Redbrick Comment sat down with Laura Bates to discuss her views on sexism, activism and education.
Laura Bates is a revolutionary voice ‘shouting back’ against sexism in today’s society. The founder of the feminist internet sensation that is the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, she has given many people around the world the courage to tell their stories, and a platform on which to tell them.
Laura’s own experiences of sexism in early 2012 “including [her] being followed home, aggressively sexually shouted at in public and groped on the bus” led to her questioning society’s attitude towards women and sexism in general. Bates tells Comment “when I stopped and thought about these [events] I was shocked to realise that, had they each happened in isolation, I never would have thought twice about them. It made me realise just how much I was putting up with because it was a ‘normal’ part of being a woman and I was used to it.”
In the short space of four years, Laura’s courage to question and challenge sexism has turned into a worldwide online phenomenon. Beginning life as a “simple website”, everydaysexism.com now houses over 100,000 anecdotal accounts of society’s international struggles against sexism; and the collection is still rapidly growing.
In October, Laura Bates delivered an incredibly potent and inspiring speech during the University of Birmingham’s annual ‘Book to the Future’ event, and I had the privilege of attending. As I sat down, the Howarth 101 lecture theatre thrummed with a hopeful and excited chatter. The atmosphere was certainly more upbeat than it had been when I frequented this room last with two dozen other zombie-fied Literature students awaiting a Critical Practice lecture at 10am on a Monday morning.
Whilst around two thirds of the audience were female, there was by no means a lack of representation on the men’s side, with a large handful of boys scattered about the audience. It is clear that this movement reaches out to ‘people’ as opposed to women specifically, something that Laura stresses throughout her talk and in her definition of feminism as just “thinking that everyone should be treated equally.”
Welcomed with great warmth and admiration, a relaxed and genial Laura Bates opens her talk with a reference to Orwell’s room 101, openly appreciated by the literature students in the audience: “I feel like it’s a really good sign that we’re in room 101, because that’s where you’re meant to put those awful things that you hate, like sexism, right?”
Throughout the talk Laura takes us through the birth of the project, shocks us with astounding statistics and anecdotes, and emphasizes the need for change, particularly in the education sector: “It’s crazy that compulsory sex and relationships education is not on the national curriculum.”
Laura spoke with astonishing eloquence throughout the talk, truly captivating her large audience, and her calm, intellectual presence continued to inspire and impress when I asked her a few questions about the project and her views on current affairs.
On the recent protest at the Suffragette movie premiere:
“I think it was great – it is inexcusable in 2015 that we live in a country where on average two women a week are killed by a current or former partner, 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted every year and there’s a phone call to the police every minute about domestic violence. The protesters were raising awareness of these vital issues and calling attention to the fact that many frontline domestic and sexual violence services are struggling to survive because of funding cuts.”
On the Key Things that are Essential for Equality and the Repair of a Sexist Society:
It is evident that, for Laura, the issue of sexism needs to be tackled both from “the bottom up and the top down.” Whilst she flags up key changes that need to be made to legislation by the British government including “compulsory sex and relationships education, better training for police and judiciary around issues like victim blaming, and funding for frontline sexual violence services”, she also explains that “the fight against sexism is a little like the fight to end climate change in that, it’s great if people 5% of people meticulously recycle every day, but it won’t make much of a difference if everyone else shrugs their shoulders and ignores the issue because they don’t think that it ‘involves’ them.” A universal effort needs to be made by society to “shift our normalised attitudes and behaviours towards women, which no amount of legislation can achieve.” We need to be prepared to stand up and
On The Success of the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’:
Laura reveals that she is amazed and empowered by the “overwhelmingly positive” response to the project. “Many women have reported an assault, or an instance of discrimination, for the first time as a direct result of the project”, schoolgirls have been “empowered… to start their own feminist societies and lots of men have written to say that it’s opened their eyes, or prompted them to start a dialogue with their sons about consent and healthy relationships. Lots of schools, universities, businesses and politicians have responded really enthusiastically, which is great because it means we can use the project entries we’ve collected and take them offline to create concrete change”
On the Benefits of Online Activism:
“The Everyday Sexism Project would not have become what it has without the online presence of feminism” but, Laura admits, “it is a double edged sword”. On the one hand you have an innate network of feminists creating “online solidarity across borders… and turning an international spotlight on issues overseas” but on the other hand you have cyber bullies, and internet trolling that can be extremely harmful.
Sexism at University:
“Much like elsewhere I think there is a wide range of issues at university – we have received reports from young women in higher education which range from verbal harassment in public spaces to sexual assault and victim blaming, as well as cases where sexism intersects with other forms of prejudice, like racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism etc. There can also be issues that are more specific to universities, such as sexually coercive initiations, sexist event themes or dress codes and Facebook pages which encourage (implicitly or explicitly) sexist abuse of students.”
Advice on Responding to Everyday Sexism:
“I’d always say that there is no right or wrong response – the point is that we have to focus on perpetrators and stop it happening in the first place. Having said that, for those who do feel frustrated and want to respond, there are lots of techniques that might help. One is to name the behaviour and describe the perpetrator (eg. ‘Man in the blue hat, stop touching my leg’). This is effective because it is easy to remember, doesn’t require you to come up with a ‘comeback’ and signals bystanders to step in. Another often successful technique is to report the behaviour to a supervisor or employer (for example if it is coming from somebody in a branded van, or a partiular building site). This avoids confrontation but ensures they get the message.
If it’s university-based, I’d urge young people to know their rights – nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their learning environment and the university has a duty of care- your student union women’s officer should be able to help, or the NUS women’s campaign is also brilliant if you need advice or support.”
On Women Only Carriages Proposal:
“It feels very regressive to me. The big problem is just how closely it aligns with victim blaming ideology. If you have a women-only carriage, then you’re saying, essentially: ‘This is innate. Men are like this. They can’t help themselves, they’re always going to harass and assault women, so all we can do is put a kind of barrier around the women. We need to change women’s behaviour.’ It suggests that this is something that men can’t control; it completely lets the perpetrators off the hook, and I’d much prefer to say that this behaviour is illegal and outrageous, let’s take the hard line on it, let’s really tackle it, let’s deal with it.”