Polite and softly spoken, Laura Bates seems reserved, almost quiet. But ask her about any of the women’s issues she’s passionate about and Bates has much to say. What else would you expect from a woman who has engineered a social media movement so successful it now has a platform in 25 different countries? The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism on a day to day basis, or as Bates explains: “It is about raising awareness and forcing people to acknowledge that gender inequality exists, but it is also about creating a community of solidarity, to hear and respect women’s stories and to let them know that they aren’t alone and they aren’t to blame.”
Born in Oxford, Bates grew up in Hackney before moving to the West Country. She attended Cambridge University and then tried her hand at acting. It was while awaiting auditions that she began to notice stark comparisons in the brieﬁng notes for male and female actors.
“Going to auditions deﬁnitely opened my eyes to the enormously unequal way in which the media portrays men and women!” she asserts with utter vehemence. “I would receive casting breakdowns that said things like ‘sexy nun, must have great cleavage’, or ‘a character who is naive yet fuckable’. I turned up at auditions and was told to take my top off. I read scripts where the women… were just there as stereotypes and window dressing. I saw male actors being judged on their talent and ability, and women being judged on their looks alone.” Observing these injustices, Bates felt compelled to start up the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012. Four years later, she’s as surprised as anyone to see how well it’s taken off.
“I get messages saying… ‘I’d like to rape you until you die'”
The project has now accumulated almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter. But if anyone can testify to the lifeaffecting positives and disturbing negatives of social media, it’s Bates. The positives: she has pioneered an Internet movement so well-known it’s now become an almost throwaway phrase women use to describe casual sexism. The negatives: the long and horribly descriptive emails she receives from trolls fantasizing about how they will rape and murder her for speaking up about women’s rights. “The threats would often be worse if I’ve recently been interviewed or spoken publicly about sexism – I recently did a Sky News interview and came home to a message saying, ‘I’d like to use your hair as handlebars and rape you until you die.’”
Yet for someone faced with such violent threats, she’s remarkably optimistic about how social media can be changed for the better: “I think it reveals just how much people had previously prevented women from speaking out about their experiences – they had been dismissed, belittled and disbelieved so many times before that the strength of speaking out with a collective voice became a very effective way to counter the argument that you were ‘overreacting’ or ‘asking for it’.
We launch into a discussion on the distorted impression some people hold that all feminists are men-haters. When contemplating whether feminists should focus equally on the inequalities that men face as well as women, Bates suggests “feminism already does focus on things that would be beneﬁcial for men, because gender equality will bring great beneﬁts for everybody, and stereotypes and sexism hurt us all. For example, we might receive an Everyday Sexism entry from a man who has been denied parental leave and consequently bullied in the workplace, and from a woman who has been denied a promotion because she’s considered a ‘maternity risk’ – these aren’t two separate problems, rather it is an example of both men and women suffering from the same outdated stereotype that a woman should stay at home and look after the children and a man should go to work and earn money.”
Despite this, Bates believes that women remain the conspicuous victims of sexual harassment and gender inequalities: “It is also important to acknowledge that gender inequality hugely disproportionately affects women – it is women who are systemically affected by it and women who have borne the brunt of sexual violence for centuries, so it is right that feminism focuses on women’s rights.” In which case, the obvious question must follow: Have things improved since you began the Everyday Sexism Project?
“I think the problem is still hugely present, especially in the media today. But I do feel hopeful that at least we have moved forward in becoming more aware and vocal about it and we are seeing it being called out and challenged more when it happens.”
Nevertheless, Bates is still very disappointed with the way the media seems obsessed with presenting sexual harassment in the workplace as a ‘debate’ rather than a problem. A good recent example, Bates explains, “is that of Isabel Hardman, a journalist who was called ‘totty’ by an MP in her workplace. Instead of condemning this or discussing the problem, it was ‘debated’ throughout the media with commentators being asked to argue about whether or not women should just put up with workplace sexism and whether it was really a problem.
“Gender equality will benefit everybody… Sexism hurts us all”
Now the 29-year-old has set her sights closer to home, writing a survival guide for a younger generation of feminists with her new book, Girl Up. Aimed at girls aged 14 through to women in their early 20s, the book offers practical and witty advice to help young women navigate those turbulent years. From a ten-step guide to how to start a protest, to open advice on sex and relationships, the book is informed and inspired by Bates’ conversations with female students while touring schools and universities across the country.
“I’m in Dublin at the moment as part of my book tour – I’ve been travelling throughout the UK over the past few weeks talking about Girl Up, which aims to tackle the stereotypes, double standards and hypocrisy young women are bombarded with.”
That’s why a key element of the book is consent, as well as sex education (including a chapter called ‘Clitoris Allsorts’) and positive body image. Down-to-earth, entertaining and illustrated with dancing vaginas, the book “unapologetically addresses what teenage girls are really dealing with”, to quote the prologue written by another super feminist, Emma Watson.
Bates said she wanted Girl Up to provide advice that understands the complexity of the decisions and issues facing young women today: “Young people are getting a huge amount of information, the majority of which is negative. As adults, we have a choice to make: do we shy away from those topics or do we counterbalance that with positive information?”
Where does she go from here? Bates is passionate about the Everyday Sexism Project and hopes that with this platform she can create concrete, discernible change for the future. “We are using our entries and working with politicians and police forces to tackle the gender pay gap and sexual offences on public transport, with schools and universities on sexual consent and healthy relationships, and with businesses and organisations on workplace discrimination. I think it is very powerful to use our project entries this way.”
Bates concludes that “this kind of collective action is likely to be safer, and have a bigger impact on changing the cultural normalisation that lets harassers think they will get away with it in the future. This will inﬂuence the public on a much greater scale.”
The Everyday Sexism Project can be found at everydaysexism.com
Bea Fones: “So done with women being called “psycho” or “crazy” just for talking about their emotions, or calling men out for their rubbish. Double standards, hello? Not to mention, it completely belittles mental illness.”
Jeremy Brown: “The endorsement of ‘masculinity’ is an incredibly damaging construct to male mental health. The pressure to ‘be a man’ encourages a culture of silence, which is perhaps why suicide is the biggest killer of young men.”
Katie Jenkins: “The objectification of women across international media is insidiously commonplace. Not only does it legitimise sexual and domestic violence against women, but it significantly hinders girls’ intellectual ambitions.”