Receiving 37 sexually explicit messages in one morning, including dick pics, would surely ruin anyone’s breakfast. “That did put me off my scrambled eggs,” says Emily Atack, who must have been thankful sausages weren’t the plan that morning.
But none of this is funny. The actor and comic has made Emily Atack: Asking for It? (BBC Two), a documentary about her experience of receiving thousands of sexually aggressive messages and images on social media, and its impact on her. News of the programme makes the front page of the Sun (“TV Emily sex pest hell”), which prompts one of her harassers to get in touch. “I’ll be masturbating while watching your new documentary,” he writes, spectacularly failing to get the point or – far more likely – getting a thrill out of tormenting her.
Atack is a warm and engaging presenter who can laugh at the hideous photos and messages when she is with friends, such as the writers on her ITV2 comedy show, but she admits to using humour as a coping mechanism. It is not funny to receive violent fantasies and sexual images when she is at home alone and has to check the locks on her door.
Atack’s underlying question is whether she has been asking for it. If she posts pictures of herself in a bikini online, is it – as people have told her – her fault that men send her vile messages and photographs? (No, is the obvious answer.)
But dick pics are merely the symptom of a sick misogynistic culture. “I’ve used my sexuality to get things I want and need at times. Does that make me part of the issue?” she wonders, but never gets much deeper than this. She did photoshoots for lads’ mags – a tiny part of the wider objectification of women – and I would have been interested to hear more about how she feels about her part in that now.
I’m not blaming Atack for it, of course; she is as much a victim of the culture as any of us. She tells us later how she had her first sexual experience at the age of 12 with an 18-year-old man and received sexual attention from men from an even younger age. No wonder she grew up to be a woman who thought she had to do what photographers wanted and blamed herself for the dick pics.
The point is, women get these kinds of messages regardless of what they wear or how they behave because it’s about shaming and intimidating them. As a public figure, Atack might get more than most, but the documentary also includes women who don’t have a public profile and the impact it has on them. It makes them feel sick, they say. “It really is humiliating, embarrassing for some reason, even though I didn’t do anything wrong,” says one.
Most incensing are the experiences of the 16-year-old girls Atack visits at a school, almost all of whom have received dick pics or videos of men masturbating. One says she started receiving them when she was 12. “It starts when you get a phone,” she says. Another says the messages ramp up whenever she is pictured in her school uniform. Most of the messages come from much older men. “I feel more vulnerable in my uniform than I do in anything else,” says one. I can’t stop thinking about these girls, and wondering how we got to a point where it can be considered normal for men to send pornography to children.
It is a frustrating watch in some ways. It is a shame the tech companies weren’t questioned on their failure to tackle unsolicited sexual images; even a we-tried-but-they-declined-to-comment would have spoken loudly about how uninterested these platforms seem to be in tackling abuse against women. Although Atack mentions she has spoken at a briefing of MPs, it is not clear in the rest of the documentary what parliament plans to do about “cyberflashing”. (It will be criminalised in England and Wales when the online safety bill becomes law, which this programme could have made clear, since the online safety campaigner interviewed here by Atack says we need education alongside legislation.)
The documentary is more affecting as a portrait of the impact this torrent of sexual images has. Like many women, Atack feels humiliated and ashamed by it. When she finally reports some of the abuse to the police, having never thought they would take it seriously, she cries. She has been damaged by it, she says, and she doesn’t know if she can change that. It is heartbreaking and enraging.