lifestyle

60,000 people have shared their stories of everyday sexism. What's yours?

 

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project visits Mamamia Headquarters in Sydney.

When Laura Bates created the Everyday Sexism project – an online space where women could call out everything from the casual sexism they experienced in their day-to-day lives to more extreme instances of violence against women – she didn’t know whether anyone else would be listening.

But 60,000 entries to the website, a book and a presentation to the United Nations later – people are definitely listening.

“It was so exciting to be asked [to speak at the UN],” Laura says. “And the fact that they wanted to hear specifically about Everyday Sexism, after two years of fighting tooth and nail to get people to acknowledge that this problem even existed… It was amazing.”

And what’s the problem, as Laura sees it? How women are represented as second-class citizens in the media, the normalisation of degrading and demeaning attitudes towards women, and how pervasive those attitudes are.

Laura, however, says that things are changing.

“There’s been a complete surge of interest in this area. In media coverage, but also in activism and people standing up,” she says. “I think it’s international and can be seen everywhere from the New Delhi protests against gang-rape in India to protests in Sri Lanka around the same time.”

“We’ve seen it in the Maldives, people protesting against the sentence of 100 lashes for a 15-year-old who was raped, we’ve seen it in Cairo with people standing up against the assault they’ve been facing there while protesting in the streets. We’ve seen it in the US with students protesting against the Steubenville coverage seeming to imply sympathy for the perpetrator, and in Australia with the outrage around the treatment of Julia Gillard and Destroy the Joint.”

While there are certainly more and more women standing up and speaking up online, the danger with any social media campaign is that you are either preaching to the choir or not effecting real change. Laura has responses to both of these common criticisms.

It’s certainly not just women and self-identified feminists who are participating in the Everyday Sexism project.

Yep.

“We have a huge amount of engagement from men,” Laura explains. “Particularly men who may not have been aware it was a problem before. I get a lot of emails from men saying, ‘This has opened my eyes, I was completely unaware of the problem, it’s like there’s this whole other world going on around me and I suddenly realise it’s the world I live in too.'”

“Men saying that they want to be a part of the change. Men saying that they’ve started looking at some of their own behaviour that they’ve never questioned before.”

Laura is dedicated to making sure that the Everyday Sexism project isn’t just there for the people participating in the community through social media – she wants to make sure it can have an impact on everyone.

“One of the issues we think is really, really important is going to schools and making sure these issues are being discussed in the classroom,” she explains. “And that’s just borne out by the entries we’ve had from young girls.”

“We receive messages from young girls saying, ‘I’m just so scared to have sex, and I cry about it every night.’”

Laura pauses before continuing, “And then she explains that the reason she’s scared is that she’s seen a video on a boy’s phone at school… and she says that, ‘I just didn’t realise that when you have sex the girl has to be hurting.’ The question is, we know kids are seeing this stuff, so do we want to be providing them with the tools to cope with it? Boys and girls?

ADVERTISEMENT

“At the moment we’re in the process of working with [a sex and relationships organisation] to use those project entries to develop a set of lesson plans to use in schools to deal with these issues, as young people are experiencing them. So ideas about consent and healthy relationships.”

It’s not the only real, concrete change that the Everyday Sexism project has been able to facilitate.

“We have a project where we took messages online about sexual offences on public transport to the British Transport Police and they used them to retrain 2,000 of their officers,” Laura says. “And we then went back online and sent out this message saying, ‘We talked to the police, they’re going to take this seriously, and this is how you can report it.’”

“That raised the reporting of sexual offences by 26 per cent.”

Perhaps, one of the most interesting criticisms that the Everyday Sexism project faces – and indeed sites like Mamamia face – is that it’s silly to focus on calling out sexism in advertising and or street harassment where there are much more serious issues out there.

“I think it’s a weird argument,” Laura says. “It’s only when we’re talking about women’s rights that people want to police what we can and can’t talk about. Nobody says that there’s no point in tackling fraud because there are murder cases to solve.”

“But most of all, I really, really believe that these things are connected. I think project entries have shown again and again, that the words and phrases that are used against women in the street when they’re being harassed…”

“Those same words and phrases, those same derogatory terms for women, come up in the vocabulary of people who are committing sexual assaults. Or when a woman who is experiencing street harassment says ‘no’, the situation suddenly escalates. Suddenly the guy gets aggressive. ‘Hey baby, hey sweetie’ suddenly turns into ‘you slut, you whore’ – and sometimes the woman is pursued and then physically or verbally assaulted.”

While Laura doesn’t claim that all men who wolf whistle at women on the street are going to suddenly turn around and assault a woman, the normalisation of such behaviour is something to think about.

“It’s not a simple case of cause and effect,” she clarifies. “That’s not to say one leads to the other. But if we have culture where we allow the very pervasive low-level stuff that essentially says women are second-class citizens – that also says that women are sexual objects and that it’s okay for men to have this power – then that creates a culture in which the other things are much more likely to flourish.”

And in a society where one in three women will experience some sort of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, that culture is clearly something we need to address.

And while we’re on the topic of everyday sexism, here are a few other examples…

Have you experienced sexism in your everyday life?

00:00 / ???