongdoings were not the property of my family, friends or even the men in question. In most cases I blamed myself, but as I had little memory I could hardly blame anyone else. In most cases I put it down to experience and moved on. But our protagonist can’t do that.
Emma wakes up the next morning and the world has already discovered her story – and they have already made up their mind as to who’s to blame. After all, everyone knows Emma always dresses up for a party and loves the attention, and the boys involved are good boys. She doesn’t even remember what happened! Those that had been at the party had seen what state she had got into and everyone knew that she was basically just ‘asking for it’… so what did she expect?
I found myself wondering, much like an unwatched tree in a forest making no sound, if no one sees what you get up to and you don’t remember it in the morning… then does it really matter? Had Emma’s antics not been plastered over social media would it have altered her life as much? Would the lack of judgement by those she loved have made her life easier, or was Facebook her saviour by providing proof of the depraved depths to which those boys sank without Emma’s consent?
It’s the ambiguity of these themes that had me turning the pages well into the early hours. The important topics of sexual consent, misguided teen decisions, victim blame and the ever present pressures of social media were imprinted on every page I devoured. I wanted to dive into the story and save these kids, while at the same time missing that wild abandonment and teen thrills you will only ever experience when your life has just begun.
So where does the onus lie when it comes to young girls being provocative or men going too far? Where do we draw the line? Who needs to be educated more… the girls or the boys? Sadly these scenarios are played out night after night in every bar, house party and nightclub across the country and it’s something we need to talk about, something Louise O’Neil is passionate about bringing to the forefront of our minds.
I wanted the book to give me an answer, but it didn’t. Because there isn’t one.
All we can pray for is that our daughters retain their freedom to be who they want to be, with the confidence and common sense of knowing that every action has a reaction. And most importantly our sons need to learn the difference between a girl who gives her consent willingly and a girl who has lost her way. Because in the days of camera phones, social media and every minute of your life documented for the world to see… mistakes, whoever’s they may be, don’t last one night. They last a life time.
Asking For It is Published by Quercus