‘The Internet Can’t Go On Like This’ - What's Next For Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates?
The Debrief: Everyday Sexism, was launched to give voice to those who experience sexism - women and girls, men and boys - every single day
Everyday Sexism, was launched by Laura Bates in 2012 as a platform to give voice to those who experience sexism - women and girls, men and boys - every single day.
This stuff - bias, presumptions, catcalling, harassment, sexual violence - is so everyday, it’s become normal. But Laura doesn’t want it to be normal anymore, and by giving social media users a ‘collective voice’, as she calls it, to speak about their experiences, she can pull sexism out from where it lurks in the shadows. Handing these anecdotes of lived experiences to the powers that be could surely leverage much-needed change. But while campaigning for sex and relationships education (SRE) to be made compulsory in all schools, Laura soon found she was ‘banging my head against a brick wall’ (David Cameron has refused even his MPs’ requests to make SRE compulsory for all schoolchildren). So she decided to write a book specifically for the girls who aren’t getting any (SRE, that is).
The title, Girl Up, is an attempt to reclaim the word girl and show its strength, and the book thrums with dynamic ideas and tools that the everyday teenage girl (or young adult) can use to create change, not only within their own attitudes, but in the outside world. There are also a lot of illustrations of vaginas, both anatomically correct and purposefully imagined (dancing vulva, anyone?) We caught up with Laura to find out why she wrote this book, what she hopes it achieves and what’s changed since she first set up Everyday Sexism…
Hi Laura. This book is a lot funnier than your first book (Everyday Sexism). Was there a conscious effort to make this one more palatable?
I think the book has a balance. It exposes some awful things, but I hope it also gives a sense of the positivity of the young women I’ve met who are fighting back, who are so powerful and so strong and so funny. There’s room to be angry, but we’re angry so much of the time. So there is also room to fight it with humour, there’s room for academia, we need studies, we need statistics, we need protests, we need art, we need all of these different things, and we need to tackle sexism in the way that comes most naturally to us.
And there are some fantastic illustrations, how did you link up with your illustrator?
Jo used to do incredible work for No More Page 3 and what I really admired about her is that she could take something which took five minutes to explain in an argument with somebody, particularly a misogynist, and put it across in an instant with these incredible bold drawings. That’s what I wanted for this book. And she’d also done work in schools on body image, she has her finger on the pulse with these sorts of issues.
The Debrief’s reader might be a little older than the average Girl Up reader. Beyond buying the book for their sisters/nieces, what else can they do to help rid the world of sexism?
We can do so much at different levels. We can write to MPs and pressure them to do things like ratify the Istanbul Convention [In 2014, the UK, along with other countries, signed an agreement pledging to eradicate gender-based violence against women and girls, but the Government is still to formalise it!] and make SRE compulsory in schools. We can ask for equal pay at work or see if there is a clear and transparent reporting policy for workplace harassment. There are also so many personal ways there are to be part of this revolution. You can have a sexual revolution in your own home! What stood when writing the book is the number of women, in their 20s and 30s, including myself, who just didn’t know about the vulva and vagina. My editor emailed me to say I’d made an error by saying the clitoris is a certain number of inches long: ‘You must have meant millimetres’ and I said ‘No! That’s it! That’s the actual size!’ In the book we show it next to a ketchup bottle, to say ‘This is huge! This is part of us! This is about our pleasure!’ We can all do so much to foreground female sexual pleasure in our own lives and tackle the pervasive myths about women’s bodies that we don’t necessarily stop and re-think.
To promote this book, you started a hashtag, #wheniwas, to get women to talk about early experiences of sexism and sexual harassment. Do you ever think that women shouldn’t have to disclose these personal experiences to provoke a reaction?
We shouldn’t have to prove it, we shouldn’t have to pay the emotional toll of reliving and sharing those experiences for people to take our problems seriously, but I do think we live in a world where the problem isn’t acknowledged and this is a very effective way of doing it. And it becomes easier when you have the collective voice around you. When there’s 50,000 of you - as there was with the #wheniwas hashtag - it takes away from the risk of you personally being told that you’re imagining it or overreacting. Also, Everyday Sexism is built to be anonymous and there are no comments, and I hope we’ve created a mechanism that works as a platform.
And while Everyday Sexism - both the book and the site - are about highlighting and complaining about sexism, explaining the need for feminism, this book now seems to be doing feminism.
Totally, I wanted it to be more direct and to empower the individuals reading it with a ten point plan of what they can do. So many young women email me to tell me about their horrendously sexist dress code at school and feel the injustice of it but don’t know how to move forwards. They only need a small amount of encouragement and information to start a revolution. I want this book to give them a spark to help them start these revolutions!
Lily Allen recently complained about the way police handled a case of stalking that she was victim of. Do you think authorities are equipped to handle the increasing number of complaints of sex crimes being made?
More people are coming forward and that’s great but the sentence: ‘We’ve got a higher number of reports because more people are feeling comfortable coming forward’ should always be followed by a second sentence saying ‘there is a huge problem we need to deal with’. If more people are reporting, it means we’ve tackled some stigma and shame, but it doesn’t mean we’ve tackled the root problem. The job will only be done when no one needs to report it because it’s just not happening in the first place.
I can’t imagine you’d want to get into the brain of a sex criminal, but do you ever wonder what on earth causes them to do what they do?
It’s complex, there are lots of different people doing different things for different reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is normalisation. When we see things all around us all the time, we think of it as normal, then we replicate it. If a guy gropes a woman in a carriage full of people and everyone looks the other way, it sends him such a clear message: ‘This is cool, this is normal, go ahead, do it again, nothing bad will happen to you’. We also hear heartbreaking stories of men who have young children with them verbally abusing and harassing women in the street. And then, online, young men are being targeted with stuff that is all about dehumanising their female peers. It has a real impact because it’s getting to them before they’ve gone out in the world and actually interacted with women. That’s why it’s so important to disrupt this normalisation.
The internet seems to be just as good at stirring up anti-woman and anti-feminist hatred as it does pro-woman solidarity. Do you think more could be done by big companies to crack down on prolific online misogynists?
I think we desperately need them to step up, they are not doing enough and they know it. The internet is relatively young and I don’t think it’s sustainable. We can’t go on this way with women routinely receiving abuse for anything that they say online, we can’t go on this way with teenage girls being driven off platforms because when they try to join in a political discussion they’re told ‘Tits or get the fuck out’, we can’t go on this way where female gamers can’t even enjoy a game without being threatened with rape. Companies are starting to wake up but social media platforms must do more to protect their users from abuse. And in many cases law enforcement needs to be involved; it’s illegal for someone to say they’ll rape or kill you. Of course this protection needs to be balanced with freedom of speech. But though it’s a difficult thing to tackle, it’s not impossible. I just don’t believe that women and minorities’ safety needs to be thrown under the bus in order for free speech to be protected.
What else needs to change for the UK, at least, to become a more equal place?
Well, it’s definitely SRE. I wrote this book because I spent four years banging my head against a brick wall trying to get the Government to put SRE on the curriculum. I’ve been into classes where the only sex education they’ve received is girls handed out squares of sellotape to put on boys’ jumpers. Each girl was instructed to go round the classroom, putting the sellotape onto one boy’s jumper at a time. By the fourth or fifth boy the sticky tape had lost all its stick and wouldn’t stick on anymore, and just fell to the floor. The girls were told: ‘Well, that’s what your sexual worth is like. If you sleep with more than a few people then you’re ruined’. I’ve been into classes where the clitoris wasn’t even marked up on the biology textbooks! I’ve been into classes where the children were so confused because the only sex education they’d been given is a video from the 1980s, presented in no context, where lots of young people saying what they thought about sex, and one boy said ‘Sometimes women get raped and that’s how you get lesbians’. The children were like ‘Is this true?!’ and there’s been no discussion about this, teachers had left it unchallenged.
There’s going to be an inquiry into sex crimes at schools. Do you think this will lead to a renewed call for compulsory SRE?
There is no way any inquiry like that could not end up with a powerful recommendation for compulsory SRE, if it does its job anywhere near properly. The teachers unions, the student groups, the young women’s groups and the women’s rights groups will be consulting and will all beg for that with one voice. Of course, if forced acadamisation of schools happens it’s going to make it difficult to put central requirements on curriculums but I’d hope an exception would be made for this incredibly important issue. It’s brave for the Government to do this but we desperately need them to not shy away from the results when they get them. We would never dream of sending young people into the world without knowing how to read a map or how to calculate what change they need in a shop, and for me, navigating a relationship or sex is a similar universal experience; we wouldn’t we equip young people to deal with it?
Then you might also be interested in:
Follow Sophie Wilkinson on Twitter: @sophwilkinson
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating