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Everybody has a tipping point
Laura Bates explains how an experience outside a café in March 2012 led her to create the Everyday Sexism project - a manifesto for change which has led to women all over the world #ShoutingBack.
Everybody has a tipping point
The funny thing is that when mine came, in March 2012, it wasn’t something dramatic or extreme, or even particularly out of the ordinary. It was just another week of little pinpricks: the man who appeared as I sat outside a café, seized my hand and refused to let go; the guy who followed me off the bus and lewdly propositioned me all the way to my front door; the man who made a sexual gesture and shouted, ‘I’m looking for a wife’ from his car as I walked wearily home after a long day. I shouted back, ‘Keep looking!’ but as I trudged home I started for the first time to really think about how many of these little incidents I was just putting up with from day to day.
I remembered the university supervisor who was rumoured to wear a black armband once a year to mourn the anniversary of my college admitting women. I thought about the night that a group of teenage boys had casually walked up behind me in the street before one of them grabbed me, hard, between the legs, forcing his fingers upwards against my jeans. I recalled the boss who’d sent me strange emails about his sexual fantasies and mysteriously terminated my freelance contract with no explanation almost immediately after learning I had a boyfriend. The university supervisor whose email suggesting we meet for our first tutorial said, ‘I’ll bring a red rose and you bring a copy of yesterday’s Telegraph...’ The senior colleague who, on my first day working as an admin temp – aged just seventeen – propositioned me via the company’s internal email system. The guy who sat next to me on the bus and started running his hand up and down my leg – and the other one who sat opposite me and began masturbating under his coat, his confident eyes boring into mine. I remembered the men who cornered me late one night in a Cambridge street shouting, ‘We’re going to part those legs and f*ck that c*nt!’ and left me cowering against the wall as they strolled away cackling.
They weren’t just random one-off events, but reams and reams of tiny pinpricks so niggling and normalized that to protest each one felt facetious.
And the more these incidents came back to me the more I wondered why I’d played them down at the time – why I’d never complained, or even particularly remembered them until I sat down and really thought about it.
The answer was that these events were normal. They hadn’t seemed exceptional enough for me to object to them because they weren’t out of the ordinary. Because this kind of thing was just part of life – or, rather, part of being a woman. Simply, I was used to it.
And I started to wonder how many other women had had similar experiences and, like me, had simply accepted them and rationalized them and got on with it without really stopping to protest or ask why.
So I started asking around – among friends and family, at parties, or even in the supermarket. Over the course of a few weeks I asked every woman I met whether she’d ever encountered this sort of problem. I honestly thought that, if I asked twenty or thirty women, one or two would remember something significant from the past – a bad experience they’d had at university, perhaps, or in a previous job.
What actually happened took me completely by surprise. Every single woman I spoke to had a story. But not from five years ago, or ten. From last week, or yesterday, or ‘on my way here today’. And they weren’t just random one-off events, but reams and reams of tiny pinpricks – just like my own experiences – so niggling and normalized that to protest each one felt facetious. Yet put them together and the picture created by this mosaic of miniatures was strikingly clear. This inequality, this pattern of casual intrusion whereby women could be leered at, touched, harassed and abused without a second thought, was sexism: implicit, explicit, common-or-garden and deep-rooted sexism, pretty much everywhere you’d care to look. And if sexism means treating people differently or discriminating against them purely because of their sex, then women were experiencing it on a near-daily basis.
The more stories I heard, the more I tried to talk about the problem. And yet time and time again I found myself coming up against the same response: sexism doesn’t exist anymore. Women are equal now, more or less. You career girls these days can have your cake and eat it – what more do you want? Think about the women in other countries dealing with real problems, people told me – you women in the UK have no idea how lucky you are. You have ‘gilded lives’! You’re making a fuss about nothing. You’re overreacting. You’re uptight, or frigid. You need to learn to take a joke, get a sense of humour, and lighten up...
You really need to learn to take a compliment.
How, I wondered, was it possible for there to be so much evidence of the existence of sexism alongside so much protest to the contrary? Gradually, as I became more aware of the sheer scale of the problem, I also began to understand that it was an invisible one. People didn’t want to acknowledge it, or talk about it – in fact, they often simply refused, point blank, to believe it still existed. And it wasn’t just men who took this view; it was women, too – telling me I was getting worked up about nothing, or being oversensitive, or simply looking for problems where there weren’t any.
At first, I wondered if they were right. People weren’t exactly falling over themselves to share my ‘Eureka!’ moment. This could be like my ill-fated but utter conviction, aged eleven, that it was actually ‘helicockter’, not ‘helicopter’, and everybody else was just pronouncing it wrong. Perhaps I was just overreacting and women really were equal now, more or less. I thought I’d take a look at the statistics, to see if we really had finally reached a level playing field.
I found that in this supposedly ‘equal’ society, with nothing left for women to want or fight for, they hold less than a quarter of seats in parliament, and only 4 out of 23 Cabinet positions. That just 4 out of 35 Lord Justices of Appeal and 18 out of 108 High Court Judges are female. That it’s been more than 13 years since a female choreographer was commissioned to create a piece for the main stage at our Royal Opera House. That in 2010 it was reported that the National Gallery’s collection of some 2,300 works contained paintings by only ten women. That our Royal Society has never had a female president and just 5 per cent of the current Fellowship is made up of women. That women write only a fifth of front-page newspaper articles and that 84 per cent of those articles are dominated by male subjects or experts. That women directed just 5 per cent of the 250 major films of 2011, down by nearly half from a paltry 9 per cent in 1998. That a Home Office survey as recently as 2009 showed that 20 per cent of those polled thought it ‘acceptable’ in some circumstances ‘for a man to hit or slap his wife or girlfriend in response to her being dressed in sexy or revealing clothes in public’.
Then I looked at the crime statistics and found that on average more than 2 women are killed every week by a current or former partner, that there is a call to the police every minute about domestic violence, and that a woman is raped every 6 minutes – adding up to more than 85,000 rapes and 400,000 sexual assaults per year. That 1 in 5 women is the victim of a sexual offence and 1 in 4 will experience domestic violence.
Those stats did very little to convince me that everything was OK and I shouldn’t be worrying my pretty little head about it. Actually they had the opposite effect. I started wondering whether there might not be a connection between ours being a society in which so many women become so accustomed to experiencing gender-based prejudice that they almost fail to even register it anymore, and the fact that men dominate political and economic spheres and a fifth of women suffer some form of sexual assault. The figures certainly didn’t allay my fears and convince me I was just making a mountain out of a molehill – far from it. To me they suggested an urgent and essential need to pay attention to the ‘minor’ incidents – each and every one of them – in order to start joining the dots and build up a proper picture of what was going on.
I didn’t for a moment think that the problem of sexism could be solved overnight. But nor did I see how we could possibly even begin to tackle it while so many people continued to refuse to acknowledge that it even existed. I thought if I could somehow bring together all those women’s stories in one place, testifying to the sheer scale and breadth of the problem, then perhaps people would be convinced that there was, in fact, a problem to be solved.
At least that would be a start.
So, in April 2012, I started a very simple website where women could upload their stories – from the niggling and normalized to the outrageously offensive – and those who hadn’t experienced the problem first-hand could read them and, I hoped, begin to realize what was really happening on a daily basis.
Before two months had passed the website contained more than 1,000 entries.
Without any funding, or means to publicize the project beyond my own Facebook wall, I thought perhaps fifty or sixty women would add their stories – or that I might be able to persuade a hundred or so of my own friends to add theirs.
Stories began to trickle in during the first few days. Within a week, hundreds of women had added their voices. A week later, the number had doubled, then trebled and quadrupled. I started a Twitter account, @EverydaySexism, and found that people were keen to discuss the phenomenon there too. In exactly the same way that raising the subject in a roomful of people led to more and more women chipping in with their own examples, the idea spread through social media like wildfire, snowballing and gathering momentum as it travelled.
Suddenly stories began to appear from America and Canada, Germany and France, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people started viewing the website each month. Before two months had passed the website contained more than 1,000 entries.
There were people who said I might be making it all up – or that it didn’t prove anything because the stories couldn’t be independently verified. And that’s true (the verification part, not the making it up) and applies to the project entries quoted in this book. This is important, so while we’re here let’s clear it up. The project was only ever intended to be used as a qualitative source, just like many other highly respected social studies and research projects that rely on reported evidence. Yes, we should be aware of the possibility that an entry has been fabricated. But really there’s no incentive for anybody to make things up. Firstly, the project consists of so many accounts that there’s no fame or attention to be gained from adding a false story – each one is just a drop in the ocean. Secondly, because IP addresses are automatically submitted with the entries, we’re immediately alerted when anyone submits more than one story. On the few occasions when trolls have posted a small batch of sarcastic and over exaggerated entries, it has been easy to spot and remove them. More importantly, though, now that tens of thousands of women have added their experiences, the stories are corroborated by each other – they’re repeated and echoed by those of other women, of different ages and backgrounds and from different countries, with the same themes arising again and again. These accounts are also supported by the thousands of girls and women I have met at schools and events over the past year, by women who have emailed me in confidence and women I have interviewed for this book. They’re all saying very similar things. It would have to be an awfully big coincidence for so many of them to be making up the same story.
So, the stories kept coming. Then one day a journalist from The Times contacted me, asking about running a feature on the project. Other papers and magazines swiftly followed, then radio and television programmes. I began to write regularly for the Independent and later the Guardian and other media, chronicling the accounts as they streamed in and highlighting common themes. Articles about the project appeared around the world, from Grazia South Africa to the Times of India, French Glamour to the Gulf News, the LA Times to the Toronto Standard. Every time the project was featured in the foreign press I’d receive emails from women in those countries asking if we could start a version of the project for their country too. Within eighteen months we had expanded to eighteen countries worldwide.
Hundreds of women and girls wrote to me about their own experiences, describing not only what had happened to them but also how they’d felt guilty or unable to protest – how they’d been made to feel that whatever had happened was their fault, or that they shouldn’t make a fuss. The first time the true scale of what I had started to uncover really hit me was when one woman wrote to me saying: ‘I’m 58 so I have too much to say in a small box. Here are some highlights arranged in decades.’
The stories came from women of all ages, races and ethnicities, of different social backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations; disabled and non-disabled, religious and non-religious, employed and unemployed. Stories from the workplace to the pavement, from clubs and bars to buses and trains. Of verbal harassment and ‘jokes’, of touching and groping and grabbing and kissing and being followed and sworn at and shouted at and belittled and assaulted and raped.
This is why the project, while it initially set out to record daily instances of sexism, quickly came to document cases of serious harassment and assault, abuse and rape. In the early days, as the first stories of this kind were recorded, I wondered why people were coming to us – why they weren’t sharing and being supported elsewhere. And then I started to realize that there wasn’t anywhere else. Thousands of these stories had never been told. Thousands of these women had grown up in the confident assumption that these violations were their fault; that their stories were shameful; that they should never tell anybody. And their experiences weren’t ‘out of place’ among the tales of daily, niggling, normalized sexism any more than the violets ‘don’t belong’ in the same spectrum of colours as the oranges and greens. You can’t separate one out and look at it without the others, because together they create a full picture. Our experiences of all forms of gender prejudice – from daily sexism to distressing harassment to sexual violence – are part of a continuum that impacts on all of us, all the time, shaping our selves and our ideas about the world. To include stories of assault and rape within a project documenting everyday experiences of gender imbalance is simply to extend its boundaries to the most extreme manifestations of that prejudice. To see how great the damage can be when the minor, ‘unimportant’ issues are allowed to pass without comment. To prove how the steady drip-drip-drip of sexism and sexualization and objectification is connected to the assumption of ownership and control over women’s bodies, and how the background noise of harassment and disrespect connects to the assertion of power that is violence and rape.
And so we accepted all these stories, and more, until in December 2013 – just twenty months after the project was launched – 50,000 entries had poured in. This is their story. This is the sound of tens of thousands of women’s voices. This is what they’re telling us.