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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder