I was nine when I first realised grown men were sexually interested in me. Shouting at me from speeding vans. Commenting on my body as if they owned it.
Thirty-five years later and I’m tired of the same old s***. Another day, another stranger who thinks they’re entitled to critique my appearance. I’m on telly for a couple of minutes, talking about the abuse Katie Price gets and there it is – “ping…ping…ping…ping” goes my mobile as my inbox fills with hatred, almost always with a nasty sexual edge.
It’s my t***, you see. They’re too big or too small. And my face, it’s getting saggy or I’ve had too much Botox, apparently. My a***, it’s too wide, or I’ve lost too much weight and lost my curves – skinny doesn’t suit me, according to one message. Being a “fat b****” doesn’t seem to suit me either, according to another. Nothing, it turns out, seems to suit me. The message, whether implicit or explicit, is “don’t be seen and don’t be heard”.
I’d love to say thank you to the senders for making me a fighter. I’m a survivor. I’m strong. But those messages do nothing for my power, strength, or resilience. Those messages are filthy, foul and unwanted intrusions into my life. I can give no thanks for that.
Unfortunately, saying that I refuse to accept it will only provoke more messages, which is the way it goes. It’s not because these people don’t understand consent – it’s the lack of consent that gives the thrill.
The other day, I was helping my mum to get out of the car. She’s 73 and she’s got Parkinson’s disease. A group of three lads went by. They looked about 20. One nudged the other and said, “Fancy a bit of granny f****?” How they guffawed. Because it’s not really about what we’re wearing, or how we’re behaving at all. They’re just excuses. The real fun for cowardly men like that is in saying whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that the woman or kid in front of you has no recourse to your attempt to grab power.
I read about Emily Atack’s experiences of sexual harassment on social media – The Inbetweeners star is sent hundreds of explicit pictures and messages every day and has made a documentary about it which is set to air on the BBC – and it felt like she was talking about my nieces. My mum. My sister. Me.
"It’s so out of control, the only way that those that love you can control it is to change you," Atack says. Her experience reflects that of so many women and girls. And what can we do about it? It seems that no one really knows and that’s why women and kids are told constantly about how to protect themselves.
We can report harassment to the police… but given the force’s record on sexual assault and harassment, I’m not convinced they’d take it seriously. After all, they didn’t take the misogyny, harassment and racism going on within their own ranks seriously. David Carrick, a Metropolitan Police officer who admitted to more than 50 criminal offences of rape, sexual assault and coercive control, was nicknamed “Bastard Dave” by his colleagues, after all. Wayne Couzens, who murdered Sarah Everard, was known to his fellow officers as “the rapist”.
So, what do women do? Do we complain loudly and hope it goes away? From my own experience on social media, complaining publicly seems to have the opposite effect.
We must not forget that all the while, Andrew Tate’s influence is growing in classrooms, so boys are taught that women’s voices – and personhood – count for nothing. And in full knowledge of the hatred that will ensue, I’m going to tell you what I think: I think we should stop teaching girls that we’re “looking out for them” by telling them what to wear.
Instead, when we’re worrying about the sexualisation of girls, we should ask them about their lives and experiences rather than assuming we know best. When the institutions who are supposed to protect us are found to be part of the problem, then we stop making excuses for them and we hold them to account.
We need to stop acting like it’s a shock when girls and young women tell us that sexual harassment and abuse is endemic in schools. Of course it is. It was endemic when I went to school – what’s happened in the meantime? The #MeToo movement? Well, we’re currently experiencing a comprehensive backlash against that – thanks, in part, to men like Tate – so I’m not convinced much has shifted in attitudes to women and girls.
Much of this behaviour could be addressed by simply hearing women and girls. Just listening, without rushing to judgment, without comment, without advice on how to avoid unwanted sexual attention. Much of the harm done to women and girls could be prevented by listening and believing instead of jumping in with “she must have made it up”. What that really says – and here’s a head’s up for the predictable trolls out there who lurk in the comments of pieces like this by female writers – is “I’m guilty of this”. It says that you don’t want to do anything to change the status quo, because the belittling and disrespect of girls and women suits you just fine.
In the meantime, I’ve stopped reading unsolicited messages. If someone I don’t know sends me a message without a subject line – or with an obscene subject line, then it just gets binned. Have I lost work through my new approach? Probably. But more importantly, have I lost any sleep over it? Nope. It leaves me feeling well enough to write and speak. It leaves me able to share my voice and demand it is heard, like right now.
We need more girls and women to speak: openly, freely, publicly. We need a cacophony of female voices, accents, and experiences – and we need to get used to that as the status quo.
Emily Atack: Asking for It? is airing on January 31 on BBC 2 at 9pm.