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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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