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24 July 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 12:31pm

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.

By Rhiannon

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.

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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.

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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.