I’ve been aware of the Everyday Sexism twitter account for some time, reading with anger and despair the seemingly endless reports of verbal and physical harassment, and of the host of ways in which women and girls are dismissed, disparaged and excluded. I thought things had, maybe, got a bit better during the course of the last forty-five years, since I became a teenager and realised that there were men out there who thought I existed in order to please them, and if I didn’t (either by being insufficiently attractive or by spurning their advances) then rather than being ignored I could expect to be insulted and threatened. It appears that little has actually changed.
I’m middle-aged now, past the age of invisibility, and so I don’t get catcalls any more – apart from the odd occasion when someone approaches in a vehicle from behind, and only realises as they draw level with me that they’ve just catcalled someone older than their mum… I do get shouted at sometimes when I’m out running, by people who think it’s hilarious to point out that I’m fat. I have been tempted to respond that whilst I know I’m fat, I’m clearly attempting to do something about it, and ask what they’re doing to address their own evident stupidity, but it’s early in the morning, no one else is around and I feel vulnerable. These things are idiotic, laughable, rather than hugely intimidating, but they anger me still. What makes someone think that because I am female and in a public place that they have the right to insult me, or to intrude on my thoughts?
I have never been the victim of violence of any kind, domestic, sexual or whatever. And yet I have to qualify that, because by the legal definition of sexual assault, of course I have. According to the law (not according to some deranged feminazi), sexual assault occurs when person A
- intentionally touches another person (B),
- the touching is sexual,
- B does not consent to the touching, and
- A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
I’d guess that any girl or woman who has ever been in a crowded pub or club could tick all of those boxes.
I can’t say I’ve been traumatised by my own experiences – I’ve been bloody annoyed by them, however, and at times unnerved and frightened. Even when there’s no physical contact, being shouted at in the street or from a passing car at the very least disturbs, as it’s meant to, and makes you feel more exposed and vulnerable. Cumulatively, these ‘minor’ incidents add to all the other ways in which we (women/girls) are told that our choices are irrelevant, that our bodies are not our own, and that our negative reactions to those messages are inappropriate, humourless, hysterical. And of course, I know plenty of women who’ve been on the receiving end of violence, and am certain that many more have been, but do not talk about it. If we call these experiences ‘everyday’ sexism, we’re not saying that all women experience these things every day, but that all women have experienced these things and, crucially, that they do not regard them as extraordinary.
I’ve never been told that I can’t do the jobs I want to do because I’m a woman. But I have been told that I’m too pushy, too strident, too aggressive. I have had men explain things to me about which I know far more than them, and I’ve spoken up in meetings only to be interrupted, or to have my contribution dismissed or totally ignored, and I’ve seen these things happening to other women in the workplace too. And, on the whole, I’d say I’ve had it pretty good. But many years working as a harassment officer, and as a manager with a predominantly female team of staff, have shown me what lots of women encounter. I’ve had to call men out on the toxic use of ‘banter’ to undermine women’s professional standing and their confidence, or the use of status to bully and demean women, or to pressurise women for sexual favours.
The nature of workplace harassment is that it often involves incidents which in isolation would seem minor and trivial, but which cumulatively have a serious effect on the recipient – this is recognised in harassment policies. The same is true in other contexts. The effect of once having someone shout at you in the street about what they want to do to you might be insignificant (assuming all they did was to shout) – the effect of this happening over and over again is to make you feel constantly insecure. When I was a young teenager, I remember initially feeling quite good about getting appreciative looks. Until I realised that the corollary of the appreciative look is that the looker may well feel that they have the right to do more than look – to comment (favourably or otherwise), to proposition, to touch, to grab, to threaten with rape. Within a very short period of time, the potential for receiving even the look as a compliment was massively diminished as I learned to quickly assess my safety, look for escape routes or potentially sympathetic bystanders.
None of that means that I want to ban men from looking at women. Any sensible and sensitive man, however, knows the difference between a look and a stare, between a look that encompasses a person and one that is riveted to a chest. Similarly with compliments – there are ways of saying you like the way someone looks that are OK. But sensible and sensitive men bear in mind that they have not been asked for their feedback, and that they have no automatic right to give it. They will realise that having given it, they do not then have the automatic right to follow it up and insist on a conversation that the woman may not wish to have, and they will be tuning into the woman’s response, to ensure they don’t intrude or offend. They not only won’t ignore a clear and unequivocal ‘no, I’m not interested’, they won’t pursue it unless the woman does give a clear and unequivocal signal that she wants to talk to them, and will accept it without argument and walk away if she changes her mind. And they will know that the fact that they have noticed a woman does not entitle them to tell her what is wrong with her body, her face or the way she is dressed. It’s really not that tough to get it right. Most men know this, and also recognise how daily interactions between men and women are messed up by the dickheads who don’t get any of this, and/or don’t care.
Whilst I’ve been writing this, two notable things have been happening. First of all, the #NotAllMen trope has been everywhere, initially as the all-too predictable response from so many male readers to women’s accounts of their own experiences, and then as the ironic riposte to that response, showing how it – intentionally or otherwise – derails and interrupts, making yet another conversation about men rather than about women. And the #YesAllWomen hashtag asserts that the more important fact is not that ‘not all men…’ but that ALL women experience everyday sexism, and ALL women are influenced as they go about their daily lives by the knowledge that SOME men represent a threat.
The other major development, of course, has been the Isla Vista shootings and the misogynistic (and racist) manifesto published by the killer. I don’t intend to weigh in with more analysis of this. I’m not qualified to diagnose his mental state from what I’ve read. I know that more of his victims were male than female, that some were stabbed rather than shot, which seems to complicate the simple narratives that emerged initially. But there’s no doubt that (a) his manifesto is overwhelmingly driven by a hatred of women – his hatred of men is linked to it, he wants revenge on men who have had more ‘success’ than he has with women, that (b) he was looking for women to attack and (c) three of his victims might be alive if he hadn’t been able to supply himself with guns and ammunition. It’s also clear that those who are trying to make him a hero, a ‘legend’, see him as someone fighting back against the bitches, the monstrous regiment of women. Sarah Ditum’s blog puts this well:
I know completely that not all misogynists are spree killers. It is self-evident that misogyny is a necessary but not sufficient condition for cases like this to occur, and that sufficiency must include the availability of weapons (a hammer will do) and the existence of particular psychological states. This is obvious. In fact, it is so obvious that I wonder why anyone would think it in any way complicates our understanding of Rodger’s motivation, because none of it alters the fact that misogyny exists and causes violence.
Not all misogynists kill. But all misogyny creates the conditions in which women are killed, raped and abused, and in which women fear being killed, raped or abused. This is not complicated. It is simple, it is deadly, and it is the reason feminism is necessary.
Not all dickheads are misogynists, but on the whole, men who like women, like them as people, recognise them as being human in exactly the same way they are, don’t behave like dickheads towards them. The men who represent a threat to us are the ones who don’t like women because they’re women, whether or not they are sexually attracted to them. Those who aren’t interested in women sexually and who don’t like them probably represent less of a threat to us in terms of violence but a considerable threat in terms of institutionalised sexism. Those who desire women sexually but do not recognise them as people are extremely dangerous, as the Isla Vista killings have reminded us (as if we needed it). One has only to read below the line on any article on any remotely feminist topic to be stunned by the venom directed at us, and how it is expressed in such highly sexualised terms.
The internet, which has allowed misogynists to vent their vileness at any woman who speaks out publicly, with anonymity and a potentially vast audience, may seem to be a threat. But it is also enabling us to support each other, to hear others’ voices and experiences, and to spread our challenges to sexist and misogynist views out to that same potentially vast audience. It’s scary to do so – just think of the kind of attacks that were meted out to Caroline Criado Perez who had the temerity to propose that a woman might feature on just one of our bank notes, or those who supported her campaign. But we can use it, and we must. And if the men who might be tempted to jump in with a ‘not all men’ instead focus on challenging the behaviour of those other men, the ones who catcall and grope and harass, the ones who belittle and dismiss and demean, the ones who hate women, then we really could start changing things. If the men who might be tempted to criticise our tactics and our priorities when we decide to speak out, back us up instead, then we really could start changing things.
Drawing attention to everyday sexism is not about embracing victimhood. Quite the reverse. We accept the status of victims when we keep quiet, internalise our fear and distress, blame ourselves for what others do to us – which we do for a host of reasons that are all too easy to understand. When we shout back, when we say out loud and in public, on our own behalf or in defence of others, THIS IS NOT OK, we reject victimhood, we become ourselves and take charge of our lives.
To quote Maya Angelou, who died today after a life of bearing witness and fulfilling her own ambition ‘not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style’,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
She also said that
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
To quote Laura Bates, ‘the thing about sexism is that it is an eminently solvable problem’. The first step, which is the focus of the project, is to force people to recognise that it’s a real problem. That recognition in itself could be a huge cultural shift. And if anyone thinks such huge cultural shifts don’t happen, or take generations, just think of civil partnerships/gay marriage. Ten years ago I would not have believed that such a change could come about in my lifetime, and the amazing thing is not just that these things are now enshrined in law, but that there has been so little fuss, so little outrage, and that most of what fuss and outrage there was has been perceived by most people as, more than anything, daft.
To redirect the flow of a river, you start by moving small stones. That’s what this project is about – small stones such as each individual testimony that appears on the website and on Twitter, each moment when someone challenges sexism in the workplace, the family, on the street.
We’re speaking out, we’re shouting back, we’re reaching out to each other, we’re choosing not to be victims, or bystanders. We’re saying that whilst these examples of sexism are ‘everyday’, they’re not normal, and they’re not OK. Everyday resistance, everyday solidarity.
Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, 2014)