Nov 10, 2014

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

Everyday Sexism by Laura BatesEveryday Sexism by Laura Bates

Many of you are likely to be familiar with Laura Bates’ hugely important Everyday Sexism project: for the past few years, Bates has been collecting testimonies that document the micro- and macro-aggressions women face by virtue of their gender, and sharing them on the project’s website and Twitter account. The sheer number of examples is as bad as their content — if reading through them doesn’t disabuse one of the notion that sexism is a thing of the past, then I’m not sure what would. The experiences the project documents are not only horrifying, but also shockingly commonplace.

Everyday Sexism combines the personal stories Bates has collected with tweets shared under the #EverdaySexism hashtag and vital statistics that amply illustrate each of the points the book covers. There are chapters devoted to girls’ experiences growing up; women in areas such as education, public spaces, the media, the workplace, and politics; motherhood; intersectional issues, masculinity; women under threat; and people standing up against sexism.

Everyday Sexism is a more introductory book than, say, Bad Feminist or Unspeakable Things, but this is of course by no means a bad thing. There’s a lot of value in making a case for why sexism is still a problem, especially considering there’s no shortage of people who will argue otherwise. Personally I preferred the latter two books, but it would be an oversimplification to say I’m not this book’s target audience because I’m already a feminist. There’s plenty that people who realise sexism is a problem can gain from reading it: the sheer relief of pattern spotting; the comfort in numbers; the small solace to be derived from the mounting evidence that we’re not alone and it’s really, really not us, even as our hearts break for all the people who have to face these things too. I remember my life before feminism well enough to realise how huge this is. As Bates herself puts it, it’s a momentous thing to realise that
…This inequality, this pattern of casual intrusion whereby women could be leered at, touched, harassed and abused without a second thought, was sexism: implicit, explicit, common-or-garden and deep-rooted sexism, pretty much everywhere you’d care to look.
So: Laura Bates is great, the Everyday Sexism project is immensely valuable, and I’m really grateful that it exists. Having said that, and to go back to the phrasing I used when I talked about Unspeakable Things, this is going to be a “Yes, but” sort of post. One of the main reasons is the fact that I kept stumbling upon passages where Everyday Sexism makes unhelpful and misleading comparisons between sexism and racism (and unfortunately I don’t think disclaimers help at all when you then go on to make the point anyway). For example:
This is not to suggest for even a moment that such other forms of discrimination aren’t still an enormous problem, or that sexism is in any way worse or more important. But sexism does seem to occupy a uniquely acceptable position when it comes to public discourse, with a general willingness to laugh and ignore it rather than define it as the prejudice it is.
Pause, for just a second, to reimagine this scenario in the context of a happy, smiley presenter announcing that ‘One in six people in the Daybreaker poll think assault victims are to blame if they’re black.’ Now you get it.

Nope, I’m afraid I very much don’t. I don’t need to imagine scenarios where black people are victim-blamed for their own assault or even murder, because unfortunately they’re everywhere I care to look. Earlier this year Ferguson made this incredibly obvious, but that’s far from the only example. I remember Owen Jones falling into this same logical pitfall in Chavs: the form of discrimination that hits closest to home for you is not necessarily “the last socially acceptable form of prejudice”, and we don’t need to position sexism as unique to drive home the point that it’s a serious problem. If you read the above generously you could argue that the point is that people are more likely to be covert about their victim-blaming if the issue is race rather that they won’t do it, but I’ve come across too many openly racist comments both in person and on social media to be able to buy this argument.

Unfortunately Bates slips into these comparisons again and again. Here’s another example, this time pertaining to media coverage:
But what’s even worse is the media obsession with providing a counter-argument to pretty much any feminist story, regardless of the topic, in order to present it as a ‘heated debate’.
It’s interesting to note that the media knows very well which way the wind of public sentiment blows – this same treatment is not meted out, for example, to anti-racist campaigners. I very much doubt that Doreen Lawrence, after being interviewed for a feature in a national newspaper, would have received a text message like the one I did the night before one feature on the project went to press, asking me if I happened to have Mike Buchanan’s number, because the editor wanted to get ‘just a touch of the male chauvinist voice’ in there. Would they have felt the same pressing need to give a platform to ‘just a touch’ of the racist voice? It’s highly unlikely. Meanwhile very real and important issues are lost beneath the all-important spin of controversy and sex.
Again, the media’s tendency to strive for phoney balance by legitimising and giving a platform to damaging views is very much a real issue, but it’s by no means unique to sexism. Racist voices getting a platform in mainstream media is far from “highly unlikely”; less than subtly racist views regularly do get one. The much discussed case of the BBC’s pro-Ukip bias is only one of many possible examples. The fact that people are likely to pretend said views aren’t actually racist doesn’t really erase this.

Additionally, the chapter humorously and aptly titled “What about the men?” is a prime example of something I mostly agree with being expressed in ways that make me deeply uncomfortable. The chapter includes the expected disclaimers about sexism against women being incomparable in sheer degree to sexism against men, but unfortunately it also has paragraphs such as this:
This is not a men vs women issue. It’s about people vs prejudice.
So let’s talk about the men. Can men experience sexism? I think they can. To me, sexism means treating someone differently or discriminating against them because of their sex.
My problem with the above is that it’s actually a terrible definition of sexism, with an unhelpful emphasis on individual acts of meanness rather than on systemic power inequalities that permeate the very way the world is structured. Bates does acknowledge the systemic side of sexism later on, but I wish Everyday Sexism had gone further, and that it had steered clear of passages that confuse the argument and undermine these acknowledgements:
Of course, wonderfully, some women don’t face sexism. That is fantastic. And, yes, some women can be sexist, which is sad and frustrating – just as it is when men are sexist. Tackling sexism is no more about suggesting all men are sexist than fighting racism means accusing every white person of it.
Again, I find this hugely unhelpful. It reminds me of the wonderful Nalo Hopkinson’s phrasing: claiming to be immune to racism is the same as saying “I can swim in shit without getting any of it on me.” Racism is not (once more with feeling) about individual acts of meanness or hatred; it’s “a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.” If you take the systemic view and consider racism a set of structural disadvantages based around race rather than as one-on-one acts of ignorance and cruelty (which is, I think, the only way to address the real issue), then yes, white people are all of us deeply entrenched in racism, in the sense that we all benefit from the invisible ways in which the world is structured to privilege us. We’re also all likely to fall prey to racist thought patterns simply because they are the default. The sooner the conversation becomes about how to battle these defaults rather than about reassuring us we’re not like those bad racist people over there, the sooner we can move forward.

The same goes for sexism: reassuring men again and again that we know they’re not all sexist is a distraction. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m interested in the ways in which hegemonic masculinity is harmful for men, and I enjoy seeing feminist explorations of the issue. I fully believe you can define sexism effectively and still make thoughtful and compassionate points about how patriarchy affects men and about how feminism can usefully concern itself with masculinity — Laurie Penny does it perfectly well in Unspeakable Things. But unfortunately Everyday Sexism falls short when it tries to do the same.

To reiterate, I hugely admire Laura Bates and everything she has achieved, I value the Everyday Sexism project immensely, and I appreciate the things this book gets right. But all the same I believe that feminism can do better than this.

Bits I liked:
The stories we learn as we grow up help us to work out our place in the world. And the stories we tell when we are adults determine the legacy we leave behind.
So it is impossible to underestimate the impact of the fact that still, in 2013, women’s stories are not being told. That women, in those stories we hear, are still portrayed as so incredibly limited, pigeonholed and stereotyped. And that so very few of those stories are told in a woman’s voice.

Why do we continue to insist, even in the twenty-first century, on asking the archaic question: ‘Can women really have it all?’ instead of unpicking the deep societal bias that allows such rhetoric to persist in the first place? Why don’t we stop to question the sexist paradigm in which women are the primary carers of children and the elderly and the part-time work they frequently must take on in order to maintain these responsibilities is paid less by the hour than full-time jobs and has fewer prospects for career advancement? Why do we keep asking why girls aren’t as ‘interested’ in business and engineering or as ‘driven’ and ‘ambitious’ as boys, instead of stopping to consider the impact of the repeated background nonsense that tells them science isn’t feminine, strong women are ‘shrill’ or ‘bossy’ or that their natural role – as thousands of dollies and playhouses and cookers in the girls’ section at the toy store will confirm – is to care and clean and cook and keep house?
(Have you read it too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)


  1. Ummm...gotta say you've left me feeling a bit conflicted as to whether to read this or not. Which, I'm guessing, means you did an extremely effective job of expressing your feelings towards it. I would very much like to read it, and yet this downplaying of racism makes me extremely uncomfortable.

  2. >>>Nope, I’m afraid I very much don’t. I don’t need to imagine scenarios where black people are victim-blamed for their own assault or even murder, because unfortunately they’re everywhere I care to look.

    YEP. Honestly, if I did see a study that said one in six people thought black assault victims were at fault, I wouldn't be the slightest surprised. I might be surprised the number was so LOW. And this can also veer into the Kyriarchy Olympics where everyone wants to show that they have it the worst of all, which I hate. It makes it so easy for various oppressed groups to end up pitted against each other, when we should all be signal-boosting each other. Eh.

  3. Ranking is such a profound need for people. Inequality and prejudice can't equally suck; one group has to have it worse, and the tendency is to define worse as "the last socially acceptable form of prejudice." The last time I heard that phrase it referred to fat-shaming. We just must have a hierarchy with the group most discriminated against sitting nicely at the top for some reason. I'm not necessarily judging this tendency; I have it myself. I just think people need to recognize their own role in determining this hierarchy. Who you are has a great deal to do with which group you feel is most acceptably judged.

  4. Loved your post, Ana! One of the reasons I love your blog is hardhitting, awesome posts like this. I haven't checked out Laura Bates' 'Everyday Sexism' project yet. I will do that soon. I loved what you said about how systemic inequalities which permeate the world propogate sexism (and racism). I also loved this sentence from your post - "reassuring men again and again that we know they’re not all sexist is a distraction." :) I loved the passages you have quoted, especially the last one. It made me remember the novel 'The Home-maker' by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which I loved, and which you so beautifully reviewed.

    I want to share an anecdote with you here related to this topic. I would love to hear your thoughts on it. If you disagree with me, please don't eat me alive :)

    In one of my earlier jobs, I noticed one thing quite regularly. I had this office friend who was my peer in terms of her role and in the kind of work she did. Both of us had the same manager. In everyday work life, I found that she got most of what she wanted. For example, if she wanted to go home early for some reason (once even to watch a world cup football match) the boss was happy to grant her the concession. But if I wanted to go home early, it was hard to get permission. The same applied when working late. If there was work which continued into after-work hours, it was typically the male team members who worked on it. My friend typically went home on time and she was typically never given work like that. To me, these felt like concessions. But there was another side to it. When the department I was working in put a management team in place to work on the department's strategy and vision for the next few years, I was nominated to that team, while my friend wasn't. I also frequently noticed that during management level meetings at the department, when my friend had important points to make, she was either ignored or people listened to her in a lighthearted way and brushed aside her suggesions, while suggestions by male managers were given importance. I noticed this repeatedly. My friend enjoyed her everyday perks, but she was frustrated that her voice was not heard in the areas that mattered. I sympathized with her on the second point. When I look at this today, with the advantage of perspective, I felt that the system (in the place I worked) was geared in such a way as to give women concessions but not to give them equality or rights, by ignoring their voices on important issues. It was like when someone was fighting for freedom, the system gave them a bar of chocolate and asked them to keep quiet.

    What do you think about this? Would you regard this as a systemic issue or an everyday issue? How do you think a situation like this can be resolved? I would love to hear your thoughts.

  5. Debi: I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading it - there's plenty about it I found valuable. But it's probably best to keep all those caveats in mind and adjust your expectations accordingly!

    Jenny: "It makes it so easy for various oppressed groups to end up pitted against each other, when we should all be signal-boosting each other." Yes, exactly!

    Trisha: Yep, all of this. I don't think they're such thing as "the last socially acceptable form of prejudice". You can easily find contexts where they all get a pass.

    Vishy: "If you disagree with me, please don't eat me alive :)" Aww, I think you know me better than that by now :P Also, I don't think disagreement applies when it comes to personal anecdotes. I can suggest a different way of seeing how they fit into wider patterns, but I'd never just negate someone's experience.

    The scenario you describe is familiar to me - in fact, my partner has told me a little bit about how the same is true of a member of his team who is a mother, and how other people have come to unfairly resent her for it. But I think not being expected to work late when your male or single co-workers are is not so much a perk as it is yet another sign of structural inequality. The reason why this happens is because everyone assumes a woman will be a child's primary caregiver and will be responsible for most of the housekeeping work that comes with parenthood. And this assumption kind of forces people into these roles - even if you're part of a couple who's determined to share everything equally, you'll run into problems if, say, the man says he can't do overtime because he has childcare obligations and his boss just goes, "why can't your female partner do it instead?". Knowing there might be professional consequences if you argue makes it easy for people to just go along with it sometimes. Again we're back to the wonderful, wonderful Dorothy Canfield Fisher novel and how everything she wrote about all those decades ago is still relevant now.

    I wish I had immediate solutions, but it's a difficult one. On the one had, provisions should be made to make the lives of women who *are* primary caregivers easier; on the other hand, we shouldn't force women into that role and socially stigmatise men who take it on. Also, I love what you say here: "It was like when someone was fighting for freedom, the system gave them a bar of chocolate and asked them to keep quiet." So true in so many situations. Yet very often you have no choice but to take that bar of chocolate, because it's the one thing that will keep you going.

  6. I'm not going to read this book, but I am so glad you wrote this post. I don't understand why people feel the need to pit one type of discrimination against the other. How awkward to consistently compare sexism to racism and say that racism gets more respect (or something to that effect). First of all, that is false, and second of all, why is a comparison necessary? As you said, not many people need to be convinced that both exist or that both are bad, but they DO need to be reminded of just how pervasive both are. It's not a "let's beat sexism first and THEN tackle racism" either/or situation, and it sounds like she's setting it up that way.

  7. I hadn't heard of this book until now, but I might pick it up soon, with your caveats in mind. I've been meaning to get back into reading some non-fiction again, and this might be just the thing to get my mind working again. I want to say something more intelligent in response to your points, but I think you did a really great job dissecting it on your own. ;-)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.