CONTENT NOTE: Contains discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.
What does the length of that skirt pictured above say about me? Barely covering my bum, the leather pleats skim the top of my thighs and leave nearly all my flesh on show. In some quarters there are various words that might be used to describe it, especially when combined with heels and a skimpy top (and perhaps even more so if I was on a night out): indecent, provocative, suggestive. In fact, could wearing it somehow make me more liable to any misfortune that befell me? Is it a skirt that’s somehow short enough to imply that I’m ‘asking for it’?
Bollocks it is. It’s just a skirt. A pretty teeny-tiny mini as they go, for sure, but still just a length of fabric cut in a particular style with a particular set of dimensions. You can read lots of different messages from it (not least that I quite like letting my legs roam free) but there’s one very distinct thing it categorically does not and never will indicate – consent. There is not a single thing stitched into the seams or cut into the shape that says, “yes, I am seeking out trouble – it is my fault if anything bad happens to me. I should know better than to incite other people’s appalling assumptions or actions.”
Rather terrifyingly though, all sorts of people do seem to assume that a skirt like this might say just that – and, by following such a line of logic, some people also believe that in the case of sexual assault it's appropriate to ask questions about the outfit worn by a survivor. So many other questions too, especially when we’re talking about women… Not just was she wearing a short skirt or showing her cleavage, but how many people had she slept with before? Was she 'easy'? Was she by herself? Had she not taken the precaution of X, Y or Z? Had she been flirting? Was she drunk or high? Did she make a stupid decision? Could she be lying? Is she looking for attention? Isn’t she just ruining the lives of some young, promising guys?
Louise O’Neill’s book Asking for It challenges all of those acidic assumptions head on. It’s one of the most harrowing - yet entirely brilliant and utterly thought-provoking - books for young adults/teenagers that I’ve read in a very long time. I stayed up until 2am, racing through page after page. O’Neill has form. Her first book Only Ever Yours skewered and sharply satirized our modern obsession with appearance and skinniness (see my review for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk). But the world painted here is no dystopia, but current day Ireland – set in a small town full of classrooms and friendship politics and parties and smartphones. A world where Emma O’Donovan wakes up one morning with no memory of the previous night, only to find that the awful events have been plastered across social media. In fact, it is a kind of dystopia - but one that is all too horribly recognisable and current. This is a book that is as lyrical as it is disturbing – especially in the second half, charting the shattering impact of this incident on Emma, and the ripple effect beyond her.
Emma is not the kind of character you immediately fall in love with. She is continually preoccupied with her own status, her beauty, her ability to attract the boys around her. Descriptions of her outfits are also rife throughout the book, as is Emma’s obsession with her appearance. On the night of the party, she gives details of her new dress: ‘It’s black, cut down the naval, and very, very short.’ All but one of her friends’ dresses are too. It’s standard, almost expected – a constant visual vying with each other. But although that dress may be calculated to draw attention, it does not make Emma accountable. Nothing could do that. Nothing whatsoever. And yet nearly everyone else around her seems to think that it's not just acceptable, but funny, to label her as a ‘slut’ – that she was 'asking for it', that she had it coming, that she deserves revulsion and mockery rather than empathy.
What's both fantastic and scary is how powerfully O’Neill's book echoes and embodies many of the conversations currently happening about rape culture. It reflects and brings to life everything from victim blaming to social media shaming to consent, law, gender, the media, and how narratives are constructed around both attackers and survivor. There are hints of the Steubenville case, and others of its kind. This is not an easy read, by any means. Yet it is a necessary one. I hope huge numbers of people, especially young people, pick it up and then talk and talk and talk about it.
Let’s return to clothing for a minute though, and unpack it a little further. This may seem like a heavy topic in general for a fashion blog, but in some ways it’s the perfect forum. I write about clothes constantly: about their messages, their meanings, their possibilities, their multifaceted functions.
But let’s be clear on this. There is no correlation between the particular arrangement of fabric on your skin (and the amount of skin it shows), and any sense of responsibility – whether we’re talking catcalls, lewd comments, groping, or rape. It’s not your fault if you are wearing a bodycon dress, a skirt short as a belt, a translucent shirt that shows your bra or hot-pants and a crop top. It is just as much not your fault as if you were wearing a demure pink twinset with pearls, a drab shapeless dress, a baggy hoodie and jogging bottoms, or jeans and the biggest, bobbly jumper. Doesn’t matter if you’re covered head to toe or just in a g-string (although I’d argue against the latter on the grounds of comfort, if nothing else).
How you choose to clothe yourself can be many, many things, but it is not an invitation, not an advance, not a request – and never, ever a justification.
Everything I’m wearing here is second hand, and you know what? I felt bloody fabulous in it.
Asking for It comes out with Quercus on September 3rd. It was a privilege to read it ahead of publication, and I have a feeling it’s going to be absolutely huge – and generate lots of much-needed conversations. I'd also suggest Sanne's video and Rosianna's too for very insightful observations on the book and on rape culture.