Posted on November 10, 2015
Laura Bates at The University of Bristol
Last week my friend took me to a talk by Laura Bates at the University of Bristol. I didn’t really know anything about Bates beforehand, beyond the fact that she wrote the book Everyday Sexism, which I haven’t read. But I thought it would be interesting, so I went along – and I’m very glad I did!
Laura Bates is best known for her ‘Everyday Sexism’ social media project. She started it after she experienced three instances of sexism in one week (including being groped on the bus and being followed home at night). She said that, if each one had happened separately, she would have dismissed it as ‘normal’, but because they happened to converge on one week she realised how ridiculous and unfair it all was. It was then that she decided to start the ‘Everyday Sexism‘ project: a website where men and women could submit their experiences of sexism, however big or small, and have them heard. The project exploded and she has since received thousands of testimonies from all over the world.
At the beginning of her talk, Bates shared some statistics that demonstrated how there is still dramatic gender inequality in all sorts of professions, including business, politics, the arts and the media. She said that many people tell her, “women are equal now so sexism doesn’t exist any more”. Everyday Sexism is her attempt to counter that argument and prove that vast changes still need to be made. The most shocking statistic was this: 1 in 3 women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.
Bates shared some of the stories she has received through her project. There was one submitted by a Mexican woman who was told, in the workplace, “You look prettier when you shut up”. There was another about two women who did not get jobs because they were deemed a ‘maternity risk’, and a story from a man who was ridiculed when he asked for more paternity leave. Bates drew examples from the way the press reports stories: men appointed to prominent positions are identified in headlines by their names or previous experience, whilst one headline read, ‘Mother-of-three set to lead the BBC’. Or, even more glaringly, women appointed to government have been referred to as ‘Blair’s Babes’ and ‘Cameron’s Cuties’.
After she set up the project, Bates received many rape and death threats herself. There was even an open letter written to her husband that told him he should leave her before she burns the house down, kills his kids and joins a lesbian witch coven (which, she joked, “sounds awesome at this point”). Bates said that, for a while, the threats did make her consider stopping, but she has not. Many people have championed her talents, and she has since been recognised with numerous awards and literary prizes.
Bates has been criticised for drawing attention to sexist behaviour but not providing many concrete solutions for how to solve it (which strikes me as a little unfair, because she isn’t claiming to have all the answers). She does offer some definite advice though, for ways in which individuals can tackle sexism when they encounter it. For example, Everyday Sexism provides a space for people to talk about their experiences, and – crucially – nobody else can reply or comment on any of the stories, so nobody’s accounts can be dismissed or belittled. Bates talked about how to address an abuser using specific terms: if you are being groped on a bus say, “Man with the green coat, stop touching me”, and the attention and shame will be put onto the perpetrator, not the victim.
She also offered some genuinely hilarious examples of other people’s approaches to sexism. There was the man who saw a group of builders shouting, “Get your tits out!” at a passing woman, so he pulled up his shirt and showed them his tits. There was a woman who got tired of people on the phone asking to speak to “the man of the house”, so she started handing them over to her 6 year old son. There was the woman with large breasts who, when anyone shouted “Big tits!” at her in the street, would look down at her chest and scream. And, my personal favourite, the woman who asked a man on a train to move his bag so that she could sit down. He said, “Grab my cock”. She replied, without missing a beat, “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any tweezers.”
I thought Bates’ talk was very informative, passionate, serious and funny. She’s an excellent public speaker and I think she has a lot of important things to say.
Have you read Bates’ book? Can you recommend any other books in a similar vein? I’d love to hear your thoughts!