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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Asking For It

In her new documentary, Asking For It, the actress Emily Atack posed pertinent questions about online sexual harassment and its potential for real-world harm – something of which she has ample experience.

“This morning I’ve had 37,” an exasperated Atack explained, referring to the abusive messages she receives daily. “Every morning when I wake up, I see a man’s penis I haven’t asked to see. It’s the ultimate disrespect.”

Catapulted to fame as Charlotte Hinchcliffe in The Inbetweeners, Atack has dealt with unwanted attention from male fans since her teens. During lockdown, an uptick in explicit messages prompted her to share some on social media.

When a flood of responses from women who related to Atack’s experience confirmed the scale of the issue, she began campaigning for changes to the law. “If a law passes and people are saying, you can’t get away with that any more, that would make a huge difference – wouldn’t it?” she asked.

Atack’s experience of sexual harassment – and the mental gymnastics it engenders in survivors – were familiar.

As the documentary continued, that internalised blame kept rising to the surface. Keen to understand the psychology of the men on the other side of the messages, Atack reached out to two of her most prolific harassers.

One promptly blocked her and the other escalated his abuse to the point that she contacted the police.

Reading his messages to the officers, Atack burst into tears: “I’m sorry, I don’t want to get upset. I just feel really embarrassed.”

While Atack had no reason to feel humiliated, she didn’t have to look far for reactions that suggested she did. As she read out a selection of typical messages she has received to comedian Seann Walsh, his reaction to an explicit photo – “I don’t want to see it! He’s sent it to you, not me!” – demonstrated the grim gulf between how seriously people take online harassment and the impact it has on victims’ lives.

“I’m happy to have a joke about it because I’m in a safe environment,” Atack said, generously. “But when I’m on my own at home, I genuinely triple lock all the doors and I’m frightened.”

A third of UK women have experienced online abuse or harassment. And while that statistic is staggering, it is individual stories like Atack’s that allow us to see grand narratives on a human scale. Asking For It balanced the two masterfully.

Drawing on expert voices as well as Atack’s, the documentary made clear how seemingly innocuous behaviour can escalate. As Professor Jane Monckton-Smith explained: “Murder is not an entry-level offence. Rape is not an entry-level offence.”

Just as Sarah Everard’s killer had been arrested for flashing before her murder, “there will be signs and behaviours” that precede more serious crimes. The benefit of paying attention to such patterns, rather than laughing them off, has never seemed starker.

Dealing with one of society’s most persistent problems without lapsing into didacticism or stale truisms, the triumph of the film was in capturing the inner conflict that so often accompanies the experience of sexual violence.

In a culture that still bends over backwards to excuse it, Asking For It was enriched by Atack’s sense of injustice: equal parts disturbing and courageous.

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