I know the term “trigger warning” can be a controversial one and its use often divides opinion, but Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth (Channel 4) is so stressful and upsetting that my heart rate spikes horribly at several points as I watch. If you are reading this review before watching, consider this a trigger warning.
Ellie Flynn, a likable, Stacey Dooley-esque reporter who has previously made documentaries about online porn and coercive control, here tackles the sexual violence and harassment that women and girls face on nights out, on dating apps and even when they are simply walking to school. It scatters statistics throughout that are shocking but utterly predictable. It states that 71% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in a public space. One in four women have been followed on a night out. More than half of girls have experienced harassment while wearing school uniform. Find me a more bleak statement than one that begins: “My most memorable experience of sexual harassment is …. ”
Flynn starts with her own story. She talks about teenage nights out in Watford as she walks past the club, the taxi rank and the kebab shop she and her friends would go to, armed with fake IDs. She recalls being sexually assaulted one night, the lingering effects it had on her and how her feelings towards that incident changed and developed over the years. She talks to schoolgirls about their plentiful experiences of harassment that highlight just how much women begin to alter and adapt their behaviour from a very early age.
She sets up a dating profile on three different apps, using a fake name and pictures of herself when she was 18 and watches as the dick pics fly in. She calls some of the men who have sent these, without any encouragement or even responses from her to their messages, to find out why they think it is acceptable to do so. In a film packed with disturbing moments, I find their replies particularly troubling. Most of the men seem genuinely confused by the idea that the 18-year-old girl they had been messaging might not want to see their penises uninvited. (Fewer than 1% of women say they would like to receive an unsolicited dick pic.) The contortions they do to justify their behaviour are baffling. “For some, it can be a gift,” says one. “I thought you were playing a game,” says another.
But the programme is built around the centrepiece of a big undercover operation “to prove the sexual harassment women face on a daily basis”. It is the sort of social experiment you often see on TikTok. Flynn visits two city centres on busy nights and pretends to be extremely drunk and separated from her friends, in order to see what happens. She wears a hidden camera and microphone, is covertly followed by a crew and has specialist security on hand to intervene if necessary.
What happens is truly horrifying. In Liverpool and London, predatory men circle, then approach and attempt to take her back to her hotel, despite her “drunken” assertions that she’s fine on her own. The sense of danger is palpable, and as each awful situation unfolds, the tension is sickening. Flynn seems genuinely shaken, even knowing that there are people on hand to step in. For anyone who still needs proof of the harassment faced by women, this should certainly do the job.
The big question it leaves me with, though, is who this film is aimed at, and who might benefit from watching. The statistics and anecdotes Flynn and the other women offer up will not be surprising to most women. This film makes the point, again and again, that women often adjust their behaviour in anticipation of the behaviour of some men. I find it hard to believe that any woman will watch this and be surprised to hear the stories or to learn that harassment is so commonplace, though I do admit to finding the apparently organised approach of the perpetrators in London extremely alarming.
This experiment is an indictment, but does not really offer any answers. I am left wondering what can be done. Better training and better education from an earlier age might be a start. Perhaps the most telling moment comes towards the end, when Flynn shows a panel of men the footage. They appear to be more surprised by what they are watching than any woman is likely to be. Including them in the conversation is vital.