The model makes a compassionate and intrepid interviewer in this one-off documentary
One afternoon in 2017, the model and former Love Island star Zara McDermott was attacked in a park near her home by a teenager in school uniform. He had followed her from the high street. As he approached, he shouted, “I’m going to f*** you right now against this fence”. He pushed McDermott and shoved his hand down her leggings. As she struggled, McDermott looked over the boy’s shoulder to see a group of concerned adults running towards them. The boy fled, warning her, “I’m not done. I’m going to get you”.
In her documentary Uncovering Rape Culture (BBC One), McDermott is speaking publicly about the assault for the first time. She is on a mission to find the root of sexual violence against women and girls. McDermott thinks her “freckly, boyish” attacker – who was never found by police – could only have been about 15. Her first port of call, therefore, is schools.
McDermott is a compassionate interviewer. She meets dozens of schoolgirls who have been pressured by their classmates into sending nude pictures and told they are “frigid” if they don’t. She holds the hand of one survivor of sexual assault, Mary, who was left with internal bruising after unwanted touching at a house party aged 15, and comforts a mother whose 12-year-old daughter, Semina, took her own life after being raped.
The reality star is intrepid, too. In her interviews with children, one word keeps coming up: porn. Schoolboys tell her they started watching pornography as young as 11. At the time, they say, they had assumed it was a healthy, realistic depiction of sex. But, as shown in this programme, a seemingly innocent search on Pornhub brings up violent videos tagged with words like “destroy” and “barely legal teen”. McDermott wants to ask the company why they don’t stop children watching their content. Unable to get through on the phone, she tracks down the HQ of MindGeek, the tech company that owns Pornhub, and turns up at their offices. They’re on the edge of a roundabout opposite a Kwik Fit. She is dismissed from the premises.
Rape culture is tangled up in so many aspects of modern society that a one-hour documentary on it was never going to be enough. But it means the knottier issues raised here feel throwaway. McDermott says that, as a model, she’s “mindful of the fact that posting sexual imagery does contribute to the problem”. She says she’s “selling fashion and popular culture”, though, adding: “There’s a massive difference between that and hardcore violent porn.” It’s true, but would have benefitted from a bit more unpacking.
What the documentary does effectively is open up a dialogue between schoolchildren about consent. A group of boys from a comprehensive in Stoke Newington start off the episode by refusing to take part in the discussion as they fear their words will be “twisted”, but by the end they’re asking girls in their class how to give a respectful compliment. It’s captivating to watch. McDermott hasn’t solved the issue of rape culture, but she’s certainly started in the right place.
If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you can contact your nearest Rape Crisis organisation for specialist, independent and confidential support. For more information, visit their website here.