“Asking for It”: some thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls’ bodies following the Steubenville rape verdict

I have been thinking a lot about the recent Steubenville rape decision and its coverage in the media. The one phrase that has been stuck in my mind all day today is this one: “asking for it.”

I have spent much of my life playing with words, sometimes building them, sometimes dismantling them. To study language and to love writing: both involve no less than this. So when I think about words and phrases, I want to break them down and look at them. And with some phrases, I want to break them apart, to crumble them into small pieces of sand. I want to look at the pieces in my hand, then scatter them into the wind.

If you don’t know the extent that the sentiment of “asking for it” has been invoked following the Steubenville verdict, you can visit here. Countless twitter users, not to mention the mainstream media, have articulated sympathy for the Steubenville rapists while simultaneously chastising the victim. The chief basis for this victim blaming is that the victim was drunk when she was raped. The logic of victim blaming will tell you that this young woman should have been aware of her surroundings. It will tell you that she invited dehumanization and violence on her body. That she implicitly requested to be raped. That she asked for it.

But, as a phrase, what does “asking for it” really mean? What has it come to mean? Through use and repetition in media and subcultures, words and phrases take on particular, honed meanings and connotations beyond their literal structure and origin. At this point in time, “asking for it” does not actually mean to ask. It does not mean to vocalize consent. It does not signify an articulation of desire. When you think about it, it is actually not used to suggest that a young, unconscious woman literally or implicitly said, “Do this to me.”

Instead, what it says is that she deserved it.

“Asking for it” has come to be used in reference to perceived weakness and the perceived necessity of punishment. This is clear in uses of the phrase outside the context of sexual assault.

“Asking for it” is used by the tired parent whose child won’t stop yelling in the middle of a busy mall. The parent slaps or spanks the child. The child cries even more. But that’s okay, right? She, the child, was asking for it. Her misbehaviour, the parent believes, warrants such stern reprimand.

“Asking for it” is used in military strategy games when your opponent is distracted and lets down his guard for that crucial moment. His defences are down. So you take action, because you are playing a game and the purpose of this game is to win. As a consequence, you make major ground. Your opponent is upset at your success, of course. But he let it happen. He displayed his own weakness. He let his guard down. He was asking for it.

I could think of many more similar scenarios, but I think these two are enough to make my point. “Asking for it” is used when someone has acted in a way that reveals a weakness. It is used in situations when someone is seen to deserve violence in order to discipline them for bad behaviour.

It does not really mean to ask. And yet, strangely enough, it is conflated with the concept of consent, as if consent could be implicitly given by being drunk or unconscious.

All day, I have asked myself how it could be that so many people have expressed the sentiment that a young woman who was unconscious was “asking for it”? But as I think more about it, I think my two examples above are oddly appropriate. We live in a culture that so often sees young women as small children who need steering and discipline so as to protect them from themselves. And we also see young women as military-esque targets that are the objects of battles and conquests. We tell women not to wear certain clothes because we believe men cannot help themselves. We tell them men only want to conquer. We tell them don’t walk in certain areas. Watch your drink. Don’t wear that skirt. And if you don’t behave as we say, you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you. You should have better guarded your fortress.

But, as a culture, we don’t tell men not to rape.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I have never been raped. I know so many people, all across the gender spectrum, who have been subject to sexual violence. I am humbled by their strength and their resilience in overcoming what they have been through and speaking out about it.

Statistically speaking, you know these people too, whether or not you have heard their stories. This kind of violence is all too common.

I haven’t been raped, but I have been beaten up. I think of the Steubenville victim, who was only sixteen when she was raped. When I was sixteen, one night I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He and I were drinking wine. He picked a fight with me. I told him that I wanted to go home. It was after midnight, and I was tired of being called names. I told him I wanted to see my dad. I reached toward the doorknob of his room. This was the first time he hit me. It didn’t leave a visible bruise, but for a week after, I had a small red blot that seemed to hover just on the surface of my left eyeball. Like a tiny red planet in motionless orbit around my iris. No one else noticed.

When I started to be vocal about him hitting me, I was keenly aware of how many people within my group of friends (who were also his group of friends) started to change in how they acted toward me. I knew what was said behind my back. I knew that some people sympathized with me. But I knew that others expressed in so many words behind my back that I had asked for what had been happening to me, because I was a strange, awkward girl who wore particular clothes and flirted too much and should have been more sensible about where she went and who she spent time with.

I have no idea what it is like to be raped. I have no idea what it is like to know that there are images of your rape around the internet. I have no idea what it is like to be revictimized at trial and then once again in the trial of public opinion. But I do remember a little bit about what it is like to be a drunk sixteen year old girl, even though I’m almost twice that age now. And what I know about that is that no matter how drunk you were, you did not ask to be mistreated. More likely than not, you believed in the goodness of other people. You did not ask to be treated as a thing. You did not ask to be someone’s object of conquest. You did not ask to be punished, dehumanized, and humiliated. Your body did not ask for discipline.

I know that you were never asking for it.

Because asking for it, if you really, really take a moment and think about what that phrase should mean, would involve a girl opening her mouth and speaking consent. Or writing it down. Or making some kind of meaningful communication. It would involve an action: to ask. Not lying down limp and unconscious or saying nothing. We all deserve, and we must demand, a better world than the one that exists now. And part of demanding this better world is refusing to accept the idea that others have some kind of implicit right to articulate their rage on girls’ bodies.

No one ever asks for this.