Louise O’Neill is speaking and we all need to listen

At 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I began reading Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It. I finished it at 11:59 that same night. Completely drained, I felt like bursting into tears of rage and helplessness. For the entire evening (with a short break to watch Forrest Gump with my family, which didn’t help with the whole wanting-to-cry thing) I had been immersed in the harrowing story of a teenage gang-rape victim. And yet, although I was thoroughly exhausted, all I wanted to do was get started straight away on O’Neill’s other novel Only Ever Yours. Because what Louise O’Neill has to say is that important. What O’Neill has to say can’t wait until morning.

Louise O’Neill is the Young Adult author who could finally make a change. Asking For It’s attack on rape culture is brutal, sickening, graphic, and totally unsuitable for children—and that’s why it might actually work. We are past the point of gently introducing young people to tricky issues; social media and the internet has already taken this out of our control. At the click of a button, anyone can see violent porn, corpses, beheadings, the unconscious bodies of rape victims; anyone can comment on, like and share these digital images. There is nothing left to shock young people today—except reality. That’s what Asking For It provides: a reality so shocking, a human experience so painful that it’s actually new. These are the real-life consequences of our online world, and they can’t be viewed through the safety of a screen. Even the desensitised internet generation haven’t seen this before.

The denial of rape culture is one of the most dangerous and depressing aspects of our society. Even amongst the most well-intentioned, even amongst those who believe and support the victims, the existence of rape culture is often disputed—and until it is acknowledged as the powerful and pervasive force it is, it will never be beaten. Well, never has rape culture been more clearly and undeniably laid out than in Asking For It. The slut-shaming of girls for acting and dressing the very way they are pressured to act and dress; the defaulting to doubt as soon as rape is implied; the horrific rape scene relayed to the reader through a series of photos broadcast on Facebook; the comments underneath rating her body out of ten. This is not a dystopian universe. We have all seen this. This is what happens.

And Louise O’Neill does not allow us the easy way out. She does not present us with a virginal, modest, or even a particularly likeable character; she leaves us no room for lame excuses (“Well she didn’t deserve it, but it’s different when the girl is asking for it”). O’Neill’s protagonist is promiscuous, vain, and often dishonest—and on the night of the rape she willingly drinks, takes drugs, and seduces one of her rapists. In other words, she does everything “wrong”. But by the time we have watched her click through every disgusting photo taken of her own violation, O’Neill is challenging us, daring us to suggest that this could be her fault. That she could ever be considered to have asked for this.

O’Neill’s work should be required reading in schools, universities, and by every adult—because a voice this powerful is what is going to actually make a change. And whatever O’Neill has to say next, I’m going to be listening. If we all do, we might just learn something invaluable.

Images: oneilllou, ldlapinski/Instagram

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