Documentary on how rape culture can start at school

17th November, 2021 11:06 am

Zara McDermott was 21 and walking home across some open ground at about 3pm when she spotted a schoolboy following her. As he got closer, she grew scared. “He was shouting at me, ‘I’m going to f*** you right now.’ ”

The boy pushed her against a fence and shoved a hand down her leggings. “I was trying as hard as I could to keep them up,” she says. Some adults started running towards them and the boy ran away. “He was continuing to shout, ‘I’m not done with you, I’m going to get you.’ This was a child. I was just so shocked at how forceful he was. He couldn’t even have been 15.

“I was really lucky to get away physically and emotionally unscathed,” continues McDermott, now 24, who shot to fame when she appeared in Love Island in 2018 and now is a model and influencer with 1.6 million followers on Instagram. “The boy was smaller than me; I could potentially have overpowered him. But what I found really scary wasn’t that he got away with this crime, but who did he potentially target next?”

The experience inspired her BBC3 documentary Zara McDermott: Uncovering Rape Culture about the deeply troubling phenomenon of sexual violence being normalised and excused, which seems especially entrenched in our schools.

The timing couldn’t be more pertinent. This year alone has seen the brutal murders of — among others — Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Wenjing Lin, Geetika Goyal and Bennylyn Burke.

The police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services warned that violence against women and girls was “deep-rooted and pervasive in our society”. One woman is killed by a man every three days, while in the 12 months to March 2020 153,136 cases of rape and other sexual offences were recorded by police. In 84 per cent of cases the victim was female.

“There’s a multitude of factors behind it all, but porn is definitely a large one,” McDermott says. “Porn websites have algorithms which entice people to watch more and more violent graphic content and I’ve come across boys as young as eight watching it.

“They think in a sexual situation, ‘I overpower a woman, I dominate her, I touch her in places she doesn’t want to be touched. “No” doesn’t matter, it’s part of the role play.’ And sadly, young women are having to pay the price.”

The first was when she was 14 and — after months of pressure — succumbed to a boy at school’s request for a “nude” (a naked selfie), which he shared with the entire community, leading to her (not him) being suspended. The subsequent shame led to her considering suicide.

The second time, she was 21, and sent intimate images to a man she was dating. Without her permission, he shared them with friends. After Love Island, they went viral around the world. Older and more confident, this time she felt less humiliated, but still every time she enters a room she wonders, “Have they seen my images?”

Yet from these grim experiences, McDermott is now on a mission to help teenagers and parents to navigate the often terrifying seas of contemporary, often hyper-sexualised culture. “I feel I’ve found a niche and I have a real passion for that feeling of making a difference,” she says.

Some have raised eyebrows that this is the same woman who made her name through Love Island and now by modelling. She has collaborated with the fast-fashion brand Missguided, which describes her as “our favourite . . . all-round hottie” on a range of skimpy bikinis, dresses and shorts.

McDermott takes this straight on the chin, admitting she receives many messages from schoolboys along the lines of “I want to shag you”. “But there’s definitely a difference between the content I post and the very violent, aggressive content that exists on some porn websites.

“In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with being confident in your body. However, I agree there is a sexualised society and we influencers contribute to it and it sets a standard for beauty. I can see there may be young girls who are comparing themselves to these women they see online and young men who are comparing their peers to them.”

Yet on a personal level, McDermott’s career has also been a rebuttal to the children who bullied her at school, saying hair on her upper lip made her look like Hitler. It was partly because she was desperate for boys to like her that she sent that fateful “nude”.

“I spent so much of my teenage years feeling I wasn’t good enough, my career has empowered me. It’s been part of my healing. But my outlook going forward is to be more mindful of the content I put out, not posting 20 pictures in a row of me in lingerie and bikinis, because it is just a bit much. Everything in moderation and while I work I can also put out positive messages on my social media and make changes.”

The key, she thinks, to tackling rape culture is better communication from schools and parents, especially on the subject of porn. “I’m not saying porn shouldn’t exist but what needs to also exist is better education.” But many of us are too embarrassed to mention porn in any context — let alone to our loved ones.

In the documentary, she asks her boyfriend Sam Thompson, 29, a star of the reality show Made in Chelsea with whom she lives in Fulham, west London, about when he started watching and when he last watched porn. Thompson’s clearly mortified.

“We’ve been together nearly three years but he was still uncomfortable because no one had ever asked that question before. But why? We have to start breaking the taboos and barriers around porn, or we’re feeding the problem. It’s really important to have conversations and also not to judge.”

One topic McDermott investigates in the documentary is the website Everyone’s Invited, which this year caused a furore when hundreds of teenagers used it to share anonymous, often harrowing accounts of sexual abuse from peers, often in school settings.

The institutions initially mentioned were largely prestigious private schools. McDermott quizzes Thompson, who attended one listed, Bradfield College, where annual boarding fees are £40,350, about why this might be. “A lot of people [at school] think they’re better than other people and . . . feel like they can do whatever they want,” he says.

“I went into making it with a completely open mind, but there was this theme of entitlement,” says McDermott, who attended a comprehensive in Essex. “Especially looking at some of the all-boys’ schools that generate some of our MPs and really successful businessmen — the boys are being told they are the highest calibre of human, and are going to go on to do great things. If they’re being fed that during those developmental years, then of course, they’re going to think, ‘I deserve all of these things,’ one of which may be women.”

Yet McDermott’s not solely blaming a certain type of school, saying what’s really needed is “a whole societal upheaval of the views of women. It will take years and years of fighting back and it has to start in primary school.”

She’s horrified by social media’s newest kid on the block, TikTok, the Chinese-owned app consisting of non-stop videos uploaded by users, which is especially popular with teenagers (TikTok has a 13+ rating and regularly removes younger users and bans sexual content, but inevitably some slips through the net).

“When I see an 11-year-old dancing to an explicit video on TikTok, there’s a massive disconnect from the person I was ten years ago. I got my first Motorola in year 6, a BlackBerry when I was 14 and an iPhone at 16. I was really innocent.”

The most distressing section of her film tells the story of Semina Halliwell from Stockport, who died by suicide aged 12 in June after being raped then bullied online about her ordeal.

One of her friends tells McDermott: “You’ll go on Snapchat, you’ll post a picture of yourself out with your friends and you’ll get boys popping up asking, ‘Will you send a picture, do you want sex?’ If you say ‘No’, they’ll just keep pressuring you and basically call you frigid and say, ‘You’re boring, I don’t want to speak to you.’ ”

“It puts everything into perspective about what happens when rape culture goes unchecked in schools,” McDermott says. Semina’s mother told her how she kept her daughter home from school when she was bullied. She put on her pyjamas and watched Barbie cartoons. “It was easy to look at videos of Semina dancing on TikTok and think she was quite a confident, mature 12-year-old but that really showed her youth and her innocence. I think about her all the time.”

McDermott admits her career “has done a bit of a 360 turn”. As a child, she wanted to be a teacher, her first job was in the Department for Education “working on post-16 ed. Then I did Love Island, now I’m almost back to where I imagined I’d be — educating young people. I get so many messages asking for advice — it’s heartbreaking. I’d love to go into schools and talk about consent and things.”

Obviously, I’m a fuddy digital dinosaur, but I wish such a smart, articulate young woman was still in the Department for Education rather than posting shots of herself in what she herself calls an “Itsy bitsy teeny weeny watermelon bikini” in the Maldives. Then again, if McDermott were a civil servant, no one would be listening.

The BBC Three documentary Zara McDermott Uncovering Rape Culture is available on iPlayer from Wednesday, November 24

 

Source: The Times

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