Everyday sexism: ‘Change is on the way’
Laura Bates started the Everyday Sexism project to highlight the prevalence of the problem. Despite receiving death and rape threats as a result, she senses progress
A university lecturer who gropes his female students. A middle-aged man telling a 10-year-old he wants to be the first person to know when her breasts develop. A gang of boys spitting in a woman’s face when she ignores their attempts to flirt with her. A workmate who constantly addresses a female colleague as “Big Boobs”. Science kits being marketed as “boys’ toys”. Being masturbated on when travelling by bus.
Individually, these incidents range from the annoying to the traumatic. But together, they add up to what many believe is a widespread culture of misogyny that has a severe impact on women’s lives. It’s a culture that British journalist Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, wants to change.
“Feminism really wasn’t something I was aware of growing up or at university,” says Bates (27), who studied English at Cambridge. But in March 2012, after yet another experience of street harassment, she realised just how many little sexist incidents she put up with from day to day. She started asking other women about their experiences, and discovered that everyone had similar stories; incidents that were so much a part of daily life they never usually bothered to talk about them. If they did, they were often told they were making a fuss about nothing, that women in the West were equal now, that sexism was a thing of the past.
So in April 2012, Bates set up the Everyday Sexism website, inviting women to share their stories. “I didn’t think I could solve the problem,” she says. “But I wanted people to acknowledge that there was one.” Two years later, more than 50,000 women have contributed to the site, and the @everydaysexism Twitter feed has 139,000 followers. This month, Bates was named by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour as one of the UK’s top 10 “game-changers” who are making a difference to women’s lives. Her first book, Everyday Sexism , has just been published.
In the book, Bates documents women’s experiences of sexism in all aspects of life, from childhood to the workplace, and from motherhood to the media.
“The message we’re trying to send is that these things are all connected. This is a spectrum, and the way we treat women in one sphere has a direct impact on the way we treat them in another,” she says. “So it doesn’t work to tackle the issue of under-representation of women in business and politics without acknowledging that the media depiction of women as dehumanised sex objects has a big impact on the way the public sees politicians and decides who to vote for.”
Sharing these stories shows other women that the daily humiliations they endure can be challenged. “How much of an impact sharing stories can have on the people who hear them shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Bates. “It helps people to recognise that it’s acceptable to take the smaller incidents seriously, which is a really tough battle.
“It’s not until you put it all in one place and look at it all together and roll it out like a map in front of you that you start to realise how one aspect can compound another aspect, and how in combination they really can operate as a severe penalty on women’s aspirations, on women’s freedom, on women’s achievements.”
The project has attracted thousands of male supporters, from high-profile fans such as Ed Miliband and actor Simon Pegg to the many men who tell Bates the stories have opened their eyes. “The involvement of men is hugely important,” says Bates. “What we need now is cultural change, a shift in social attitudes and normalised behaviours. It doesn’t mean big legislative wins and things that are easy to point to. That kind of cultural shift can’t happen without half the population on board.”
Bates also encounters many men who disagree with the project. “It can be a natural defensive reaction. But when you go back and give them the facts and talk about it and they still won’t accept it, then that’s frustrating.”
She knows that men also suffer because of rigid gender expectations, and discusses this in the book. But she is tired of the men who constantly claim the Diet Coke ad shows that men and women are equally objectified by the media. “It’s ironic, isn’t it – the fact that so many men write to me about the Diet Coke advert is proof of the fact that there is only one clear example.”
Abuse and threats
More seriously, Bates has received a torrent of terrifying abuse, including threats of rape and murder. She has coped thanks to her family and friends, and fellow feminist campaigners. Many of the latter group shared their own stories of abuse. “I found that very helpful, because it made it feel less specifically targeted at me and therefore less scary.”
Bates worries that the vitriol women receive online will deter some from entering political activism. “It could mean we really are starting to lose voices from conversations, because some women will weigh up the pros and cons and think it’s not worth it to carry on.”
Everyday Sexism features stories from women of all ages and backgrounds, but what has upset Bates most are the stories from young girls. “It’s both the absolute severity of what they’re going through and the complete lack of any tools or support they’re being given to help them deal with the problem,” she says. “There are women going through awful things but at least they have some support, or they’re aware that it’s illegal – but with these little girls there’s a sense that they are taking it from every angle. They’ve got the bombardment of media objectification and sexism that we’re all dealing with, but without the kind of hindsight and knowledge of the world to be able to differentiate between that and reality.”
I cried reading the story of one 13-year-old girl, who wrote: “We had sex education in Year 6 and I felt fine about it, but now some of the boys at school keep sending us these videos of sex, which are much worse than what we learnt about and it looks so horrible and like it hurts.”
Such stories show how important it is for subjects such as porn and sexual consent to be discussed as part of school sex education. “If I could change one thing that I thought would have the biggest impact, it would be that, no question,” says Bates. “It makes absolutely zero sense, when we know that [children are] dealing with these things, that we’re not choosing to give them the tools to help them cope, and to support them and help them navigate. The problem isn’t necessarily that porn itself is inherently damaging, it’s that they don’t even have any concept of the fact that there’s a difference between pornography and real-life sex. But it would be so simple to get these issues across in an age-appropriate way in the classroom.”
White middle-class feminists
Feminism has long been dominated by the voices of middle-class white women such as Bates, and she knows that her experiences of sexism will often be different from those of, say, black or gay or disabled or transgender women. Women from marginalised groups experience an array of intersecting prejudices, and Bates believes an awareness of this “needs to be at the centre of the modern feminist movement. What we’re really seeing in this new surge of feminism is the democratisation of feminism, and one of the things that has come from [this] is the voices of women of colour, disabled women, trans women, lesbian women, older women, all talking about how desperately important it is to consider [these intersections] in a pragmatic sense if we want to solve the problem.”
Bates, who is expanding her activism with talks in schools and businesses, feels optimistic about the future. “The thing that really does make me feel hopeful in spite of everything is a feeling that there’s a real push-back going on, that so many people are standing up and shouting about it that change really is on the way,” she says. “So when I read those devastating stories from young girls, that’s what makes me able to carry on instead of crying and throwing my hands up.”
Everydaysexism.com. The book Everyday Sexism is published by Simon & Schuster, £14.99
WOLF WHISTLES AND BEYOND: SEXISM IN IRELAND
We asked Irish people to tell us of their experiences of everyday sexism. Here are just a few:
At a cafe, there are buzzers on each table, to ring for service. Husband: “I should get one of them for her” (nods head at wife).
Yesterday I witnessed a prepubescent boy wolf-whistle at a passing woman. He was with his parents. They laughed.
First day of med school, the guys were told about hospital rugby to get in with the consultants; no equivalent for women.
A chief executive saying “good girl” to me in a meeting.
Quiet chat in the pub, approached by two fellas, be polite for a few minutes answering their questions and they think five minutes later is enough to drop the hand to hip and thigh. So we say we just want to have our own quiet conversation and, of course, this makes us stuck-up lesbians.
Sexually harassed on work experience aged 16: female co-worker told me the guy was “nice & harmless really”.