The Project became a viral sensation, attracting international press attention from The New York Times to French Glamour, Grazia South Africa, to the Times of India and support from celebrities such as Rose McGowan, Amanda Palmer, Mara Wilson, Ashley Judd, James Corden, Simon Pegg, and many others. The project has now collected over 100,000 testimonies from people around the world and launched new branches in 25 countries worldwide. The project has been credited with helping to spark a new wave of feminism.
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By Laura Bates
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Laura Bates
All rights reserved.
Silenced Women: The Invisible Problem
Even though I am an experienced businesswoman, I feel I can't say anything. It's my choice: tell him to please not touch me and create a fuss, making things awkward with my clients, or stay quiet. I stay quiet.
Everyday Sexism Project entry
65 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations go unreported to the police.
— U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2013
Only around 3 out of every 100 rapes results in the rapist spending a single day in prison.
— Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 2014
In 2005–2010, only 24 percent of rapes or sexual assaults were committed by strangers.
— U.S. Department of Justice, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2012
80 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations of students age eighteen to twenty-four go unreported to the police.
— Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 1995–2013
28 percent of women who are the victims of the most serious sexual offenses never tell anybody about it.
— UK Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Office for National Statistics, 2013
* It's something I just always accepted as a reality since I was young. No one told me that it wasn't my fault or that I could/should speak up. I was told to be passive and not to stir things up.
* Being told I have no sense of humor when comments are made about my breasts, vagina or behind.
* I joined a dating site. Got one message instantly. "I'd pay to ram you up the ass." And guess what his excuse was when I argued with him? "Chill out love, it's just banter." It really isn't.
* Dismissal of arguments or thoughts because "she's just pms-ing" or hormonal.
* I was raped by 2 men at the age of 14 and my family normalized it by ignoring it ... I was confused ... I was sure it was wrong.
* Called a prude for objecting to Porn Fridays where female colleagues' faces were photo-shopped onto porn pics.
Sexism is often an invisible problem. This is partly because it's so frequently manifest in situations where the only witnesses present are victim and perpetrator. When you're shouted at in a deserted street late at night. When a senior colleague with wandering hands corners you in the empty copy room. When a man presses his erection into your back on a subway so crowded nobody could possibly see what's going on. When a car slows down as you walk home from school and the driver asks you for a blow job, then pulls away as smoothly and silently as he arrived. When your boss casually mentions as she passes you on the stairs that you need to arrive with a lower-cut top and more makeup on tomorrow if you want to keep your job. When a pair of hands moves you aside in the queue for the bar and slides down to grope you. Moments that slip like beads onto an endless string to form a necklace that only you can feel the weight of. It can drag you down without another person ever witnessing a single thing.
It's not easy to take something invisible and make people start to talk about it. There's a lot of wariness and caution at first — people sneakily giving each other a sideways look because they don't want to be the one to admit they see it if everyone else is going to carry on pretending not to. So at best the person who's experienced the sexism is left jumping up and down with her arms in the air pointing out the patently obvious, while everybody else scratches her chin and gazes earnestly into the middle distance.
At worst, the victim doesn't say anything either.
In this, sexism is a bit like climate change. Human beings tend to cling to convenient obliviousness — "I haven't seen it, so it can't really exist!" — in spite of embarrassing, burgeoning bodies of evidence to the contrary. In order for this comfortable bliss of ignorance to be maintained, it follows that any mention of the problem will be met with denial, so naturally you get accusations of lying, or exaggeration. These aren't always intentionally unkind — I think they're as often motivated by a horrified inability to accept the severity of the problem as by a deliberate attempt at dismissal.
But whatever the motive, such reactions come as a secondary blow on top of the initial injurious experience. As girls grow up, these responses start to skew their own judgment of situations — they learn not to trust themselves and not to make a fuss. Society teaches them that they don't have the right to complain. One way or another, women are silenced.
One girl who wrote to the Everyday Sexism Project described just such a "learning experience":
* When walking to a friend's house on Saturday at about 6:30 pm, two drunk men started following me. One grabbed my hair and said "you are too pretty to be out alone" ... I felt violated and arrived shaking. I told my boyfriend the next day; he said my "story" was unlikely as I was just being attention seeking. I began to feel like I myself was exaggerating and should just remain quiet. We are both 15.
Disbelief is the first great silencer.
The incidents that go unwitnessed definitely help to keep sexism off the radar, an unacknowledged problem we don't discuss. But so too do the regular occurrences that hide in plain sight, within a society that has normalized sexism and allowed it to become so ingrained that we no longer notice or object to it. Sexism is a socially acceptable prejudice and everybody is getting in on the act.
The past couple of years alone have given us some amazingly high-profile examples. During this time the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko helpfully announced that in his profession men will always be superior because orchestras are distracted by a "cute girl on a podium," and the German artist Georg Baselitz declared, "Women don't paint very well. It's a fact." Meanwhile London mayor Boris Johnson "joked" that women go to university only because "they've got to find men to marry" (hilarious, no?), and the Canadian literature professor and author David Gilmour blithely revealed that he's simply "not interested in teaching books by women." (I expect Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Margaret Atwood could set him straight, were they not so busy winning more awards than Gilmour has ever managed to scrape up nominations for.)
In the UK, in November 2012, Labour MP Austin Mitchell directed a sexist tirade at his former colleague Louise Mensch after she disagreed in an interview with something her husband had said. In a message that appeared on his Facebook and Twitter pages as well as his official Web site, Mitchell wrote, "Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn't lie about why she quit politics." He later showed his great amusement at the ensuing public anger, first telling those who protested, "Calm down, dears," and later asking, "Has the all-clear siren gone? Has the Menschivick bombardment stopped?"
Such swaggering pride in misogyny will not be unfamiliar to listeners of U.S. radio host Rush Limbaugh, who not only gleefully launches sexist tirades against women at every opportunity but also seems to delight in mocking subsequent criticism. From calling female journalists "info babes" and decrying the "chickification" of the media, to describing the National Organization for Women as "a bunch of whores to liberalism," Limbaugh knows he is being misogynistic and plows happily on regardless.
Clearly none of these men fear repercussions. In fact, Mitchell's "Calm down, dears" couched his "prejudiced and proud" stance firmly within the political context of a British prime minister who publicly silenced a female MP with the same words the previous year.
Against such a backdrop, it's little wonder other politicians feel so confident wearing their bigotry like a badge of honor.
In the same week as Mitchell's outburst, and with the earnest air of a radio consumer phone-in about synthetic versus feather duvets, BBC Radio Cumbria produced a segment that managed to combine both sexism and racism, asking, "If you could have a Filipino woman, why would you want a Cumbrian one?"
In 2012, Limbaugh was able to keep his job and his show despite launching a misogynistic barrage of abuse at law student Sandra Fluke, whose only "crime" was to be invited to testify to Congress on the importance of including contraceptive coverage in health- insurance plans. Limbaugh attacked her repeatedly on air, labeling her a "slut" and a "prostitute," suggesting that her parents should be ashamed of her and saying she was "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk." With all the unimaginative persistence of a dog with a chew toy, he seemed unable to drop the subject, later adding, "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
Over in Hollywood, the actor Seth MacFarlane decided that the best possible way to celebrate the combined talents of actresses attending the 2013 Oscars ceremony was to sing a song titled "We Saw Your Boobs." (No prizes for guessing what it was about.) Apparently the fact that several of the breast-baring scenes he gleefully referenced explored rape or abuse passed MacFarlane by. (As did, it seems, the abilities and, you know, humanity of the women themselves.) That this was presented as a hilarious piece of entertainment at one of the most widely watched media events of the year speaks volumes.
Back in the UK, the television critic (and noted sex bomb) A. A. Gill was busy veering into wildly irrelevant sexism in his review of Meet the Romans, a series presented by the Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard. Rather than critiquing Beard's (considerable) credentials or presenting skills, he chose to condemn her looks and style, branding her "too ugly for TV" and suggesting that she "should be kept away from cameras altogether." In a column for the Daily Mail, Beard responded with the dry observation that Gill had "mistaken prejudice for being witty" — which excellent riposte frustratingly gave rise to the common excuse that sexism isn't a problem because "women can handle it." Yes, some can, but the point is that they shouldn't have to! (In this instance, who knows what incisive historical revelations would have occupied that week's column had Beard not been forced to waste her time responding to Gill's puerile snot-flicking?)
During the London Olympics, the Telegraph's Andrew Brown pronounced a breathtakingly patronizing and pompous censure on the female athletes daring to represent their country in the martial arts. "I realize this will probably sound appallingly sexist," he wrote, and then carried on regardless. "It's disturbing to watch these girls beat each other up." His condescension was spectacularly misplaced when you consider how easily the "soft limbs" he was wringing his hands over could have taught him a swift lesson about respect for equal rights had he strayed into the Olympic arena.
In each of these situations — which together represent just a tiny sample from an extensive daily stream — we have women being openly lambasted, dismissed, or objectified on the simple basis of their gender. Nothing more. From our politicians to our broadcasting corporations, from the biggest media event in the world to the most famous sporting contest, sexism seems to occupy a stubbornly acceptable position when it comes to public discourse, with a general willingness to laugh at and ignore it rather than define it as the prejudice it is. And this makes it particularly difficult to fight, allowing objectors to be ridiculed and dismissed as "overreacting" while perpetrators like Mitchell can take up cowardly defenses behind the poor shield of "humor" or "irony."
So women are silenced both by the invisibility and the acceptability of the problem. And perhaps the most powerful evidence of all for the public acceptance of sexism is the growing number of major daytime television programs taking issues around women's safety and assault as topics for "debate."
The very fact that it is necessary in the twenty-first century to explain why it's not okay to publicly debate whether or not women are "asking" for sexual assault is mind-boggling. Yet the refrain has become so common that it seems difficult to open a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing the issue being discussed, as if it is a perfectly valid question with interesting points to be made both for and against.
In February 2013, the UK morning TV show Daybreak, with an average of eight hundred thousand viewers, ran a segment asking, "Are women who get drunk and flirt to blame if they get attacked?" The discussion was introduced with: "Some of you think so ... others vehemently disagree." Then: "Keep your thoughts coming in — it's really interesting to hear what you think."
The words "horrifying," "depressing," or "painful" would have better described what it was like to hear what some of the Daybreak viewers thought. Comments were aired from interviewees on both sides of the debate, including one young man who said that "if you want to be treated with respect, you've got to dress with respect" and a studio panelist who — when discussing sexual assault! — used the phrase "It takes two to make a decision about something." The presenters later announced the results: "One in six people in the Daybreak poll think sexual-assault victims are to blame if they're drunk or flirtatious with the offender." No comment was passed on this statistic as it was presented.
In the same week, the BBC 3 current-affairs program Free Speech ran a segment posing the question: "Are young women in this country putting themselves at risk of being abused by going out clubbing and wearing provocative clothing?" Once again, the ensuing debate showcased points made for and against. One panelist put herself firmly in the camp of agreement: "Absolutely ... You should not be going out dressed like a hussy, quite frankly. There's no other word for it ... You are putting yourself at risk. And, as women, we need to understand we are vulnerable."
Yes, for the love of God, young women, come along — learn your limits. Or, rather, know society's limits. How dare you think you have the right to go out wearing whatever you like, how foolish and ignorant of you to expect not to be assaulted, you brazen hussies! What do you think this is? A free country?
Meanwhile, the online community Debate.org is running an ongoing poll on the topic "Are rape victims who dress provocatively 'asking for it'?" (21 percent say yes, at the time of writing).
There has been a long string of similar public declarations in all corners of the media. In June 2014, the Washington Post columnist George Will penned a column suggesting that the problem of sexual assault on campus had been exaggerated because "victimhood" had become a "coveted status that confers privileges," causing victims to "proliferate" (and thus implying a lack of belief in such victims' testimony).
And after a shocking video emerged showing NFL player Ray Rice knocking his fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious, many media outlets focused their outrage and surprise on Palmer, demanding why she had gone on to marry Rice after the attack. After denouncing the attack, Fox News commentator Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy went on to say, "We should also point out ... she still married him!" Cohost Brian Kilmeade took this as his cue to jump in with some more victim blaming: "Rihanna went back to Chris Brown right after; a lot of people thought that was a terrible message." Good old Limbaugh also quickly chimed in (he's nothing if not reliable), asking, "Now the obvious question behind the question. Why did she marry the guy, right? If she got decked like that." And CNN contributor Ana Navarro tweeted, "Woman in video married Ray Rice AFTER he punched & dragged her? RICE IS DISGUSTING. But as women, we need to love & respect ourselves 1st."
Such comments show a breathtaking lack of awareness of the complex psychological and coercive elements of domestic abuse. But they also serve the same old purpose of shifting some of the blame away from the perpetrator and onto the victim instead.
Meanwhile in the UK, the actress Joanna Lumley has been busy urging young women to behave properly: "Don't be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress with no money to get a taxi home, because somebody will take advantage of you, either they'll rape you, or they'll knock you on the head or they'll rob you." In an interview soon afterward, Conservative MP Richard Graham appeared to support her, saying, "If you are a young woman on her own trying to walk back home through Gloucester Park, early in the morning in a tight, short skirt and high shoes and there's a predator and if you are blind drunk and wearing those clothes how able are you to get away?" (Actually, as one young woman shrewdly pointed out to me, you're generally much more able to run in a short skirt than in a long one.) It is in this focus on women's behavior while utterly failing to analyze the actions and impact of the society around them that we encounter the greatest silencing method of all: the blaming of victims.
Let me immediately make two important points. First, the idea that women's dress or behavior is in any way to blame for sexual assault or rape is nonsense. Second, to publicly debate such a notion is to give it credence and to spread the idea, it is to send perpetrators the message that they can act with impunity and to remind victims they may be blamed if they speak up. It creates a world in which people feel more justified in questioning and shaming victims who do come forward, creating an atmosphere in which even fewer are likely to take their case to the authorities. The victim is never to blame.
Excerpted from Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. Copyright © 2016 Laura Bates. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Everybody Has a Tipping Point
Chapter 1 Silenced Women: The Invisible Problem
Chapter 2 Women in Politics
Chapter 3 Girls
Chapter 4 Young Women Learning
Chapter 5 Women in Public Spaces
Chapter 6 Women in the Media
Chapter 7 Women in the Workplace
Chapter 8 Motherhood
Chapter 9 Double Discrimination
Chapter 10 What About the Men?
Chapter 11 Women Under Threat
Chapter 12 People Standing Up
A Note on Statistics