Asking for It

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Haunting, harrowing story of rape, consent, blame, shame.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Raises questions about sexual assault, rape, and consent; how consent or the lack of it can be proved; the value placed on beauty; the dangers of alcohol and drug use; problems and pitfalls with social media's prevalence; inadequacies of the legal system to cope with rape cases; blaming the victim; and more. Irish, U.K., and Australian rape crisis center contact information provided.

Positive Messages

Overwhelmingly negative messages about the double standard for girls and women, who are pressured to be beautiful and to present themselves as close to the beauty ideal as possible, then who get the message that they should not be surprised or upset when their "provocative" clothing or behavior leads to sexual assault. Consent (Is not saying no the same as saying yes? What if you didn't have a chance to answer?), alcohol and drug use, and ways that sexual assault is trivialized are explored in depth. In an afterword the author says she hopes that widespread conversation about these issues will move us toward a society where sexual assault is rare.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Negative examples provoke thought about how people deserve to be treated. Narrator Emma is beautiful and enjoys the attention and status her looks give her. She's not a good friend because as the queen bee she doesn't have to be, and she devotes all her time and energy to being as attractive to men as possible. Her friends are quick to abandon her when they think she betrayed them, not caring to hear her story. Neighbor Conor and brother Bryan are the only ones supportive of Emma.

Violence

Disturbing, detailed descriptions of pictures and videos posted on Facebook showing the gang assault and rape of an unconscious victim; they're not gory, but images from the pictures are mentioned frequently. There are no consequences for the perpetrators, but the victim feels she's ruined everyone's lives. There are suicide attempts that aren't narrated in detail. A past rape is vaguely discussed.

Sex

Older teens and young adults frequently engage in sexual activity and talk about it frankly. Periods, being pregnant, masturbation, consent, rape, and who had sex with whom are all topics of conversation. Behavior witnessed or experienced by the narrator includes kissing, caressing, undressing, having sex, pulling out, and what she thinks about when she's having sex. Consequences are rare and include pregnancy, regret, and shame.

Language

"F--k," "s--t" and their variations; "bitch," "Christ," "Jesus," "slut," "c--t" (and its variation "c--ting"), "ass," "boobs," "tits," "d--k," "whore," "skank," "p---y," and "crap."

Consumerism

Frequent mention of food, beverage, clothing, beauty, and technology products along with car makes and models establish character.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens and young adults frequently drink lots of different kinds of alcohol to excess at parties, often including stolen cough syrup. Use leads to sex and regret. Characters raid parents' medicine cabinets and take unspecified prescription drugs while drinking, later speculated to be MDMA (ecstasy). A character's pleasurable high is described. Occasional mention of smoking, and joints at a party mentioned once, including Emma taking "blowback" from someone. Emma is prescribed unspecified medications after her trauma.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that 2017 Michael J. Printz Honor Book Asking for It, by Irish author Louise O'Neil (Only Ever Yours), is about a teen girl in Ireland who's gang-raped after drinking and taking pills and falling unconscious at a party; then pictures and videos of this violent scene are posted on Facebook. The novel takes on the difficult topics of rape and consent in harrowing fashion. The violent imagery is haunting, and the book doesn't provide answers. But it raises a lot of questions that should be talked about by parents and teens about rape, consent, double standards, victim blaming, social media, what gives a person value to society, how to instill respect for self and others in children and teens, and so much more. Teens and young adults frequently drink lots of different kinds of alcohol to excess at parties, often including stolen cough syrup. They raid parents' medicine cabinets and take unspecified prescription drugs while drinking, later speculated to be MDMA (ecstasy). There are disturbing, detailed descriptions of the posted pictures and videos of the gang assault and rape of an unconscious victim; they're not gory, but images from the pictures are mentioned frequently. (The phrase “pink flesh, splayed legs” is repeated often as the memory of the photos flash through Emma's mind, though she has no memory of actual events.) There are no consequences for the perpetrators, but the victim feels she's ruined everyone's lives. There are suicide attempts that aren't narrated in detail. A past rape is vaguely discussed. Author O'Neill expresses the hope in the afterword that talking about these matters will lead to a society in which sexual assault is rare. Parents and teens will benefit from this framework for thinking and talking about the difficult issues raised.

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What's the story?

Just after her 18th birthday, Emma goes to a party at a friend's house. All the usual crowd are there, and all eyes are on the beautiful Emma. But Emma's becoming increasingly stifled by small-town life and is tired of everyone thinking they know who she really is. So in addition to the usual excessive drinking, Emma unexpectedly takes some pills from the guy she wants to hook up with. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in very bad shape on her own front porch with no more than a vague memory from the night before. Later she learns that a Facebook page was created with dozens of graphic photos and videos showing that she was repeatedly raped by the town's well-liked sports heroes while she was unconscious. Branded a whore and worse, Emma and everyone else is asking if she deserved what she got and if she was ASKING FOR IT. How can she prove she didn't consent? And how can she possibly put her and her family's lives back together after everyone has seen those horrible photos?

Is it any good?

This harrowing examination of sex and sexual assault for teens and young adults is a great starting place for teens to think and talk about these issues and how they affect their own lives. Rather than laying out answers, O’Neill illustrates the questions we should be asking about rape, consent, victim blaming, and so much more that it deserves the broadest possible audience and to be widely discussed by teens, parents, and educators.

With the precision of a scalpel, O’Neill delicately carves out the subtlest ways Emma learns that beauty is supreme and with equal accuracy hammers home the double standard that still applies to both women and men. The images are haunting, the topic is difficult, and the ending is frustrating yet sadly all too believable.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about rape, consent, and blaming the victim. Was Emma asking for it? What should she have expected would happen? Why does she blame herself?

  • What do you think about the descriptions of violence in Asking for It? Are they necessary to understand what happened to Emma and to see how the Facebook images of her assault affected those who saw them?

  • Emma says that teens are well aware of the dangers of drinking and driving but that no one talks about other ways to ruin lives. Would you say that's true for your school, too? What would you like to know about?

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