Book Review: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It, Kate Harding (2015)

August 28th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

An Insightful, Sometimes-Snarky, Surprisingly Readable Interrogation of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Obvious trigger warning for rape.)

I’ve been a fan of Kate Harding’s ever since her days blogging at Shakespeare’s Sister (now Shakesville). I think I first caught wind of her latest project, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It, more than a year ago, and have spent the interim occasionally checking the book’s Amazon listing, where the publication date seemed to creep further and further away. And it’s no wonder: every month brings with it a new development in the national conversation about rape and rape culture.

As Harding explains in the Author’s Note:

When I sold the proposal for this book in 2012, I foolishly agreed to finish the manuscript in six months, because my agent, editor, and I agreed that rape culture was having a moment, as it were. News of the Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape case was picking up steam, and the memory of Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe was fresh in all our minds. Sexual violence was suddenly a popular topic, but – based on national conversations about rape in the 1970s and 1990s that started strong and dissipated quickly – we feared that if we waited too long, this book might be released to a public that was already over it.

The bad news is that it took me way longer than six months to finish the manuscript. The good news – amazingly, wonderful, really sort of mind-blowing news actually – is that years later, Americans are still walking seriously about rape and rape culture.

Asking for It is a welcome addition to the conversation: smart, witty, and surprisingly enjoyable. Well, not enjoyable, exactly – that’s not quite right – but Harding’s sometimes-snarky tone and penchant for calling bullshit as needed make for a slightly less depressing read.

And there’s so much to feel disheartened about. Normally this is where, in a nonfiction book review, I might insert choice excerpts to represent the overall content and tone of the book. In this case: statistics concerning the prevalence of rape (at some point in their lives 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped; 98% of offenders are men; 64% of rapes are never reported, while only 12% lead to arrest); an especially egregious case of victim-blaming (the eleven-year-old Jane Doe from Cleveland, Texas, who was gang-raped and then likened by a defense attorney to a spider, luring his client the fly to certain doom); anti-rape campaigns gone horribly wrong (a 2006 ditty from the British Home Office features a prison rape “joke”!); or scientific studies of law enforcement officers’ acceptance of rape culture myths (in one study, 28.8% of participants estimated that 50% or more of rape allegations were false – with some respondents putting the figure at 100%).

But I don’t really want to do that here. Even choosing the examples cited above proved an exercise in indecision.

My reluctance isn’t just because the book’s filled to bursting with surprising (or not, unless you’re an off-the-grid hermit) facts and eminently-quotable passages. Rather, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and I’d be doing it – and you – a disservice by pretending otherwise. In Asking for It, Harding masterfully dissects and interrogates rape culture, critiquing its various components and manifestations, sometimes even identifying unexpected connections. For example, abortion, online trolling, Gamergate, and revenge porn might not seem (at least to the casual observer) to have much – if anything – to do with sexual assault. Yet Harding shows how anti-abortion activists and politicians – and rapists themselves – use reproductive rights as a cudgel to control women and their bodies. Likewise, those who harass women from the comfort and anonymity of the internet often invoke the threat of rape to silence women, removing them – and their voices – from the public sphere.

Though I no longer read feminist blogs with the same religious fervor as my early days on the ‘net (I slowly cycled from anger to depression to burnout), I still keep up with the news on social media, and I like to think I’m fairly well-informed with it comes to “women’s issues” like rape. (Scare quotes because labeling rape a women’s problem a) places the onus on women to stop it and b) helps to remove men from the conversation, when they should be at the epicenter, as Harding astutely notes. The way rape is reported, you’d think it’s a perpetratorless crime!) And while I did indeed recognize a number of cases cited by Harding – Steubenville, Bill Cosby, Emma Sulkowicz, Roman Polanski, Julian Assange*, the Central Park Five – a rather surprising minority proved news to me. (How did I manage to miss the whole Ben Roethlisberger catastrofuck?) Likewise, while we’ve all heard the statistics about rape, the psychological/sociological research presented here is as informative as it is chilling.

I also appreciate the light Harding shines on potential solutions, as promised in the second half of the book’s subtitle: “What We Can Do about It”. Among these are successful education campaigns, undertaken by organizations, yet Harding also emphasizes the many ways that individuals can have an impact in their own lives, from taking to social media to shame companies, institutions, and artists into doing better, to challenging rape culture within your own social circles. (Dudes, we’re looking at you.)

For younger readers, or those new to the topic, Asking for It is an accessible introduction to rape culture. In particular, I think it could be an excellent resource for parents who’d like to broach the subject with their teens, or for intro-level college courses (women’s studies, psychology, criminology). Academics and journalists may also find something new and stimulating here; like I said, Harding makes some exciting connections and observations. If nothing else, it may challenge you to see one or more aspects of rape culture from a different angle.

Naturally, there are a few areas I wish Harding has spent more (or some) time on. While Harding approaches the topic with an intersectional focus – teasing out the ways that race, class, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and disability interact with misogyny vis-à-vis rape culture (for the accused as well as victims) – a discussion of the unique challenges faced by, say, trans women would have been welcome. Likewise, a dedicated section on campus rape by college athletes could have helped tease out the many threads that make up the vom-worthy tapestry that is rape culture, sitting as it does on the nexus of campus rape and celebrity. (It’s worth noting that journalist Andrea Grimes announced a book deal to address this very topic last August.) And while revenge porn and upskirt photos are mentioned in passing, both are forms of sexual assault that are slowly being recognized as the serious violations that they are (18 states now have laws on the books re: revenge porn) – making them ripe for discussion.

* I cannot thank Harding enough for the (relatively) lengthy look at the Assange case. Liberal dudebros, c’mon! If the CIA really wanted to lock him up, why fabricate charges for the most under-reported, under-investigated, under-prosecuted, under-punished crime of, like, ever? Better to frame him for embezzling donations or a killing a pedestrian in a hit-and-run. Refusing to stop once a consensual sexual encounter became non-consensual? Yeesh. Most people don’t even consider that rape. Sad but true.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Harding frequently addresses the intersections of misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc., and how they play out in rape culture in general, as well as how they influence the treatment and outcome of specific cases.


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2 Responses to “Book Review: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It, Kate Harding (2015)”

  1. Jojo Says:

    Thanks for reviewing this one! It’s been on my wish list since I first heard about it & I’ll probably download it soon.

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    Oh good, I hope you like it!

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