Laura Bates: How Can We End Everyday Sexism?

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 4, 2019 10:36 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Gender, Power And Fairness.

About Laura Bates' TED Talk

Most women experience sexism and harassment on a regular basis — daily acts that are often ignored. With her Everyday Sexism Project, writer Laura Bates wanted to give women an outlet to speak up.

About Laura Bates

Laura Bates is a writer and activist. In 2012, she founded the Everyday Sexism Project, which began as a website where people could share their experiences of daily, normalized sexism, from street harassment to workplace discrimination to sexual assault and rape.

The project has now collected over 100,000 testimonies from people around the world and launched new branches in 25 countries worldwide.

Bates is the author of Everyday Sexism: The Project that Inspired a Worldwide Movement (2016).

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about Gender, Power and Fairness. And ever since #MeToo helped to open up a whole new conversation, it also helped to unearth stories about all the daily indignities that, up until now, had been a normal part of women's lives.

LAURA BATES: I can tell so many similar stories - one, you know, where I was coming home quite late at night. And it was dark. And as I walked past two men, one of them very casually turned to the other and said, I'd hold a knife to that, the kind of thing that makes you feel terrified but you are so used to it happening that you end up hunching your shoulders a little tighter and walking a little faster and rushing home and then carrying on because you were taught by society from a very young age that this is a normal thing to experience as a woman, and you just have to get on with it.

RAZ: This is Laura Bates.

BATES: I'm an activist and a writer.

RAZ: And back in 2012, Laura launched a website called Everyday Sexism, where people could share their experiences and discover that they weren't alone.

BATES: It started because I had a week during which a bunch of these experiences happened quite close together, one of which included being on the bus on the phone to my mom on my way home one evening and suddenly looking down to realize that the man next to me was stroking my thighs and my legs and, eventually, kind of putting his hand in my inner thigh and coming up towards my crotch.

And being on the phone, I was in that bubble that you're in, where you don't quite feel like you're in public. So as I stood up and moved away from him, I said out loud to my mom on the phone, I'm on the bus. This man just groped me. And everybody on that bus heard. And everybody looked out the window. And it sent me such a powerful message. This isn't something to talk about. Don't bring this up. Nobody will respond.

And actually, years later, I look back on it and realized it sent such a powerful message to the man on the bus as well. You can get away with this. Even if the person says out loud what is happening, nobody will challenge you or react. It just, for the first time ever, made me sit down and ask myself, why is this normal?

RAZ: Yeah.

BATES: Which led me to just start asking other people - particularly other women and girls, mostly - have you ever experienced anything like this? And I honestly thought that maybe a few of them would have a single story to tell me. And instead, it was a flood. It was every woman I spoke to. And it was hundreds of stories, not just one or two.

That was really what prompted me to start the Everyday Sexism Project. It gave people a place to talk about it, to be heard, to be believed. But it also, I hoped, could create a kind of database that would help other people to realize the scale of the problem and not to ignore it anymore.

RAZ: Laura Bates picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BATES: Fifty-thousand women from all over the world added their stories in 18 months. They were women and men from countries everywhere, people of all ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, religious and non-religious, disabled and non-disabled, employed and unemployed. We heard from a 7-year-old disabled girl in a wheelchair and a 74-year-old woman in a mobility scooter who encountered almost identical experiences that screamed abuse about female drivers.

A female reverend in the Church of England was asked if there was a man available to perform the wedding or the funeral service, nothing personal. A man was congratulated for babysitting his own children. A woman working in the city was asked if she would sit on her boss's lap if she wanted her Christmas bonus. A woman who worked in a video store found that every time she went up the ladder to get fresh stock from the store room, her boss would smack her on the bum. And when she came down again, he'd look down her top and say, you know why I hired you. A waitress was told to make a choice between having an abortion or resigning when she fell pregnant.

A 15-year-old girl wrote that she knew that she was clever and funny and she could do anything she wanted to do. But really, it didn't matter if she became a doctor or a lawyer because she knew from the world around her and from the media that the only thing that really mattered was whether she was sexy, whether her breasts grew and her waist narrowed and whether boys found her attractive. A 13-year-old girl wrote to say that she'd been showed a video of sex at school on a boy's mobile phone, a video of porn, and that now she's so scared to have sex that she cries every night because she didn't realize that what sex was the women hurting and crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So it's clear that you are trying to make a bigger point about - about this behavior that is all around us and how it's all connected. But, you know, a lot of people see stories about, like, Harvey Weinstein or - or Bill Cosby. And they'll say, you know, those people are ill. What's going on in their minds? And it becomes easy to distance ourselves from it, from everything.

BATES: Honestly, I think that it's - I think that it's an excuse. It's a way not to confront the reality of the fact that actually, we are talking about a really, really widespread problem within our society, within the men that we know and socialize with and go to work with and interact with. But also, if you look at the men that we see being arrested for these kinds of crimes, they are stand-up guys in the community.

They are men with large networks of loving friends and colleagues and family. They are men, of course, like Harvey Weinstein, who is enormously respected and successful. And I think we have to confront that uncomfortable truth, that these are not outliers. They're not freaks. They're not monsters. They are normal men within our communities.

RAZ: Once you started to gather all these firsthand accounts onto the site, what started to change?

BATES: So the project, it started out as something very quiet, as sharing our stories on the internet and people having the choice to come and see those stories. But very quickly for me, I think, the sort of anger that fueled those stories drove me to take those offline. And to do that, we took specific sections of the stories that we'd received. And we put them directly in front of people who had the power to change that one specific thing.

So we took the stories that we had just received - just from women on buses and tubes and public transport and trains. And we took those to the British Transport Police and used them to retrain about 2,000 of their officers to change the way in which they dealt with sexual offenses on the transport network because at the time, survivors were not feeling believed or supported. And so they really weren't coming forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BATES: And so far, we know that that project, Project Guardian, has raised reports of harassment and assault on the tube by up to 20 percent. We were able to start talking to girls at universities about the U.K. definition of sexual assault, which is very simple. Under U.K. law, if someone touches you anywhere on your body and the touching is sexual and you don't consent and they don't have reason to believe that you consent, it's a form of sexual assault.

And girls would come up to me saying, but that can't be sexual assault because it's normal. That can't be sexual assault because that's what happens when I go on a night out with my friends. It can't be sexual assault because I wouldn't be able to call it that. People wouldn't take me seriously. I couldn't go to the police.

And we were able to start to change that attitude and able to start to get reports of people who had reported things that previously they'd had no idea they had the right to object to. But we also started hearing people's individual stories of standing up. There were stories of women and men around the world finding their own very unique and individual ways to stand up that worked for them and made a difference in their lives.

And if the Everyday Sexism Project has shown anything, it's that this is a continuum. All of these things are connected. The same ideas and attitudes about women that underlie those more minor incidents of sexism and harassment that we're often told to brush off and not make a fuss about are the same ideas and attitudes about women that underlie the more serious incidents of assault and rape.

And what that means is that by helping to contribute to a cultural shift in the way women are perceived - whether it's in the media, in the professional sphere, in the social or economic sphere - we help to shift the way that they're perceived and treated in other spheres as well.

RAZ: So Laura, you started this project in 2012. And you gave your TED Talk in 2013. And in the talk, you mentioned this idea of needing a major cultural shift. And I just wonder, are we seeing that cultural shift happening now? Or - or is this something you imagine is a decades-long, centuries-long process?

BATES: I think that we are seeing this enormous conversation, this moment of reckoning. We're seeing millions of women all over the world for the first time feeling able to speak out about what's happened to them. And that shouldn't be underestimated. That is a big deal. Do I think that this is something that we will see a complete end to in my lifetime? No, I think that there is still too far to go to say that with any confidence. I do feel positive that we are making progress, and we will continue making progress.

But I also think that there's a very long way to go, and it will take a very long time. And I caution against the fact that people like to say, well, you know, change is happening. Things are improving. If you look back a few decades, things have got much better. And their implication often is, leave it alone. Things are getting better. If we just wait patiently, it will sort itself out.

And what that fails to take into account is that things have got better, but only because of legions of activists - of women, in particular - of feminists who have fought tooth and nail for these changes to happen every step of the way. And so we can't stop fighting now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Laura Bates. She's a writer and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. You can watch her full talk at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.