Asking for It by Louise O’Neill review – sexual consent in the Instagram era

When photos of her gang rape go viral, an Irish teenager descends into depression in this timely exploration of sexism and social media abuse

In the small Irish town of Ballinatoom, the beautiful 18-year-old narrator Emma O’Donovan is - like many teenagers - desperate to assert her identity (“I am sick of people thinking they know me”). A party proves a testing ground for her behavioural boundaries, but the morning after, she can’t remember what she has done – or the disturbing things that have been done to her.

The internet plays a sinister part in the plot and in defining identity for teenagers accustomed to a “flattering Instagram filter” – but nothing can filter out her pain. “I feel like someone has taken a blade to my insides,” says Emma when she views the graphic photographs taken of her that night, which have gone viral on Facebook. Reading the comments, which are like “a wildfire, out of control”, she is engulfed by shame. The issue of sexual consent is paramount: the victim-blamers say she was “asking for it”, that she is a “slut … bitch … skank … whore”; while more sympathetic voices claim that she was gang-raped and deserves justice.

In a visceral first-person voice, this harrowing novel shows how a human being becomes objectified: she no longer feels like Emma but “a thing to be used”. Louise O’Neill conveys Emma’s self-estrangement compellingly: “My body doesn’t belong to me any more … I want to erase it.”

O’Neill skilfully chronicles the physical and psychological effects of being violated, feeling voiceless and descending into depression as Emma, ostracised, can no longer bear her own gaze or that of others. Her relationship with her parents deteriorates. The atmosphere becomes as claustrophobic as the oppressive summer heat. “Did you ever believe that this wasn’t my fault?” she wants to ask her parents, but she won’t. Language itself becomes fraught: “Words gargle at the back of my throat, coming out in a clotted mess.”

Originally published as a YA novel, and now packaged in a new paperback for adults, this unflinching, timely novel (topical in the wake of the Stanford sexual assault case) asks important questions about rape culture, sexism and social media abuse, tackling taboo themes with subtlety and sensitivity.

Asking for It is published by riverrun (£7.99). Click here to order it for £6.55

Contributor

Anita Sethi

The GuardianTramp

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