More Than a Moment - Emily Atack’s ‘Asking For it?’ One month on
Jemma Ansell
Student Liaison Manager at the University of Warwick
In this article;
It’s been one month since the release of Emily Atack’s thought-provoking documentary — but what have we learned?

(Trigger warning: this post discusses sexual harassment and mentions rape.)

Receiving 37 sexually explicit messages over Instagram before even sitting down to breakfast, actor and comic Emily Atack undoubtedly experiences more online harassment than the average woman. In her new documentary, released at the end of January, she brazenly confronts the British public with the sobering realities of this experience.

Surprise dick pics, cyber flashing, unsolicited sexual imagery, whatever you want to call it, Atack has received it all; without her consent and certainly without, as the documentary debates, 'asking for it.' 

The documentary has successfully started a meaningful conversation about consent, harassment and women’s safety — but Atack wants to achieve more than that, as is made clear by her work to create legislative change within the UK Government and make cyber flashing a crime. Now, in the week celebrating International Women’s Day, this begs the question: how do we ensure we don’t forget this conversation once it fades from the headlines?

The Problem is Everywhere

It’s a common misconception that digital harassment is an experience unique to those in the public eye. However, Atack cleverly dispels this belief by discussing it with a group of 16-year-old girls, all of whom admit to having received unsolicited sexual images and messages from the age of 12. 

Sadly, these experiences have become part of the everyday norm for many British children. This has been exposed by Childnet in a survey of 1,559 UK teens, which found that almost a third of girls aged 13-17 years had received unwanted sexual messages online from their peers, whilst 1 in 10 UK youth has been targeted online by their peers with sexual threats, such as rape threats. 

On a larger scale, a recent UN Women's survey revealed that 14% of all UK women experienced sharing of suggestive, indecent, or unsolicited content online, with over 30% of 18-24-year-olds receiving similar content. 

The problem is vast and, unfortunately, vastly normalised. 

“Not an Entry-Level Offence”

We often see digital harassment as less of a threat, but as Professor Jane Monckton-Smith expertly highlights, rape is “not an entry-level offence" — unsolicited sexual messaging exists on a continuum of violent practices that can escalate. We see this in practice, too — taking the case of Sarah Everard's murder, for example. Perpetrator Wayne Couzens was responsible for multiple acts of sexual violence before Everard's avoidable kidnapping and murder in 2021, showing that normalising these acts leads to a dangerous lack of accountability and potential escalation to physical violence.

This means that, as a society, we need to start taking all cases of harassment seriously, even if they seem harmless on the surface. Atack herself acknowledges that digital harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and discusses both legal and educational solutions. 

Legislative Change Isn’t Enough

Of course, the introduction of legislation such as the Online Safety Bill will provide a stepping stone towards heightened accountability, but altering laws simply isn’t enough. In fact, over 95% of sexual harassment does not get reported, indicating that the shift largely needs to be cultural. 

Building public trust in reporting mechanisms is also vital to bringing about change. Whether reporting to the police, work, or educational institutions, reporting infrastructure needs to be built around the needs of survivors. When outcomes then reflect what is being reported, a virtuous circle is created, with others more likely to report if they see their peers doing so. 

Prevention First

A conclusion that Atack reaches with the support of Glitch's CEO, Seyi Akiwowo, is that prevention must be at the forefront of fighting this issue, after she points out that solely punitive action does very little to reduce this harassment from occurring in the first instance. 

Therefore, consent education that is tailored to address consent in the online sphere is vital. Exchanging nude images and sexual messages is ingrained in the social norms of young adults, so training must acknowledge that online sexual interactions exist on a spectrum. Behaviours can range from flirty and enthusiastic to violating and threatening; acquiring consent determines where interactions fall on this spectrum, and is essential in reducing digital sexual harassment. Consent education that addresses consent in the online sphere is vital.

Of course, many individuals cyber-flash with the specific intention of aggravating the receiver, so sending unsolicited sexual messages becomes a tool of power and control, endangering the recipient’s rights to safety. When this is the case, consent is not respected and the act is inherently rooted in sexism and a sense of sexual entitlement. 

Don’t Let the Moment Pass

Atack does more than condemn harassment here; she also emphasises the need for education programmes focussing on masculinity and the part it plays in an oppressive system that allows digital violence. Atack highlights the work of Beyond Equality, a charity working with men and boys of all ages towards gender equality and building inclusive communities. Workshops like the one demonstrated in the documentary, in which men organically unpack masculinity, are another essential piece of education to combat digital harassment. This is to say that awareness of the issue isn’t enough — there is a lot to be learned from this documentary, and just as much to be done.

There is no doubt that Atack’s documentary has been received well, credited for being thought-provoking and posing essential questions to society at large, with fans stating it should be “compulsory viewing.” However, this isn’t the first time that a piece of media has had this reception, and unfortunately it won’t be the last — we need to do more than watch and listen, we need to learn and make change, too.

I quote, therefore, a Beyond Equality statement when I conclude that eradicating online sexual harassment is going to take a movement and not a moment. However, the culmination of increased accountability for perpetrators and preventative education is vital to bringing about change. 

Don't let this documentary simply be another moment.

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