There’s a scene early in Emily Atack: Asking for It? (BBC Two, Tuesday, 9pm) in which the British TV presenter reads aloud to her male colleagues some of the vile messages she’s received over Instagram. They’re shocked – but mostly they’re amused. It’s all a lark. She then explains that, although it’s well and good having a chuckle about this at work, her feelings are very different alone at night.
“When I’m at home,” she says, “I lock the doors.” The laughter ends.
Atack is one of those UK celebrities whose fame hasn’t quite made it to Ireland. She has starred in The Inbetweeners, has done reality TV and now has a comedy show on the BBC. As a woman in the spotlight she has also suffered horrific abuse, often in the form of unsolicited images sent anonymously over social media.
“Every morning I see a man’s penis I haven’t asked to see,” she says at the start of an unflinching and often distressing film. “It was in lockdown that things got really bad.”
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British television has an annoying habit of crowbarring celebrities into “hot topic” issues. But in Atack’s case the story is both personal and universal. Just how commonplace “cyberflashing” has become is underlined when she visits a school and learns that most of the girls she sits down with have received unsolicited images, the abuse often beginning when they are as young as 11 or 12.
Atack brings up the murder, in March 2021, of Sarah Everard, whose killer was revealed to have a history of indecent exposure. As one expert says, “rape is not an entry-level offence.”
She meets Jamie Klingler, who organised the first vigil in London after Everard’s death and founded the Reclaim These Streets movement. “I started getting rape threats and death threats,” she says.
Atack is often told not to go on social media by friends and family. They also caution her against posting images of herself in swimsuits, as if that justifies the abuse she suffered. The stream of offensive imagery has, in addition, caused her to question herself and to trigger unresolved traumas regarding her sexual past. This is all laid out in a tearful visit to her mother.
One troll has been especially vile. Finally, she contacts the police. She is then asked to read aloud one of the offensive messages in front of a male officer. Understandably, she grows upset. Although he offers to step outside, the episode underscores just how difficult it is for women to speak out.
“They say don’t go on social media. It’s like saying don’t walk home at night,” Atack says. “I have to walk home. It’s more than sex – it’s power and control.”