The founder of the influential online project Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates was in the 2014 Woman’s Hour Power List Game Changers Top 10 and is becoming well known for her refusal to accept the female stereotypes peddled by a normative mainstream media. Incorporating Bates’ views on subjects including sex, body image, pornography and social media, Girl Up is a powerful and refreshing contribution to 21st century feminism – and Laura came to Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about it.
“Fuck that, I’m here to tell you something else.”
Laura begins by reading from the start of Girl Up, through many things you’ve been told and programmed to know since you were a baby in regards to gender and roles, closing with “Fuck that, I’m here to tell you something else.”
For Laura, her tipping point was a week in which things kept happening, things that in isolation she would shrug off as normal. A man followed her home aggressively and sexually approaching her to the point she walked past her house so he didn’t know where she lived; a man groped her on the bus and when she noted it aloud, a whole bus ignored her; a man yelled “look at the tits on that” as she walked by.
She asked herself, “Why is it normal?” And upon asking, she discovered it really was. Every woman she asked had at least one story of this happening. She was originally shut down for calling it sexism and told women are equal, but as she began to dig she discovered that’s far from the case in all sectors. “No,” says Laura, “actually it doesn’t add up to ‘all women are equal and don’t make a fuss’.”
And so #EverydaySexism was born.
Challenge it on as many levels as possible.
The problem remains that so much of this is institutionalised and normalised – it’s hard to challenge engrained behaviours – people actively have to unlearn it. People can be defensive when challenged on something they do automatically; Laura believes there’s also a critical mass of men who wouldn’t act like that, and have never seen it, so don’t necessarily know any of this is happening.
Laura looks to the media as an example. A woman was killed in the Russell Square attack and the BBC led with a headline saying she had been named “…as an eminent professor’s wife”. The Olympics has been rife with similar things – examples of athletes being reported as “the wife of…” or cameras panning to their husbands in the crowd where commentators say “and there’s the man behind this win”. The countless examples could have a recap blog in themselves, so let’s move on…
The only way to challenge the idealised versions of femininity and masculinity is to take it on at as many levels as possible. Challenge retailers, educate kids – have really good teaching on sex, relationships, gender stereotypes, porn and consent. Reports have shown girls start worrying about their size and shape from age 5, and the dieting statistics are frankly horrifying.
Then comes the perceptions of sex. The idea that “rape is a compliment” is far from rare, given how porn portrays sex to children who aren’t being taught otherwise.
“This is absolute nonsense.”
Girl Up deals with the bombardment of everything from slut shaming and the prude-whore dichotomy to online harassment. It’s to help teens and people in their twenties understand and deal with this, and give others a window into this world and how better to deal with it – there needs to be more people saying “You do have the right to say this and make this decisions.”
They offer concrete solutions – literal comebacks to unsolicited dick pics and people who say “just turn off your phone if you don’t want that”. It’s not all doom and gloom – it’s not the usual “you should be fixing the problem” it’s about saying “this is absolute nonsense”.
Laura absolutely rattles through statistics and stories on everything from body image to porn consumption, discusses the dichotomy of free speech on social media, intersectionality, and touches on disenfranchising youth and driving them out. It’s an absolutely brilliant hour in which important issues of navigating youth and life are put under the spotlight, a dichotomy of spotlighting quite how much nonsense it is, while backing up the disparity with cold, hard (and plenty of) facts. It’s at times hilarious, at times harrowing, but for many in the room, sadly all too familiar.
They’re soon to launch SRE Now, a push for much-needed sex ed. It’s so rare to be able to point to something and say it’s a concrete thing that will help, but here we have it and it’s being ignored. This is the way forward, to help teach young people before they reach a point of having to unlearn. You can find out more at SREnow.org.