Emily Atack to tackle online sexual harassment in new documentary

TV star Emily Atack holding her phone, looking sad.

Emily Atack is set to explore what can be done to tackle online sexual harassment and if enough is being done to protect young women and girls online, in her new documentary, ‘Asking For It?’.

The actor, presenter and comedian, will ask what motivates some men to send explicit material to women, the impact this has on the victims and what can be done to stop this from happening.

Research from 2020 found 76% of girls aged 12-18 had been sent unsolicited nude images of boys or men, commonly known as “dick pics” and according to domestic abuse charity Refuge, one in three UK women have experienced online abuse or harassment.

She said: “Over the last two and a half years I’ve been speaking out about my own personal experiences of online sexual harassment. Within that time, one thing has become clear, I’m not alone. With this documentary, I am hoping to find answers to the many questions I’ve been asking myself my entire life, and I hope it will go on to help thousands of others too”

The ‘Inbetweeners’ star will open up about the vile online abuse she is personally subjected to on a daily basis, and reveals that men send her unsolicited images of their genitals to graphic descriptions of what they would like to do to her, along with open threats of rape and murder.

She reveals a particularly disturbing message she received on Twitter, a man wrote that he would “cut [her] open, drink [her] blood, then rape [her] and chop [her] body up.”, which left her terrified about being raped and killed.

She said: “It feels like sexual assault…And I have been sexually assaulted, so I know what that feels like. I feel like I’m being sexually assaulted hundreds of times a day.”

Emily met with MPs at Parliament In 2021, and gave a speech sharing her experience of abuse, and asked MPs to support her campaign with Grazia, to make cyberflashing a crime. The Government has pledged to tackle the sending of unsolicited pictures in the Online Safety Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords.

In the documentary, she bravely reaches out to some of the men who routinely send her sexually explicit content to try and understand their motives and the psychology behind the behaviour.

One of these men blocked Emily immediately after reading her message, while the other victim blamed her – saying he was trying to get her attention and his messages were due to her “reputation”.

The actor will attempt to uncover why much of the blame for unwanted sexual attention is often placed on the victim, how this affects her own sense of identity and confidence and admits that at times she has too unfairly blamed herself.

She said: “Is it because I posed in a bikini? Is it because I get my cleavage out on Instagram and talk about my sex life on stage? Am I part of the problem?”

In an emotional scene, she speaks to her parents for the first time about her experiences of attracting unwanted sexual attention from a very young age and how these incidents have shaped her.

She said: “My whole life, ever since I was a child, around ten years old, I’ve had this kind of abuse and unwanted attention…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”

Emily also meets with experts, including a sexual violence and abuse councillor and online safety campaigners, to learn why this type of behaviour has been normalised for so long.

She said: “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”

She believes that education is needed for there to be a societal shift in attitudes, which she hopes will lead to real sustainable change.

She said: 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!”

She hopes that with the documentary, she can open up the conversation, educate and help change thinking and behaviours.

She said: “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…It’s very difficult for me to talk about and I just want to make a difference somewhere.”

Watch Emily Atack: Asking For It? on Tuesday 31 January, 9pm on BBC Two and on BBC iPlayer.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this story, support and advice is available via the BBC Action Line.

For more social impact news, visit our blog.