EMILY ATACK: ASKING FOR IT?
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‘Commendable’: Emily Atack explores the extreme sexual harassment she suffers online. Photograph: Richard Ansett/BBC/Little Gem Productions
Also on BBC Two, the documentary Emily Atack: Asking for It? saw the actor-presenter-comic pondering the extreme sexual harassment she suffers online. From “dick pics” and naked handstands (so random, I almost want to know why) to creepy messages (“I’ll be masturbating while watching your new documentary”) and rape/death threats that frighten her when she’s alone at night.
Atack, who debated “cyber-flashing” in parliament last year, wonders if she is indeed “asking for it” by having posed suggestively and played sexualised roles such as The Inbetweeners’ Charlotte. Of course not, though it seems likely that fame amplifies the porn-soaked entitlement that’s swilling out there already. Men do it, a male volunteer says, because “we can get away with it”.
There’s another story here, concerning Atack’s personal sexualisation (including sexual activity at 12 with an 18-year-old) that she and her parents bravely and tearfully attempt to discuss. Atack’s documentary is all the more commendable because it will doubtless expose her to even more abuse. While other documentaries, such as Channel 4’s recent Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth, covered similar ground – even down to interviewing grotesquely pestered schoolgirls – perhaps that proves the point. The problem isn’t that females keep complaining about it, it’s that males keep doing it.
Women, is it your fault? Send questions to my Asking for It? forum
If you watched Emily Atack’s BBC2 documentary this week you’ll know she is constantly in receipt of “dick pics”. As are many women including, as we saw, a group of teenage girls who, when asked if they’d experienced “cyberflashing”, as it’s also called, all put their hand up.
The programme was titled Asking for It? because that is what is also so distressing to recipients. Have I asked for it? Have I incited this behaviour? Is it something I’m doing? Something I’m wearing? Is it my fault?
Emily Atack during her documentary, Asking For It? BBC
Some will say this is ridiculous, this is “victim-blaming”, that we need to tackle the misogynistic men who feel it is their right to do this, that it’s a sexual violation, that non-consent is a core wrong, but it’s not that straightforward. This is why I have set up a forum, Asking for It?, which I hope will offer some clarity on these matters and already my inbox is full:
Dear AFI, I was in an airport lounge breastfeeding my baby when I was airdropped a full-frontal job saying that as I’d shown mine, he could show me his. I was asking for it, wasn’t I? Yours, Lorraine
I think you’ve answered your own question there, Lorraine
Dear AFI, as soon as I started receiving pictures of a sexual nature I realised the source of the problem: I’d gone through puberty. I now receive them almost daily but I can’t tell my parents or my teachers and I can’t tell the police because of the shame, as it was me who went through puberty in the first instance. I don’t know what to do. Can you help? Thanks, Sally
Dear Sally, going through puberty and becoming a teenager is a bit of an invitation, isn’t it? And I wonder: had you considered the risks involved before you went for it? I’m afraid, Sally, you are going to have to share some of the responsibility for this. It’s a bit late to do anything about it now. You’ve made your bed. But for others out there: don’t turn into a woman. You’ll be sending out all sorts of confusing signals if you do.
Dear AFI, I don’t understand why social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter and online services generally can’t put a stop to it, aren’t pelted with heavy fines if they don’t, or the police don’t do more to track the perpetrators down. In a just world your average cyberflasher would be arrested just as he’s sitting down to eat cottage pie with his family, surely? Why don’t they do more? Jenny
Because, Jenny, you were probably asking for it.
Dear AFI, to spare myself any further distress should I destroy all my technology, curl up in the back of a dark cupboard, weep in fear, never come out? Best, Lucy
That would be the most responsible course of action, Lucy, yes. Please ensure someone is around to throw food into the cupboard every now and then and that you have access to water or you will die. On the plus side, once you are dead, these sorts of communications will peter out and then stop altogether. Swings and roundabouts, Lucy, swings and roundabouts.
HUGO RIFKIND ON TV
“Every morning when I wake up,” Emily Atack says, “I see a penis that I haven’t asked to see.”
“Hey, join the club,” you may be tempted to reply, but this is no laughing matter. A comedian and an actress best known for her role in The Inbetweeners half a lifetime ago, Atack is on a mission to find out just why it is that men send her such horrible sexual filth on the internet. As such, Emily Atack: Asking for It? (BBC2) is covering similar ground to a decent handful of recent documentaries, but Atack is very well placed to cover it again.
The complications here are not unseen by Atack; they’re the whole point. “I’ve used my sexuality,” she ponders of her career and her Instagram page, “so does that make me part of the issue?” Yet Atack comes to recognise that her experience now as a celebrity is a continuation of the worst bits of her wild and perhaps even abused teenage years, and it wasn’t her fault then, either. Or, as she puts it, “I wanted them to ask for my phone number in a shopping centre. But I didn’t want them to do all the other things.”
Atack discusses her vile fanbase with her parents, which is moving but perhaps a missed opportunity. Never is it mentioned, particularly, that her mother Kate Robbins was a pop and soap star (in Crossroads, actually) which could have been a jumping-off point for a discussion about the changing nature of the misogyny faced by women deemed accessible by the male gaze.
More powerful still is her discussion with male comedian colleagues, such as Seann Walsh. At first they’re laughing uproariously as she reads messages aloud. So much do they laugh, in fact, that it’s frankly uncomfortable. “My God,” you think, “do they not get what sort of show this is?” Then Atack, who doesn’t mind the laughter, goes on to explain that the ludicrous and pathetic messages are part and parcel of an inbox that also includes violent threats of rape and even murder. The laughter dies, abruptly. It’s a realisation all men are due.
Later, she speaks to a man who recently came out as bisexual, and has had to adjust his entire view of male behaviour now he has started receiving unwanted dick pics himself. That, I suppose, is another one.
Unlike with many similar documentaries, one does come away with a decent sense of why some men send these pictures. It’s because, I suppose, Atack is seen by them, and has an effect on them, and they want to have an effect on her too. It’s true, perhaps, that Atack has the power to filter her experience more than she does. When she talks of particular men who send her hundreds of messages, you do have to wonder why she hasn’t blocked them long ago. Indeed, some of them block her when she finally replies.
That, though, misses the point too. Why should it be that the responsibility rests on women to adapt, while vile male behaviour gets to be regarded as an unchangeable force of nature? The most heartbreaking thing here is Atack’s shame that she has let any of this happen to her. Yet the viewer realises — as you hope she eventually does too — that however she looks and whatever she posts, and indeed whatever feelings she prompts in men who resent her for it, the shame belongs quite firmly on the other side.