Chaired by Jenny Niven
Laura Bates is a name known to feminists and sexist trolls alike. Founder of the Everyday Sexism Project she has collected hundreds of thousands of stories of acts of sexism that happen every day. Comments are made about dress and looks in the workplace. A man on public transport makes eye contact with a hand down his pants. A comment out loud about having been groped gets ignored by the rest of the passengers. Bates has done great things with her project and been both rewarded and viciously attacked for it. She has received a British Empire Medal. A collection of stories from her project given to the British Transport Police led to the retraining of 2000 officers, an awareness campaign and a 40% increase in reporting of harassment. All the while she endures messages from violent trolls laying out various scenarios in detail, such as the knife they would use to disembowel her as they raped her.
As part of her work she advocates improved sex and relationships education in schools. Many children get nothing from their parents and Bates dismisses the claims of MPs that children need protected from too much information too early by pointing out that they are already exposed. 60% of 14 year olds have seen porn, often depicting violent and humiliating scenes. While working with one school Bates was approached by a 13 year old girl who was terrified of the entire idea of sex because a boy had shown her a video on his phone where the girl was crying and hurting. In another school a 14 year old boy raped a girl and when asked by a teacher why he hadn’t stopped when she started crying he protested that it was normal for girls to cry during sex.
Approaching the idea of a child simply being curious about the word, Bates searched ‘porn’ in Google. The first page featured stills of 3 videos with captions declaring scenarios such as ‘teen gets arsehole smashed’. An add in the sidebar featured rotating images of women being taken from behind and bore the title ‘Punish Tube’. The immediate message for anyone just wanting to even know what the word porn means, is that sex is painful and humiliating for girls and that this is completely normal. When we stay silent we are not protecting them, we are being actively damaging. We teach children to read maps and who to call for help if they get lost or into trouble but we say nothing about how to navigate relationships and sex in a world that leaves them increasingly exposed to very damaging images and ideas.
As part of her drive to increase the effectiveness of sex education Bates has written Girl Up. It is a mix of explaining sexism in every form, ideas on how to teach people to deal with it, and strategies for dealing with the types of everyday harassing behaviour we sometimes struggle to respond to. She presents a series of pictures that can be sent as message responses to the joys of being sent and unsolicited dick pic, or someone asking that you send them a nude photograph. Among the options provided is a picture of balloons bearing the caption ‘Congratulations, you have a penis!’. Another is a drawing of two blue tits, one of which is giving the middle feather. You also have the option of sending pictures of pairs of melons, bongo drums or huge bazookas. A similar section presents potential responses to pick up lines. The suggested response to a crude line like ‘my dick isn’t going to suck itself’ was ‘well, it’s got good taste then!’ She also tells the story of a woman who had abuse shouted at her by a workman on a roof. When her enquiry into why he was shouting at her was met with further, more extreme abuse she responded by taking his ladder and lying it down, leaving him stranded.
A teacher asks for hints on how to get secondary school students to listen and then to talk. Bates explains that the best responses come when the students get to talk as much as possible. Starting a discussion by asking ‘What do girls worry about as opposed to boys?’ generally results in an animated discussion where they explain many problems of sexist views to each other. However, as Bates points out, there are often other problems and forms of oppression that are heavily linked to sexism and cannot be separated into a completely distinct issue. Racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, ageism. All of these play into sexism in different ways. The wage gap is much higher for black women compared to white women. Add in a disability and the gap gets larger still. Homophobia takes different forms depending on if it directed at men or women. Gay or bisexual men get insulted and bullied and beaten up. For a woman entering into a relationship with another woman, it is likely that at some point a man will talk about how ‘hot’ it is and ask if they can watch. I have been looked at like some twisted fetish brought to life and it is not a pleasant experience.
This is a book that deserves to have a large impact and can do a lot to support young people emerging into an increasingly dangerous online world, especially if thorough sex and relationships education continues to be withheld. As Bates points out the battle of feminism towards an equal society has come a long way but we must go further still. She is also sure to point out that as dangerous as the Internet can be, it has positive aspects as well. Her project and two books would not have got started without social media and every day she watches women from around the world forming an online community to provide the support that not all of us have access to in the ‘real’ world.