Interview with In Conversation with Emily Atack on Asking For It
Emily and her mum, Kate Robbins (Image: BBC/Little Gem Productions)
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Hi Emily, first and foremost, it’s very brave of you to speak so candidly about your experiences of sexual harassment – what were your motivations for doing so in this documentary and how did it come about?
I was in lockdown, and obviously it was a horrid time for everyone – missing family and feeling very lonely and isolated. I realised I was getting all these messages on my social media, like all the time, constant, constant, constant. These were slowly getting worse, more sexually aggressive. I've been getting these messages for years but being in lockdown really seemed to exacerbate the situation in full force!
I felt like it was just slowly chipping away at me, perhaps more so because I was missing home and my family in lockdown. I just really noticed it was something that was playing a huge part in my life that I'd never really talked about. I think that having the time in lockdown to talk about these things, for example I wrote a long article for Grazia about the issue, enabled me to spill out how I really felt about it. It got a massive reaction and it made me realise that the behaviour that I’ve had to put up with for all these years isn’t normal – so that’s really what spurred me on.
Were you surprised at the reaction when you started talking about your own experiences of being harassed online?
I was really surprised at the reaction. Firstly, I was surprised at how much reach it got and the huge conversation that it started.
Secondly, I was shocked at how much we’ve normalised this kind of behaviour. Part of me just sort of thought that this is normal, everyday behaviour from men towards women and it made me realise that that’s the point – we've normalised this behaviour for so long that we are just accustomed to it. This behaviour, this abuse, has been completely tolerated.
On the one hand I had women messaging me saying ‘Well yeah so? This happens to me every day... so what? There's nothing we can do about it.’ That was quite shocking to me, alongside the amount of people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’ve had to put up with that?!’ So, in all, it was the mixed reactions that surprised me.
You talk about self-blame in the documentary, that you are somewhat to blame for eliciting the messages you receive and how you’ve been told you’re ‘asking for it’ all your life, but do you know where did the sense of self blame come from do you think?
My whole life, ever since I was a child, around ten years old, I've had this kind of abuse and unwanted attention. When you grow up with that sort of behaviour in your life, your family and the people that care about you do everything they can to stop it.
I went through my life having my privileges taken from me, things like wearing makeup or wearing a skirt to school for example. I felt like people were always trying to get me to change my behaviour, I don’t blame them for doing that, that’s what so awful about this abuse. The people around you that care about you are trying to protect you so much that they end up trying to change you – whilst trying to make the situation better and stop the unwanted attention; it’s so out of control the only way that those that love you can control it is to change you. That all goes in somewhere, so I started looking inward-my whole life I just blamed myself because of that.
Were you nervous about making this documentary and did you take any steps after filming to wind down and ensure you looked after yourself in the process?
This was the hardest thing I've ever filmed in my life and one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through and do. I had many points where I felt like I couldn’t carry on with it, I broke down a lot, I had a lot of therapy throughout. It's revisiting trauma.
It was a really difficult process and I can honestly say that when this comes out, it’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to put out there, so I just ask for everyone’s support and a bit of kindness towards it.
I’m doing this so that I can maybe help other people, I'm trying to do a good thing and I just hope other people recognise that. People are frightened to have these conversations; you see what happens when people come out and talk about these things - it can really be a very scary thing and a bit of a pile on with these sorts of subjects because people are so threatened by them. It’s very difficult for me to talk about and I just want to make a difference somewhere.
You’ve made a difference already in terms of your work so far to make cyber flashing a criminal offence. Where is the online safety bill currently at?
It’s such a shame, lockdown kind of put all that on hold, it’s been put to the back of the pile again, so there’s a lot of work still to be done. But it was really encouraging when that was all happening and we got really close to something, I spoke in Parliament – so that shows they are willing to talk about it but we just need to charge forward again with it when we can.
You say you often use humour and comedy as a defence mechanism, but that it’s reached a point where the harassment you receive online is no longer funny... what was the turning point? Can you pinpoint this to an exact moment where you realised that it’s actually not okay to be laughing it off anymore?
I find the more I talk about it with people, especially the men in my life, I get the same reaction. There’s a scene in the documentary where this happens too – where they laugh when I read them out some of the messages I’m sent. That is the initial reaction of people closest to me and I’ve laughed too before – I've laughed it off and I've encouraged the humour with it.
I've put things up on my Instagram before, screengrabs with funny captions – but this is a defence mechanism, it’s covering it up. But the good men in my life, the people that work with me that I have close relationships with, they know now. I've had long discussions with them all about it. Luckily, I've got good men around me and they are all very, very supportive.
The thing is, people will react how they think I want them to react. So, when people laugh like that, I think it’s because they think that’s what I want and have invited before, but now I'm opening a new conversation – we've all sort of had a laugh about it, now what does this mean going forwards?
If we actually look at the severity of it, young girls are on Instagram getting messages like this, what would happen if this was your daughter, your niece? It's a more serious discussion to be had once the laughing stops.
The good people in my life are very open to having that discussion and that’s been a really positive experience having those conversations with the blokes in my life.
In the film you talk about whether criminalisation is any use without education. Can you talk more on this?
This is really interesting, because I went into making this film thinking that it’s the law that needs to be changed. Laws are there for a reason and my naïve brain thought that, if it’s against the law, then people won’t do it, but the fact is that people still rape and murder people and that’s against the law – it doesn’t stop people from committing crimes.
This is what I learnt during the process of making this documentary; it’s going back, back, back to the bottom layers of how this behaviour has evolved into something so grotesque, aggressive, malicious and violent. It's getting to the real crux of it. That's the hardest part of it, as it’s trying to change the history of time. Men – not all men, obviously – some men have been behaving this way since the beginning of time, so some days it feels impossible to even attempt to make a difference with, but you’ve got to start somewhere, I guess.
I feel very passionately about this. This is where I think bringing things in like making catcalling a public health issue are important, people can tut and roll their eyes when they hear things like that – but I can now understand the importance of that kind of thing. Catcalling isn’t just catcalling, it’s what that means – it means that someone has that easy access to you but is able to rid themselves of it by driving or running off and you’re left with the feeling. That can be very damaging over a period of time.
It's also understanding that things like that that seem very minor and normalised now, that behaviour evolves and grows into something way more sinister and malicious. The extreme behaviours start somewhere, so getting to the root of problems, that gets the ball rolling to make that bigger change ultimately.
How did you feel when you heard that the majority of the girls you visited at the secondary school had had similar experiences to you regarding sexual harassment online?
I was very emotional that day. What shocked me the most about meeting the high school students was that I thought the girls were going to say it was the boys at school that were a bit out of control and on their phones and all that, but it’s older men online that are approaching these girls. What was mind-blowing to me was that the girls were saying that they felt more vulnerable in their school uniform. Kids in their school uniform have the right to feel safe in their uniform and at school. These kids should just be allowed to learn, do their homework and go to their lessons – they don’t deserve that.
What was amazing is that those kids were so articulate and passionate about their education and their future, they made me sob my eyes out afterwards! They are a credit to that school. They were saying how supported they are by their teachers and by the boys at their school and that they can see now a shift in how better educated boys are in consent and things like that. These conversations need to be happening in schools, which made me so happy to hear they were they - as I’m not sure they did when I was at school.
What did you learn about yourself during the process of making the documentary?
I’ve learnt that actually my resilience through my life has saved me. The things that I've been through, that I’ve normalised my whole life, the more I talk about them the more I realise I shouldn’t have had to put up with them then or today. I'm still learning that, still working on myself and I always will be.
I do feel that as bumpy and as difficult as it was to go through that process, I do genuinely feel stronger for it and proud of the film we’ve made. If it stops one man from sending an explicit image to a girl that day, then it’s done something right.
What do you hope people will take from watching the film?
That I’m trying to do a good thing here and I just ask for people’s support and for them to be openminded with it. I think people can be very quick to shut things down, especially when it’s a woman talking about this kind of issue.
I want men to understand that this isn’t an exclusion of them, it’s trying to include them to be part of a really positive change rather than excluding them and saying they are all bad – that isn’t what this is at all. This is something I want men to be involved with and to support and be our allies, show their support. I want them to be part of a positive change... so join us!
Source BBC TWO
January 24, 2023 4:30am ET by BBC TWO