Laura Bates: Why we still need Feminism

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There must be barely a woman in Britain today who doesn’t relate to the Everyday Sexism Project. Any woman will find experiences similar to her own, scrolling through the endless pages of street harassment, sexual assault, prejudice. Then there are those accounts which, hopefully, most of us are distanced from: rape, domestic violence. These sit alongside the others, a gallery of black eyes and shadowed memories, and it is for all to see how closely related they are.

It is one of the first things Laura Bates, founder of the project, points out. Her voice crackles over Skype, but the tone is brisk, smart, collected. “I think what has come out of the project more than anything is just how connected everything is. I’m realising that we can’t tackle one thing in isolation without tackling other things.” She says that it has become increasingly clear that the same attitudes underpin street harassment and “the more serious issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse”. The only way forward is to tackle the core, problematic sexist attitudes, and thereby address the symptoms as a whole.

Calling up the site, it’s interesting to note the strain that reverberates through the often shockingly blunt language. Take “Bec”, who walks home “with a large umbrella and personal alarm” because a woman she knows was raped and murdered: “I don’t feel safe in my city anymore. These are the measures I take daily to protect myself”. A few posts later there’s the story of Amy, who was repeatedly harassed and raped by her brother’s friend when she was 6 years old. Her entry suggests someone who is still trying to cope with the trauma: “I don’t know what else he had done, but I do know he did more. I just don’t remember what.” When seen as stemming from the same social problems, Bec’s fear of her own city seems to be a potentially terrifying preface to something much more sinister. Meanwhile Amy’s recount of her childhood abuse is seen in the context of life-long fear of sexist mistreatment; a state that pervades women’s lives. Even when she’s Bec’s age, it seems, Amy may have cause to fear walking in the street at night.

The accumulation of the stories is chilling, and the on-going collection has provided a spring-board for ground-level work by Bates and her colleagues in trying to tackle the issues displayed. She says it is “about a cultural shift, about changing ideas”. I ask what this means in terms of, for instance, policy making. “The fact is that a lot of the legislative and structural changes that we need have already been achieved, but isn’t at all translating in reality.” She gives the example of prejudice in the work-place: “There are fantastic laws against workplace harassment; everybody should be free of it, completely, according to the law.” Yet the Project receives thousands of entries from women who are still experiencing sexism, from sexist jokes to serious discrimination and sexual assault. “It’s about tackling the overall ideas about women, the assumptions about women. Women being othered, being treated as different, as second-class citizens.” There is a repeated sense, both in my discussion with Bates and in the entries themselves, that the issue not being taken seriously. The effect on women’s psyche is disturbing.

Bates mentions her work with young people in the area of sexual assault. She recites the legal definition from heart (I look this up later, and it is word perfect): “if someone touches you without your consent, and the touching is sexual, and they do not reasonably [have cause to] believe that you give consent, then that is sexual assault”. Young women, she says, are amazed at this. “[They] are growing up being socialised to accept that guys will grab their bums, or put their hands between their legs. They always react with shock: ‘that’s not sexual assault, it’s normal.’” The recount is depressingly familiar for many of us, who may recognise the attitude in ourselves. Bates continues: “they say, ‘I wouldn’t report that to the police, they wouldn’t take it seriously.’” The social sentiment trivialising sexism is something that people in related industries must battle every day; from feminist activists, to domestic violence and rape crisis workers. Bates points out that this makes her job a lot harder, and it’s certainly one of the key reasons that the Project is so needed. “Really frequently people say, ‘what more do you want? You women, you’ve won equality, you can have your cake and eat it too, now; this is a fair and liberal society.’ There’s this huge reluctance to acknowledge how big the problem really is.”

Bates points to the grim irony of this: “one of the biggest problems is that we have come so far”. “I also think there’s a problem with the fact that, understandably, a lot of people just don’t see it happening,” Bates continues. “It is often something that happens in isolation. The worst street harassment happens when you’re alone, in an isolated area, on an empty street.” She cites the most dangerous workplace harassment as typically happening in one-on-one meetings, or when someone corners you in the photocopier room. “So it makes a lot of sense that some people who aren’t sexist themselves find it very hard to accept how bad it still is. They don’t want to admit it; they’d much rather say, ‘this must be a mistake’, or, ‘you must be overreacting’”. Such overwhelming cultural denial “makes it much harder to fight, because people are always approaching it from a slightly cynical point of view.”

I ask whether women, too, are implicated in this. Bates is brief: “Yes, definitely. Some women.” The Project itself is not, however, gender exclusive (or gender defining in any sense). Men contribute, and Bates says that it has always been a principle of the site to include men’s experiences. “The project has not been about vilifying men or about suggesting that all men are sexist for a second.” I read out an account by a man that I find particularly interesting: “John” writes that he “used to enjoy” going out to play pool, but now is sick of the way that when women hit on him, and he explains that he has a fiance, he is accused of being gay. I’m intrigued by the way that men, as well as women, can feel pressured to remain indoors, to hide themselves from aggressive sexuality in a sense that recalls much female experience on the site. Bates agrees, and affirms that the site is “very much about tackling sexism wherever it comes from, and acknowledging that women can absolutely be sexist towards both men and other women, and that men can be victims of sexism. It’s very much a people versus prejudice movement, not a men versus women issue.”

She says that in practical terms, the moves we take to tackle sexism against women often also address sexism experienced by men. “So, for example, men being denied paternity leave. Or being praised for babysitting their own children. Or finding it difficult to look after their own children because there are no changing facilities provided in men’s toilets. Those are three really common stories that we get from men. They obviously come from the same root idea: that women are natural homemakers; women are the carers; women are the ones who ought to be at home looking after the children.” These “sexist, genderist stereotypes” harm us all.

Nevertheless sexism, Bates says, is an issue that “disproportionately affects women”, which is why the majority of entries the site receives are from people identifying as women. Yet this is not to say that there is any sense of homogeneity. She says that one of the things she’s “most proud of” is the diversity of submissions: “they really do come from women of all ages, of all races and ethnicities, of all sexual orientations, employed and unemployed, religious and non-religious”. She expresses a hope that the Project encourages intersectionality in feminism, which she says her experience of the site has convinced her must be “at the heart” of the movement. Issues surrounding intersectional feminism, which is often seen as describing an identifiable set of political beliefs, are much debated.

Third Wave feminists in particular sought to redefine the feminist movement to be more inclusive, and to recognise the way that prejudices converge, overlap, and feed one-another. In considering the site before reading it in depth, I had held a vague sense that it must be its own special ivory tower. Surely the kind of woman to get involved, to share her story, is likely to be educated and able to express herself; never mind the fact that she is surely likely to have heard about it through an existing interest in feminist issues. But the more you read, the more it becomes clear that these experiences really do come from all backgrounds. Bates says it is something she is profoundly aware of: “just by virtue of being online, there are a huge number of people who are excluded. I really try to offset that,” which is why a lot of the Project’s work is about taking the stories “as a starting point”. The experiences are used to do grassroots work, practical work in communities.

Moreover, the Project is springing up all over the world, with localised operators in a range of different countries seeking to encourage and enable as wide participation as possible. Illustrating the intersection of prejudices Bates feels to be a key feature of the Project, she explains: “we’ve heard from disabled women who have had men ask them if they’ll do a pole dance around their walking stick. We’ve heard from black women who are being exoticised and sexualised by men in the street, screaming about their bums. We’ve heard from Chinese women having men make jokes about mail-order brides, and about their eyes. Obviously there’s a real crossover there, and I hope that the site helps to highlight that.” Part of the core of this intersectionality is the equal weight given, across the Project, to the expression and communication of ones own encounters. The Project has achieved something extraordinary in giving women (and it is those who self-identify as women) a voice to reassert the urgency of their experiences. Daily, it illustrates the pervasion of prejudice attitudes and their debilitating effects worldwide; despite professed beliefs to the contrary, which persist in many apparently developed societies.

Bates points to the core feminist principles of giving women the ability to express themselves: “So much of the oppression of women historically has been through silencing. The silencing of women as hysterical; the silencing of feminists as over the top, angry, humourless; the silencing of incredible, pioneering women’s achievements, which weren’t included in the history books.” Looking through the site it’s notable how many women recognise this sentiment in their own lives. Often the pain of having your experience discounted is felt to be as horrific as the experience itself. There are instances of teenage girls who, its apparent from their accounts, have learnt that their trauma doesn’t matter. Already they are being led to believe that their opinions and thoughts don’t matter, and that they themselves, by extension, don’t matter.

The result is that submissions are often wrought with a sense of release, an energy unleashed by the freedom of safe communication and, crucially, validation. As Bates says, “it’s the really quite raw, visceral power of women finally speaking out, often about things they’ve never been able to talk about before.”

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