What not to say to someone who has been groped in public

As Ellie Cosgrave had proved, dancing is as good a way as any to deal with sexual assault.

How do you protest against sexual assault? Do you take to the streets, sign an e-petition, join a movement? Well, if you’re Ellie Cosgrave, who was rubbed up against by an anonymous man on the London underground last year and emerged with semen dripping down her leg, you do it through the medium of dance. Cosgrave returned to the scene of the crime on International Women’s Day this year, wearing a sign explaining that "On the 4th August 2011 a man ejaculated on me in this carriage. Today I’m standing up against sexual harassment everywhere". She danced as a way of reclaiming and expressing her own bodily autonomy. In her own words, she couldn’t sing and she couldn’t shout very loudly, so she had to find her protest niche. Unorthodox? Sure. But this is a woman who spent the ten minutes before her Monday morning presentation wiping someone else’s bodily fluids off her tights. She’s probably in the best position to raise awareness of the issue, however the hell she chooses.

Which is why the response to her protest has been so disappointing. Comments on her descriptive piece in the Guardian kept coming back to "sure, but... interpretive dance? Really?" Even more common than these snarky haters who have clearly never seen the genius of Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies" music video choreography are those who ask, "What stopped you shouting about it at the time?" Enter a whole world of speculation about embarrassed women, silly women, possibly-even-slightly-complicit women. "Why didn’t you hit him, rather make up a dance a year later?" whispered criticisms elsewhere. Not only had Cosgrave failed to make enough of a fuss at the first hurdle - she should have told him to "fuck off", one commenter offered up helpfully - but she’d done something downright frivolous at the last. After all, what’s a dance got to do with sex crime?

And yet by dancing, by expressing herself in public without censure or embarrassment or reserve, she was sending a clear message, and that message is: "fuck you, I’m still here".

People raising eyebrows over interpretive dance is a happening as old as the hills. But the way in which "dancing about it one year on" has been brought up as irresponsible in comparison to - in the words of another - "taking a photo and going to the police instead, so the scumbag is locked up where he belongs" misses a fundamental point about sexual assault. All too often, girls and women suffer guilt that they invited or encouraged sex crime, or "let it happen". They are told to shake off such encounters as "funny stories". They are thought of as "making a fuss" if they experienced anything less than being grabbed by a serial killer and raped in an alleyway at knifepoint. So they get off the tube, they wipe the semen off their tights, and they carry on with the meeting like nothing ever happened. It took Ellie Cosgrave months to get angry.

This is not unique. A while back, when we asked our Twitter followers about their experiences of being groped in public. The response was overwhelming, but even more so was the sheer number of women who hadn’t realised, until that point, that what had happened to them was often classed as sexual assault. They had been taught not to make a fuss, not to complain, to brush it under the carpet. Some of them had even been laughed at by police. Stories such as this are echoed by the Everyday Sexism Project, which sees women come forward on a daily basis, often for the first time. Those who blame these women for not coming forward sooner are ignoring the culture of shame that still exists around sexual assault and harassment in this country. It ignores the nonchalance with which such claims are met. It ignores the tendency to blame the victim, and the fear that you will not be believed.

And one year on, with DNA evidence gone and the mental trauma entirely invisible, what option did she have but to express herself in her own individual way? She wanted to raise awareness, and you only have to glance at the media coverage - or only had to stand in the tube station during her protest and watch the reactions of passersby - to see that she achieved her aim. People are talking about the man who royally fucked up her morning. Hundreds and hundreds of people. It is a thing of bravery to dance on a crowded tube carriage, to say, "no actually, I’m not having this", to say "look at me. Look at what happened to me. This needs to change." It is brave, and awesome.

So why are so many people, so many strangers on the internet, so quick to tell her in the same breath that dance as protest is woefully inadequate? That she has done the "wrong thing"? Surely that in itself is just another way of policing her body. It shows how terrifyingly little that people understand. One of the commenters on her piece suggested that Ellie shouldn’t be calling this a "feminist issue" but one of basic human decency. But of course it’s a feminist issue. How many men get jizzed on on the tube? And how many of them are told that their response to this happening is "wrong"?

When, last year, our readers shared their stories about sexual assault, many of them admitted that they no longer went to nightclubs. These women had, literally, stopped dancing. All these women who just sit in their houses because they no can no longer be arsed with the trauma of dealing with perverts. Ellie Cosgrave dances on for all of them, and that is a triumph.

Ellie Cosgrave returned to the scene of the crime to dance in protest at what had happened to her. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.