Saturday, 9 August 2014

Everyday Sexism, by Laura Bates

Everybody should read this book. It’s like Laura Bates has taken my muddled and raging thoughts, pieced the pieces together and, amazingly, created constructive sentences from them.

Everyday Sexism is shocking, yet unsurprising. There are things recounted in here that make me furious and are just so innately wrong on every level imaginable, but which I know exist and take place every day; things which by many people are considered to be both normal and acceptable. Before reading Everyday Sexism, I was under no illusions about the sexist world we live in, but by laying it out before us in all it’s terrible detail, Laura Bates succeeds in making what is often invisible, visible, and in making me question the world around me, my reactions to it, and my place within it even more greatly.

Men: this is not a book that rages against you; it is not about some existential feminist ideal, it is about the fact that everyone, male, female or trans, has the right to be treated with respect, care and equality.

Let me be straight: sexism is far from dead. Sexism is bad for men AND women. And sexism begins when we are tiny, tiny children. There are many different forms of sexism, from the seemingly innocent childhood stereotyping that teaches us that girls like pink and boys like blue, to the very serious, such as rape. All forms of sexism are abusive and demeaning, and can result in emotional and mental damage: the “innocent” forms forcing men and women into boxes that are not only completely absurd, but can be emotionally damaging; the serious ones, criminal.

If you don’t think sexism exists, read this book and hopefully you will understand why it does and what we are all fighting against.

Two years ago, Laura Bates reached breaking point. Sick of not being able to walk down the street without being whistled at – among other things – she started the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, a simple website for people to tell their experiences of sexism, whether minor or more serious. She was shocked at the responses. Thousands upon thousands of them, from everyday derogatory comments to workplace discrimination, to rape victims being ignored. The sheer volume of response highlighted beyond doubt the endemic nature of the problem, in Britain and around the world.

Chapter by chapter, Bates brings to the fore the nature of the problem, from the way that girls are treated in primary school, secondary school and further education, the media abuse and media portrayal of women (or how women are "supposed" to be), assumptions made about women in the workplace, assumptions made about “woman’s natural/expected role” (i.e. motherhood), assumptions made about women as they walk down the street. It’s all pretty shocking, though the proliference of pornography and rape "jokes" in our children’s schools is, I think, particularly disturbing.

And the other biggest thing that Everyday Sexism shows? For me, the answer to this question is the hypocrisy of it all. Newspapers, T.V. and magazines all picture women baring skin and flaunting their femininity. But when we dress similarly in real life we are yelled at on the street, leered at, treated in a demeaning manner and then – if we complain about such behavior - we’re told we’re asking for it by dressing like that. But if we don’t dress like it we’re abused for not being feminine enough. When we are propositioned, whether we accept or not, we are branded a slag or a slut. If we have multiple partners, the same. But men? No. If men have multiple partners they are praised for it. This is not equality.

And it is high time we challenged the status quo. The little everyday things may seem small, but: (a) they create a level of acceptability of sexism that is not actually acceptable, and (b) they provide a basis for more extreme sexist behaviours to occur. We have to draw the line somewhere, right? No: there should be no line; the line should be at the bottom; none of it should be deemed acceptable. None of it. Not even the delivery driver calling me “love” – it’s demeaning and implies that I’m soft or worth less than a man. I am neither. As Bates points out, “Allowing those ‘minor’ transgressions gives licence to the more serious ones, and eventually all-out abuse.” He wouldn’t call a man “love” would he? Then don’t use the term for me, please. And there’s the key: if you’re not sure whether sexism is happening to you, ask yourself, “Would this be happening if I was a man?”

Does this make me a feminist? My dictionary says that feminism is:
“A belief or movement advocating the cause of women’s rights and opportunities, particularly equal rights with men, by challenging inequalities between the sexes in society.”

So, yes, I guess I would consider myself a feminist. But sexism is not just about feminism: I am for equality of all the sexes (and yes, there are more than two). Feminism for me means that girls are allowed to like pink – and that it should be acceptable for boys to like pink too. I am reminded of shopping with my cousin and her son, when he was about three years old, and we went into a toy shop that had some dressing up clothes. He, completely of his own volition, chose a pink “princess” hat. His mum said he could have a hat, but bought him the purple wizard hat because the one he had chosen was “for girls”. He was perfectly happy with the wizard hat, but I was appalled: he chose the “princess” hat. Why not buy him that one? It’s fine for boys to not like pink; it’s fine for boys to like pink. Whatever. The choice should be theirs and there shouldn’t be any greater meaning behind their choice. It’s just a colour, for goodness’ sake.

Which brings me to my favourite quote from Everyday Sexism:
“My gender is not an insult.”

Which, in turn, brings me to my one small quibble: on the back cover of Everyday Sexism, in capital letters, the publishers have printed this book’s categorization: “Feminist Theory”. This is kind of sexist in and of itself: sexism is not a ‘feminist’ issue, it’s an ‘everybody’ issue. So why not simply categorise it as sociology? Sexism is bad for men as well as women, boys as well as girls, and all women, not just feminists. You don’t have to be a feminist to be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.

Please don’t ignore what Laura Bates has to say – and besides, Everyday Sexism is not filled just with what she has to say. Far from it: Bates’ writing is populated with facts, statistics and research carried about by a multitude of respectable organisations and agencies. It’s overflowing with testimony, too: from the Everyday Sexism project, from interviews, from the media. And it’s filled with evidence that cannot be ignored: the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the sayings we use – all of which attest to the endemic, everyday sexism in our world.

Men: sexism is not about women or feminists, it’s about everyone. Sexism puts you in a box too.

Women: read this book and know that you are not alone; know that it is not your fault when bad things happen to you – it is not your responsibility to dress a certain way or take a certain route to work to avoid being harassed; you shouldn’t have to change your ways: the other party/s needs to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame you.

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