“Once you start noticing this shit, you can’t stop,” my husband said once while I was in the middle of one of my regular rants about sexism. He’s right, you know. Once your eyes have been opened to the many tiny ways that women are treated as ‘other’ – different from the norm – it’s impossible to close them again.
Laura Bates realised this when as an aspiring actress she found she was being judged on her appearance instead of her ability.
“I thought it was normal,” she says. “It was just part of being a woman. And that made it hard for me to talk about.”
But Laura decided to speak to other women about their experiences and Everyday Sexism was born on social media.
“I thought maybe I’d get a few women sharing stories,” she says. “But it was every single woman I spoke to. I was overwhelmed by the response.”
Women – and men – have now shared hundreds of thousands of stories and there are 20 versions of Everyday Sexism around the world. Laura herself is now no longer an aspiring actress but instead she is works fulltime on her project. She’s written two books and she speaks at conferences, workplaces, schools and universities. Not bad for someone who’s not yet 30.
“When we collected the stories we started seeing connections,” she said. “Minor offences – being shouted at in the street, for example – lead to larger problems.”
Laura’s latest book, Girl Up, is aimed at young women and is a brilliant resource for girls and women who want to fight back. It gives them tools to handle problems such as sexting, unsolicited dick pics (something that makes me very glad my teen years were pre-internet – eurgh), body image, and rape culture. It’s a great book and I want to buy it for every teenager I know – boy and girl.
The stats are shocking. 16-24 year olds are the age group most at risk from domestic violence. A third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced some form of sexual abuse. A THIRD. And there is a big problem in schools – it’s estimated there’s one rape every day in a UK school. Somewhere you’d like to think should be a safe place.
“Sexism starts really young,” Laura says, producing a picture of clothes for baby girls saying things like ‘I hate my thighs’. “And it continues at school, and then at university, and online.”
She’s passionate about young people being given real life sex and relationships education, and she’s rightly proud of the work she does in schools – talking to boys and girls about sexism.
“If we start young too, before other stuff becomes ingrained, we can change it,” she points out.
As a mum of boys, I’m really aware that sexism goes both ways. Forcing boys and men to act in a certain way does no one any favours and it’s a fact that male mental health suffers as a result. Teenage boys are just as bewildered by online porn and rape culture as teen girls. It’s not good for anyone.
I think Laura’s battle to educate children and teens about sexism is right but not everyone agrees. A proposal to introduce relationship education like this into schools was just vetoed by the government. I think that is a big mistake but I’d love to hear what you think.
*Laura was talking to women in my workplace as part of the Hearst Empowering Women project. Check out http://empowering.hearst.co.uk/ for more info and inspiring stories.
Image: 5×15 Stories
Kerry is an author and journalist with a passion for storytelling.