Let’s Talk About: Everyday Sexism

Eleanor Harris argues that while everyday sexism is very real, the term itself detracts from the feminist movement as a whole

Campaigns against “everyday sexism” have immensely benefitted many women. The Everyday Sexism project, amongst others, has created a platform for millions of women to share their experiences and bring forward the injustices that they face everyday. In the past, many of these women have often just been expected to put up with these issues, namely cat-calling and inappropriate demeaning comments; now, however, they can often lead in the national discussion.

Campaigners seek to encourage and educate people, including female victims themselves, to see these discriminations as serious issues. They should no longer be dismissed as a “woman’s lot”, but rather issues that can and should be fought against. This is vital work. It has raised the standards of acceptable behaviour and emboldened many women to stand up to those who demean, underestimate or seek to intimidate them.

However, I believe the term “everyday sexism” itself is not helpful for the feminist movement. This is because it does not represent the reality of sexist behaviour. Incidents of “everyday sexism” are seen as less severe than crimes like sexual assault. Activists who use the term aim to demonstrate that although everyday sexist behaviours have been normalised, they are unacceptable, and take a great toll on many women’s ability to enjoy and succeed in life.

The way this term is used to refer only to certain types of sexism creates an opposition between these incidents and more severe crimes. This hinders our ability to truly tackle sexism. Cat-calling and demeaning comments are caused by strikingly similar attitudes to those which cause rape and sexual assault. The existence of “everyday sexism” shows how in the minds of many, women are less valuable than men and are treated as sexual objects.

The causes of sexual violence are of course more complex.  However, understanding the links between different types of sexist behaviour is essential to changing these attitudes and fighting for gender equality. Due to the common ground these crimes share with “everyday sexism”, the distinction which the use of this term creates, between “everyday” sexist incidents and crimes like assault, makes it harder to identify and eliminate the sexist attitudes which are one of the key causes of both. Thereby a conversation which would be beneficial to the progress of the feminist movement as a whole is stifled.

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The usual understanding of “everyday sexism” does not include crimes like rape and female genital mutilation. Yet for the women who have experienced them, these incidents are an “everyday” issue.

The trauma of FGM, sexual assault or rape affects the women who have gone through it on a daily basis via the enduring feelings of fear, vulnerability and physical and mental suffering they cause. To use the term “everyday sexism” to refer solely to normalised incidents implies that other experiences are not “everyday”. This thereby understates the impact of these experiences on women’s everyday lives.

The experiences of survivors of rape, sexual assault and FGM are left out of a conversation they should be central in. Of course this is not the aim of the activists who use this term, but it shows how the term itself can be unhelpful.

It is particularly problematic when dealing with intersectional issues. FGM for example tends to affect women from non-white, first or second generation immigrant families and who are often from less affluent backgrounds. To categorize their experiences as different to those faced by the majority of women alienates them further. It also makes it even harder to help women in their position.

The real focus of the movement against “everyday sexism” to me seems to be fighting against the way that sexist injustices are normalised and treated as though they can’t be prevented. I believe the goals of the movement would be better served by a term which focusses on the normalised nature of these incidents. This way we can tackle the way they are dismissed as unimportant. Moreover this would allow us to understand the links between them and more severe crimes, without unintentionally alienating the women who are most in need of feminism and female solidarity.