Q & A: Laura Bates
When Laura Bates set up her Everyday Sexism blog asking women to upload their own accounts of their experience of sexism, little did she know what a force had been unleashed. From an initial trickle in the first few days soon she was fielding hundreds of examples from the UK and around the world, from young teenage girls facing a barrage of abuse at school, to women having their hours cut at work for daring to complain about being sexually harassed by their colleagues. She turned her findings into a book, Everyday Sexism, released in 2012, which was an overnight success.
In her new book, Girl Up, which has been written specifically for teenagers and early twenty-somethings, Laura Bates is like the big sister you never had; she offers sound advice on everything from resisting being undermined by magazines that push the perfect body, to coping with the minefield that is Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the current climate, with so many recent examples coming to light of women being trolled online simply for expressing their opinions and with so many cases where young women have ended up being vilified for sharing nude pics online, it is a sobering thought that many young people are navigating this virtual world for the first time, alone and with little protection.
Laura's book is a guiding light, warning girls not to feel pressurised into giving information that they wouldn't give to someone in person. She says 'If you wouldn't invite strangers into your home, don't let people you don't know access your profiles or accept their friend requests'. We could all learn from her advice.
Another subject she tackles is the media's obsession with body image, covering everything from adverts asking you if you are 'beach-body ready' to Monster High Dolls with their Barbie-esque proportions. These images can be bewildering but Bates’ message is clear: you should never be intimidated if you don't tick all the boxes.
She is frank, often graphic, and has absolutely no truck with anything that she feels is boxing young girls in, telling them how to be, and stifling their ambitions. She is clear on the powerful role that women have to play in supporting each other, and determined that girls should not be put off from reaching their potential, wherever their talents may lie. As she puts it: 'There are so many different ways to shine'.
How has your life changed since you founded Everyday Sexism?
It has turned upside down! In lots of ways I've been hugely lucky - I now get to work hard at something I love and feel passionate about, and it's wonderful to be able to work with schools and universities, politicians, businesses and police forces to tackle gender inequality. I've also had to get over a fear of public debate! On the other hand, I now regularly receive very graphic and abusive rape and death threats, which is hard to contend with and takes a big emotional toll.
Where do you stand on gender-neutral language? Do you feel words like ‘actress’ and ‘manageress’ should be phased out? Should broadcasters, like the BBC and organisations like BAFTA ditch these terms?
I definitely think there are elements of archaic gender inequality throughout our society that we don't even notice because we are so used to them. A good example is the fact that men are Mr. throughout their lives, whereas we still differentiate between Miss and Mrs as if a woman should be defined first and foremost by her marital status. I think that terms like 'manageress' could be seen as part of that hangover from more openly unequal times, especially when they're used to denote differing from the 'norm'. So I don't think it would do us any harm to ditch them, and I'd also, more urgently, like to see the press stop referring to people as 'female doctor' or 'Female engineer' in headlines, as if that's noteworthy or unusual! But I don't think changing language is enough on its own - we also have to tackle the underlying attitudes that go along with it.
Your book tackles the trials of social media and the cruel ways some people choose to use it. How do you cope with the negative aspects of using such an exposed platform?
I find it very difficult and I think it's an ongoing process. I have found it useful to talk to a counsellor about it and I don't think we should be ashamed of speaking about the major impact that such abuse can have on our mental health. It's very difficult to read hundreds of people's fantasies of how they'd rape you and what weapons they'd use to murder you without those things getting inside your head. But I also find it helpful to remember that every person who tries to stop me speaking out about gender inequality using misogynistic abuse is literally proving the need to keep speaking out about gender inequality! And the support I have received from other women in the feminist community, many of whom experience similar abuse, has been hugely helpful.
If you could recommend three books from the past that would help young people – girls and boys – understand the problems that face women today, which would they be?
I would recommend Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, which is still relevant today in its depiction of a brave, strong heroine who strains against sexist societal norms and expectations; The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Attwood; and (from the more recent past!) Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman, which forces the reader to confront societal injustice around race as well as gender and shows how they intersect.
Alain de Botton is returning to fiction as a method of exploring relationships. Do you think this is effective and if so, is it something you might explore from a gender perspective?
Yes, absolutely! I have always been very enthusiastic about the capacity that fiction has to communicate philosophies and ideas without having to explicitly spell them out. I think there is a really exciting opporunity to use literature to reach young people, in particular, and get them to look at the world in new ways and reconsider old stereotypes. Watch this space!
The actor Chris Pratt says we shouldn’t ‘objectify women less, but objectify men just as often’ in order to cure the inequality when it comes to the portrayal of women’s bodies in the media. Do you agree?
No! I think the important thing here is the term 'objectify'. I don't think anybody deserves to be dehumanised or reduced to the status of an object, which is what that means - and treating more men badly does very little to help women! What I'd like to see in the media is a move away from judging and valuing women on their bodies and appearance alone - not only when it comes to actresses and models, but also politicians, public figures and athletes. I want to live in a world where we don't hear about Theresa May's breasts in the budget headlines, where we're not having TV show debates about whether men want to have sex with Amanda Knox, and where Reeva Steenkamp isn't plastered across the front page of the papers in her bikini the morning after being shot dead. This doesn't mean we can't appreciate sexuality and beauty, in both men and women, but it means we shouldn't reduce anybody to those elements alone, we shouldn't use disembodied breasts or legs to advertise completely unrelated products, we shouldn't equate 'woman's body' with 'commodity'.
What changes to legislation do you believe needs to happen to help the fight against sexism in the UK?
I think there are many, but to name a couple, we desperately need the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which provides much needed protection against sexual violence and funding for women's support services, and I would love to see the government make sex and relationships education on issues like sexual consent, healthy relationships and online pornography compulsory in all schools. It was partly the huge lack of this kind of vital information on sex, relationships, masturbation, vulvas, women's rights and more that made me want to write Girl Up in the first place!
Girl Up is available in paperback now.