A crowdsourcing campaign of staggering simplicity, Laura Bates Everyday Sexism Project is becoming as ubiquitous as the inequality it seeks to out.
Beginning as an experience of street harassment shared between friends, Bates’ discovery of just how much sexism goes unsaid demanded a wider audience, something only possible through social media’s one-to-many mouthpiece.
A little over two years later, the project has now expanded into a website, Facebook page, and Twitter handle with 200,000 followers and 80,000 testimonies from across the world. Bookending a brilliant Off the Shelf festival, Flux met with Laura at her Celebrating Modern Feminism event, and talked to the self-taught feminist about what it means to change the way discrimination is discussed in public.
Indisputably the Year of Feminism, 2014 saw topics typically derided as ‘women’s issues’ making unheard of incursions into the social sphere; even the impassive walls of the UN witnessed moving speeches by Everyday Sexism and Emma Watson, its new Goodwill Ambassador. “For me, that was a real milestone,” Laura admits, her eyes burning brightly, “it meant that people from countries all over the world were coming together to discuss this problem and how to tackle it.” In such macho environments, these concrete markers of success become just as solid as the spaces they now inhabit. This is an era when many assume sexual discrimination to be a thing of the past; Laura’s ambition is no less than to make visible the everyday workings of this most insidious of ‘isms.
As the rise of the meme has shown, an idea is no good unless it’s infectious. As Laura tells me, “You now see an awful lot of headlines and news stories where people have used the phrase without it being anything to do with the campaign…it has become almost a part of the lexicon.” The result is a list of achievements both endless and evidential, with Laura’s successes encompassing a rape campaign that she says successfully “forced Facebook to change its policies around rape and domestic violent content”, and a collaboration with British Transport Police on ‘Project Guardian’, where 2,000 officers were re-trained using the project’s testimonies of women on public transport. As a direct result, she tells me the reporting of these sexual offences rose by 26% and the detection of offenders by 32%. A social media success story, Everyday Sexism is also proof of Bates’ dedication to outreach programmes in schools, universities, businesses, and beyond. “There are literally thousands of people who have been reached by the message,” she tells me proudly.
As a male feminist, I wonder about the men affected by the campaign – could there be a similar forum for them to confess their sexism? “No-one’s ever asked me that,” Laura tells me when I put it to her, “It is something actually that some men have done spontaneously and very movingly over our social media channels, through the website, and through email. We have heard from a lot of men who’ve said ‘This has really opened my eyes and has actually changed my behaviour in a way that I hadn’t anticipated’, and I think that’s an incredibly brave thing to do.” The project works best by creating conversations; between offenders and victims, organisations and employees, fathers and daughters. Unlike the essentialism of the Second Wave, which divided the world into them & us, Laura argues that modern feminism “doesn’t have to be a witch hunt, it’s not about vilifying people”.
Reading through the website’s endless, exponential testimonies is always harrowing, but the overall effect is that of a tug of war with something devilishly deep-rooted. Yet I can’t help worrying that in an internet age where women are often reduced to clickbait, perhaps even this project cannot escape the objectification process; could the male gaze be replicated in the act of recounting it? Laura takes this idea in her stride: “We’ve been very protective of the women who post to the website from the beginning,” she says firmly, “It’s not something that’s ever been raised; very much the feeling that we get is that actually what it creates is a community of solidarity and sense of support. There is no potential for someone to question an experience even well-meaningly or say ‘why didn’t you do this or that?’”
Finally, for all the haters who claim that inequality is now a myth, Everyday Sexism also provides the clearest evidence of its perpetuation. Laura tells me how a growing number of testimonials from the trans community describe passing from one gender to another as an instant revelation about the different ways we treat men and women. A post-transition trans man has written that “for the first time when he spoke people just accepted what he said.” It makes sense that the most reliable witness of sexism from one gender about another is the person who has been both.
Ultimately, Bates’ vision is so powerful because it treats sexism not as social fact but as a malingering meme, treatable by simply detecting its presence. Strapping itself to social media, modern feminism evens the odds by becoming as monolithic and multifaceted as the sexism it exposes. This campaign’s continuing success suggests that one day soon, outbreaks of sexism will pass from the everyday into extinction.
Interview by Vienna Famous