Writer and activist Laura Bates, who founded The Everyday Sexism Project, talks to journalist Georgina Godwin about feminism and gender inequality in our latest podcast below. The accompanying text is an edited transcript.
What does feminism mean to you?
It's very simple: feminism means believing that everybody should be treated equally, regardless of their sex. Under that definition, hardly anybody could say that they weren't a feminist – there are just a lot of misconceptions about what the term means.
When did you become conscious of gender inequality?
An absolutely terrible week made me realise that gender inequality was very real, and it was affecting me. A series of unpleasant experiences, ranging from abusive shouting directed at me late at night, sexual propositioning by a man who followed me home, a man attempting to grope me on the bus, and vulgar catcalling by men unloading scaffolding, made me question things more than ever. The thing that shocked me most was that, if these situations hadn't all occurred in such a short space of time, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about any one of them, because it was normal. I wondered why this had become such a part of being a woman that I wouldn't even consider telling someone about it.
I only started to recognise the extent of the problem when I began to ask other women and girls about their experiences. I thought that maybe some of them might have stories from a few years ago, but every women I spoke to had a story to share, often as recent as ‘on my way to meet you, this happened’. I couldn't believe it.
Inequality is everywhere and a lot of people aren't aware of it. I came up against a brick wall when I started saying, ‘I think that people are being discriminated against because of their sex.’ This is because we’re often told not to overreact or make a fuss, and that we need to get a sense of humour or take the attention as a compliment. People told me that sexism didn’t exist anymore and that there wasn’t a problem. When things do happen, many people don’t feel comfortable speaking out, which helps keep the problem invisible. I knew that I had to at least try to do something, and that was what led me to set up the project initially. Not even really to solve the problem, more to put all of those stories in one place so that people could see that these issues are affecting people’s lives on a daily basis.
So what is the Everyday Sexism Project? How does it work?
It’s incredibly simple: it’s a website where anyone can go and add a testimony about any kind of sexism they have experienced that everyone who visits the website can see. In order to make it a safe space where people's stories are not questioned, nobody can comment or reply to the posts. Unfortunately, the entries now have to be moderated as we get a lot of abuse, but the genuine posts then all appear on the website. After we received around 50,000 entries, we started being able to take them offline.
The project now has another whole aspect, as we show the stories to the people who have the power to change things. For example, we take posts from young people into schools to help us deliver workshops about consent and healthy relationships. Recently, we used about 1,000 of our entries from women on public transport to help retrain 2,000 British Transport Police officers to better tackle sexual offences. This has raised the reporting of these incidents by around 30 per cent.
Do you think that our understanding of feminism changes as we cross borders?
It’s a really common misconception that feminism is a white, western movement that needs to be exported to other countries, so women there can be told they are oppressed, and how to live their lives. In reality, there is an incredibly rich tradition of Muslim feminism, and other feminisms around the world. We have so much to learn from women within their own communities who are leading change, and it’s our role to support them, rather than try to impose our ideas on them.
There is a wonderful multiplicity of different interpretations and forms of activism. At the moment, there is a global swell of feminism, and we are at a real tipping point in our attitudes towards violence against women. We can see this as marches are taking places from India and Bangladesh to Spain. Although people across the world have different priorities, there is a real sense of solidarity and a combined goal because sexism is a universal problem. It’s exciting that social media is allowing us to support, and stand alongside, our sisters in other countries.
How do you think the Internet has changed things for girls today?
Girls today are dealing with particular problems that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. On the Internet, there is an explosion of new material and forms of expression. In many ways, this can offer girls a place to connect with each other and discuss feminism, among other subjects. However, there is another side to it too. Alongside online abuse, women are exposed to deriding, degrading, and dehumanising websites where, for example, there are memes about rape and domestic violence, or porn sites that portray a kind of sex that is often misogynistic and very much about hurting women.
This is a huge challenge. Young people are getting a skewed idea about what sex looks like and then aren’t always able to talk about it to older people they trust. For example, in the UK, there's nothing on the curriculum to guarantee that young people will ever learn about sexual consent or healthy relationships. There’s a huge disconnect and you can see how those kinds of myths could become really damaging.
A YouGov survey showed that one third of 16- to 18-year-old girls in the UK experiences unwanted sexual touching at school, and 71 per cent hear sexual slurs, like ‘slut’ or ‘slag’, at least once a week. Young women are putting up with a lot, and we have to look at how we tackle that.
You were involved with Women Under Siege. Tell me a little about that.
Women Under Siege is a Women's Media Centre project that specifically works to combat the use of rape as a tool of war. A lot of my work with the project has centred on the government's Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), which was spearheaded by William Hague and Angelina Jolie. It looked at ways to join the dots and to identify some of the reasons that rape is such an effective tool of war. It leaves complete devastation and can tear societies apart, in large part due to the stigma, taboo and blame attached to the survivors. In some countries, a woman who has been raped can be thrown into jail because of extramarital sex being illegal, or can be rejected by her family and thrown out of her own community.
Your book, Everyday Sexism, was published earlier this year. What role do you think books play in discussions about inequality?
Books still play a powerful role in movements like feminism. They are a medium where an author can put at least a snapshot of a situation, and bring lots of things together in one place in a way that isn’t possible in many other mediums.
So often, when invited to talk on the radio about something very specific, all I want to say is, ‘This is all connected. It’s a spectrum. It matters.’ You can’t talk about the underrepresentation of women in politics without looking at the sexism in the media and the way that women are portrayed. You can't say, 'Don't make a fuss about street harassment,' but suddenly when women walk into the workplace, you must take them seriously. It doesn't work that way. Our lives don't work that way.
Laura Bates is part of a delegation of UK writers attending the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico from 28 November to 6 December 2015, curated by the British Council for the UK Mexico Year of Cultural Exchange.