I am a second year Social Science student, entering McGill in Psychology next fall, and then (hopefully) grad school. I have always loved reading, but if I have recently learned to love the discussions and writing that come with it, it is all thanks to my professor, Alyson Grant. These two essays (one on Asking For It – on the dangers of rape myths, and the other on Fairview – exploring paradigms of race) are the fruit of the work we have done together, and it was an absolute pleasure to study such works.
Professor Alyson Grant
English 102: Contemporary Irish Literature
He Said, She Said: The Impacts of Gender Norms on the Asking For It Mentality
Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It discusses the issues of rape, consent, and the consequences of that line being crossed, without skirting the difficult topics or trivializing the problem. Set in a small Irish community with nosy, gossiping neighbours lurking around every corner and the remnants of Catholic conservatism lingering in the air, a story like Emma O’Donovan’s is sure to become the talk of the town. Before the incident, Emma was the most beautiful, luckiest, and envied girl in her grade, and anyone who disagreed would quickly change their mind. After the incident, Emma O’Donovan is considered a slut, a whore, a bitch, a life-ruiner. She is lying, she is faking, she deserves it, she was asking for it. No one bothers to care that it was four of them against one of her, that she woke up in a bloody mess the next morning, or that she desperately needs someone, anyone, to stand by her side in this losing battle. The structure of the novel demonstrates the sharp contrast of Emma’s world before and after the party, and how much just one night can change a life. The first-person narrator opens the doors to welcome a deeper connection and understanding of Emma’s struggles, as she fights to survive the aftermath of “That Word.” In a world where everything seems to be constantly working against her, traditional gender roles and expectations contribute to the victim-blaming mentality that afflicts Emma.
The difference in the perception of sexuality for men and women perpetuates this mentality. In the novel, the women all fall victim to standards reminiscent of the Madonna-whore complex: women can only either take on the role of the Madonna, the pure and sinless virgin, or the role of the whore, sexually desired but otherwise worthless, undeserving of respect. For Emma’s father, she is a perfect little girl who should remain that way, and he can only love the perfect image of her that he has in his mind, not the real woman that she is. When the photos of her rape go public and that illusion is shattered, he is immediately disgusted and “can’t stand to look at her” (241), expressing his disappointment in her as he tells her he “thought [she was] a good girl” (156). Instead of supporting her after the assault, he chooses to admonish her, which only reinforces in Emma the notion that she has done something wrong. It makes her feel even more guilty and shameful and even leads her to believe “[she] did [Jamie] a favour” (230) by advising her to keep her own assault a secret.
At the same time, for almost everyone else in her community—the men she has slept with, her peers, and even total strangers—Emma takes on the role of the whore, a debased sexual being. A woman who sleeps around is tainted, and Emma even receives emails from strangers calling her a “dirty whore” and a “fucking slut,” telling her to “kill [her]self” (197). This causes Emma to feel that, because she is seen as a sexual object, she is not to be respected or valued, and that whatever happens to her is the “price of her beauty” (103). When she has what she believes is consensual sex with Paul, she starts to feel uncomfortable and wants to stop, but he tells her not to be such “a fucking cock tease” (98) and she reminds herself that “this is something [she] should enjoy” (99). She feels it is her role to satisfy him and to be those dirty things he calls her. It then makes sense how after the “real” rape happens, Emma is not angry at the men and instead is looking for their forgiveness; it seems normal to her to be treated in such a terrible way, as if that is all she is worthy of. Towards the end of the novel, Emma starts to understand her reality and the hold these norms have on her life: “I am Eve. I am the snake in the Garden of Eden. I am temptation” (296). However, she is also “Mother Mary, blessed virgin. O Mary, conceived without sin” (296). Society has convinced her she has to be, and will only ever be, one of those two, in a world where neither will ever be good enough.
However, for men, it is completely the opposite. Sexuality is neither frowned upon nor shamed; it is instead a sign of virility, of masculinity. It is encouraged and cheered for, so men feel pressured to seek out and have sex, sometimes at any cost. A lack of sex can even be used as an insult as Emma taunts Matt with this at the party while “the others [laugh] even harder this time, hitting the armrests, stamping their feet, and jeering, ‘virgin, virgin, virgin…’ at him” (79). Paul even goes as far as not closing the door on purpose in Sean’s parents’ room at the party while they have sex, his reason being that “[Emma’s] too hot not to show [her] off” (103). He sees her as a conquest, and sleeping with her is something to shout from the rooftops, an accomplishment. In a world where men are rewarded and pushed to have sex while women are constantly punished for their sexuality, it is no wonder the lines of consent are so often blurred and crossed.
Men are usually considered morally superior to women and will receive the blind trust and support of those around them. Women are automatically assumed to be liars while men are always assumed to be innocent, proper, and upstanding. When Emma meets up with her friends the day after the party, she finds Maggie and the others angry at her for kissing Eli. Even though they knew she was drugged, even though Eli was sober and “[didn’t] move away” (95) either, equally guilty, the girls trust him to be more virtuous than their friend. Next, when the guard comes to investigate Emma’s case and asks if she has gotten tested for STDs after the rape, her mother does not understand and asks, “why would she need to do that?” since “they were all good local boys, from good families” (239-240). It never even occurs to her that these boys could be just as, if not more, promiscuous than Emma and that they could have contracted diseases from their irresponsibility. Again, Emma’s mother and most people from their town trust them to be good, honest, and clean. They always believe the best in them, for no apparent reason but to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The same compassion and faith, however, does not extend to Emma. Even complete strangers condemn her. The journalist Veronica Horan writes in her widely-read and influential article on the subject that she chooses to “believe them” (246) as the young men “protest their innocence” (246). She has never met these men, yet she instinctively and firmly believes them and sides with them. She is a reflection of the general population watching the show from afar, who will side blindly with the men and call Emma a liar, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence hinting toward their guilt. Another decisive and telling alliance is that of Father Michael. He, a man who has watched Emma grow from a little girl into a young woman, who ate dinner at their house and “gave a speech at [her parent’s] wedding” (270), who was supposed to advocate for her, chooses to turn his back on Emma and shake the hands of the men who ruined her. It is at that point that Emma realizes that “he doesn’t believe [her]. None of them believe [her]” (272). The entire town has decided she was asking for it. They all have chosen a side, and for most, “it isn’t [hers]” (272). In a world where men are painted as upstanding heroes and women are constantly vilified, it is easy to see which side most people would choose in a battle of reputation.
Women are held to a much higher standard than men when it comes to taking responsibility for their actions and facing consequences. “Boys will be boys will be boys” (190), and thus should not be blamed for their actions. It has been ingrained in the collective psyche that it is important to be understanding and forgiving toward men, promoting the narrative that it is better to just clean up their messes for them instead of holding them accountable. As Emma hides in the bathroom of her school, ashamed, she hears girls discuss her assault outside and one of them surmises “what guy was going to say no if it was handed to him on a plate?” (142), implying that she was just so easy to take advantage of. When once in a while someone is brave enough to stand up for themselves and rapists finally have to pay the price, suddenly their “lives are ruined because of this” (172). Once again, the blame is placed on “this,” on the situation, on someone else, for “their lives [falling] apart” (246).
On the other hand, women are taught from a very young age to behave properly because it is understood that if they slip up, there will be consequences that may be costly. Veronica Horan writes that “women have to take responsibility for themselves and their own safety. […] they must be prepared to bear the consequences” (246). Even drugged and unconscious, Emma is still blamed for her own assault and told that she should have been more responsible, that “no one forced the drink down [her] throat, or made her take shit” (142), that she must have been “fucking asking for it” (142). So much responsibility falls upon women’s shoulders to make sure no harm is done to them, instead of it being the men’s responsibility to not assault anyone, no matter their state. Even Emma’s mother blames her for the damage she has brought to their family and their reputation, letting it slip that “none of this would even be happening if it wasn’t for [her]” (249). Emma carries all of this guilt around constantly. She blames herself for drinking too much and taking the drugs, and she feels that she is the one that has “ruined [the men’s] lives” (169) by somehow causing her own rape. She even takes responsibility for her father losing his job and the dip in tourism in Ballinatoom, which she could not possibly have caused. She repeats over and over again that everything is “[her] fault” (187) when she is not the one to blame.
One example of this double standard at work is the gendered dynamics of Emma’s family. When Emma notices Brian is wiping his face with the nice towels, she wants to warn him that “Mam will kill him for doing that” (58), like she would if it were Emma doing it, but she does not say anything because “[they] both know she won’t” (58). Emma is supposed to be responsible and knows better than to dirty the towels, and she will receive her mother’s wrath if she messes up. However, Brian is coddled and spoiled, despite being older and supposedly more mature than Emma.
Asking For It is a story filled to the brim with frustrations and injustices, as Emma’s life is torn apart by her sexual assault and she is repeatedly struck down by a world that keeps blaming her for her pain. She eventually realizes that, as long as she lives in this gendered and biased society, there is no way she will win the support of her community, as “[the men] are all innocent until proven guilty. But not [her]. [She is] a liar until proven honest” (270). No matter how much she suffers, and no matter how much damage they do, the men benefiting from these inequalities will always have the upper hand in a system designed in their favour.
O’Neill, L. Asking For It. Quercus, 2016.