When Laura Bates started the Everyday Sexism Project in April 2012, it was with the hope of highlighting the experiences of harrassment and prejudice that women encounter every day in our supposedly equal society. At the time, she writes, she anticipated that ‘perhaps fifty or sixty’ women would upload their stories. Two years later, and the project has become a worldwide movement providing a crucial platform for women to share their experiences, a Twitter account with 137,000 followers, a powerful campaigning tool for women’s rights and, now, a book. Everyday Sexism draws together the material Bates has gathered to give a detailed, effective and occasionally distressing overview of the kind of sexism that women experience on a daily basis.
One of the book’s principal themes is sexual harrassment: a topic which dominates the stories shared, and also one which is all too often ignored or dismissed. Bates fights back against this dismissal and, by sharing their stories, the women affected refuse to be silenced. Bates highlights the ‘pattern of casual intrusion whereby women [can] be leered at, touched, harrassed and abused without a second thought’. She writes about the way that those who object to harrassment are often accused of lacking a sense of humour or not being able to take a compliment. Just reading through some of the stories women have shared through her site is more than enough to prove that there is nothing amusing about being appraised or threatened on the street, nor anything complimentary about being groped in a crowded bar. To those who seem to think that objecting to these incidents is over the top, Bates points out, with great eloquence, that ‘street harrassment is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the spectrum of sexism, sexual harrassment and sexual assault that exists within our society’.
Also revealing is the chapter that Bates dedicates to girls – to their experiences of sexism from the earliest stages of their lives, from being given pink toys and dolls as infants to being groped in schools, being pressured into sex and sharing intimate photographs which are then circulated online to their peers and strangers, and either deemed ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ for taking part in sexual activity, or being condemned as ‘frigid’ for abstaining. Her fury and frustration is evident as she asks: ‘Can we look at life from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and stop to acknowledge that it looks like a fucking obstacle course?’. Some of the stories Bates uncovered during her time visiting schools and speaking to young people are truly shocking – not least the tired resignation with which so many young women feel they must accept sexist abuse and intimidation as part and parcel of their role as females. By encouraging them to share their stories, and by highlighting each one as unacceptable and wrong, the Everyday Sexism Project is taking valuable steps to fight this – but it will be a long battle.
For a book and a project of this scope, it is perhaps inevitable that, at times, it feels like Bates is trying to take on too much. The chapters cover a huge range of topics from women in media (from Robin Thicke’s misogynistic pop hits to the lack of older female TV presenters) and women in politics (the column inches dedicated to Theresa May’s shoes and Angela Merkel’s suits rather than their political activities). There’s also education (1 in 7 respondents to a survey had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university) and the workplace (from bar workers being propositioned by customers to the 30,000 women who lose their jobs every year as a result of their pregnancies). Not to overlook double discrimination (from women of colour experiencing harrassment based around both their skin colour and their gender to women with disabilities being discriminated against) and motherhood (covering everything from abortion rights to the media’s treatment of pregnant celebrities). Bates is quick to acknowledge the areas that she cannot explore in more detail, and the overview she provides gives a vital background to the areas the book covers more closely.
Everyday Sexism is impeccably researched, and Bates puts across her arguments with an eloquence and impact which deserves a position at the centre of feminist debate, but it is at its most powerful in its rawest form, when she shares the stories of the thousands of women, girls and men who have contributed to the project. This is what sets it apart and makes it such a valuable piece of work – the firsthand, primary sources that give voices to people who might not otherwise be heard. And in so doing, Bates and her incredible work will continue to give more and more people the power and the courage to speak up, and shout back.
Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates is published by Simon & Schuster and available to buy online here.