Emily Atack’s online hell as she faces ‘sexually aggressive’ messages and pictures

"Every morning when I wake up, I see a man’s penis I haven’t asked to see.”

This is the opening line of Emily Atack’s powerful and thought- provoking new BBC Two documentary about the horrific and relentless online sexual harassment she’s subjected to on a daily basis, and it pretty much sets the scene for the rest of the programme.

For those who are used to seeing the bubbly, flirty and humorous side of the star’s personality, this film will give an insight into the more fragile and, in her words, “damaged” side of her, which we see her coming to terms with on camera.

Emily, 33, has been a familiar face on the celebrity circuit ever since she shot to fame while playing teenage schoolgirl Charlotte Hinchcliffe in The Inbetweeners in 2008. It was a case of life imitating art, and as Simon Bird’s character Will McKenzie obsessed over her, so too did legions of men across the country.

Fast forward 15 years, and the actress, comedian and presenter is still attracting an abundance of attention from the opposite sex, but rather than it being something she feels good about, she’s found herself a victim of constant online sexual harassment.

In Emily Atack: Asking For It?, we accompany Emily on her journey as she tries to make sense of this behaviour, and see her break down on camera several times as she grapples with her sense of “shame” and guilt that the vile and abusive messages she receives on social media might, in some way, be her own fault.

She says, “Because I put bikini pics up on my Instagram and talk about sex in my shows, and I am very cheeky and flirty, there will be people saying, ‘But you asked for this negative attention, what do you expect?’ You do sit there and go, ‘Is this my fault? Is this something I’m putting out there?’”

Talking about why she felt compelled to address this issue so publicly, Emily says that during the pandemic she realised just how out of control it had become.

She says, “I was in lockdown, and it was a horrid time for everyone – missing family and feeling very lonely and isolated. I realised I was getting all these messages on my social media, all the time, constant, constant, constant. These were slowly getting worse, more sexually aggressive. I’ve been getting these messages for years but being in lockdown seemed to exacerbate the situation in full force! I felt like it was just slowly chipping away at me. I really noticed it was something that was playing a huge part in my life that I’d never really talked about.”

In the documentary, a visibly shaken Emily reads out many of the horrendously shocking and violent messages she’s received and shares explicit images she gets sent daily. And what becomes clear very quickly is that it’s not just Emily’s life that this abuse has had a huge impact on.

In one emotional scene, the former I’m A Celeb star opens up to her mum, the actress Kate Robbins, and her dad Keith about what’s really going on. Overwhelmed with emotion, her mum ends up in tears and walks away from the cameras, later confessing that she finds it too “upsetting” and fears for her daughter’s life.

Emily is nothing if not honest throughout the film, and talks about how she’s always used her sexuality to her advantage in the past. She says, “I like being sexy and funny. Who doesn’t want to be sexy and funny?”

However, in one scene we see Emily – who says her first sexual experience was with an 18-year-old when she was just 12 – talking to her therapist about her sexual history and revealing she had moments of hating herself and thinking that she caused her own problems.

Reflecting on her teenage years, she says, “At the time when I was using my body to get what I wanted out of a situation, I thought that was sort of what you had to do. I didn’t like it and it was painful. And I found myself in situations where I was so drunk and I’d wake up and stuff was happening to me.”

The star, who’s had a string of high-profile romances in the past but is currently single, says, “I’ve been carrying around a lot of baggage. I’ve allowed myself to be treated a certain way for such a long time.”

However, by the end of the documentary, in which Emily also talks to other victims of online harassment, including teenage girls, she’s come full circle and realises she’s not to blame for the abuse she’s been subjected to.

In one highly charged moment, Emily’s mum tells her, “It’s not your fault, you must never blame yourself,” to which a crying Emily responds, “It’s something I’ve needed to hear for a very long time.”

Emily – who admits the programme “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” – also addresses her mission to make cyberflashing a criminal offence (the process is still ongoing) and talks to a group of men about why they think other men behave in this way. We even see her confront her abusers, messaging them directly to ask why they are sending her such messages. Unsurprisingly, her questions are met with a wall of silence.

Reflecting on what she’s gleaned from the process, the actress says, “I’ve learnt that, actually, my resilience through my life has saved me. The things that I’ve been through, that I’ve normalised my whole life, the more I talk about them, the more I realise I shouldn’t have had to put up with them then or today. I’m still learning that, still working on myself and I always will be.”

She continues, “I do feel that as bumpy and as difficult as it was to go through that process, I genuinely feel stronger for it and proud of the film we’ve made. If it stops one man from sending an explicit image to a girl that day then it’s done something right.”

She also stresses that rather than exclude men, she wants the documentary to get them on board and feel part of the solution.

“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,” she says. “This is something I want men to be involved with and be our allies, show their support. I want them to be part of a positive change… so join us!”

Emily Atack: asking for it? is on Tuesday 31 January at 9pm on BBC TWO


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