Video: Off The Shelf in Sheffield - is the tide of sexism turning?

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Feminism and sexism have been back in the news recently. Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, tells Chris Bond why both issues are still relevant in modern Britain.

“IN one lesson at school today, I heard more than 10 rape jokes, mostly by the boys. I am 13 years old.

Two 'No More Page Three' protesters in Leeds

Two 'No More Page Three' protesters in Leeds

“If that’s what they’re like aged 13, I am truly worried what they will be like when they are older.”

Many people will find these words disturbing and the fact they were written anonymously perhaps tells us a lot about the sense of fear people have of speaking out on this issue.

This was the first entry I found on the Everyday Sexism Project website which catalogues instances of sexism experienced by women and girls on a day-to-day basis. Some of these witness statements make you feel uncomfortable while others are, quite simply, horrific.

We might like to think that sexism is a thing of the past, that it belongs to another era. But such complacency appears to be deeply misplaced and in recent weeks there have been a string of high-profile stories concerning attitudes towards women.

Laura Bates

Laura Bates

Last month, a video showing a young woman walking through New York being pestered by catcallers went viral, re-igniting the debate about street harassment. During a 10-hour period she encountered more than 100 comments and at one point a man walks alongside her in silence for over five minutes, despite her obvious discomfort.

Closer to home, comedian Daniel O’Reilly has found himself at the centre of a media storm. Earlier this week broadcasting regulator Ofcom launched an investigation into a TV show starring his controversial character Dapper Laughs, days after public protests led to the ITV2 programme being axed and a tour cancelled. O’Reilly said he was ditching his Laughs persona after being heavily criticised for telling a member of the audience at a live show that she was “gagging for a rape.”

All of which has thrust sexism back under the spotlight. It’s an issue that has become something of a personal crusade for journalist Laura Bates during the past couple of years. In 2012 she was sexually harassed on public transport and created the website everydaysexism.com, which allows women to write about instances where they have suffered some kind of harassment.

“It made me realise that if this was happening to me it was probably happening to other women,” she says. Since starting the online project Bates has been overwhelmed by the response. “I thought 40 or 50 people would respond, so it’s completely taken me by surprise that it’s created this worldwide movement.”

There have been more than 60,000 entries and the Everyday Sexism Project is now operating in more than a dozen other countries.

She says harassment affects people from all walks of life, including young girls. “We’ve heard from girls targeted while they’re walking to school and women at university who talk about the pervasive culture of sexism.”

Bates says stories of harassment, particularly in the workplace, are the most common but points out that in many cases women have stopped complaining because it happens so often. She believes society has become complacent about sexism.

“I think part of the problem is a lot of people think sexism doesn’t exist any more. It’s difficult because in some ways we have made great strides in terms of legislation and the fact that progress has been made over the decades people now think it’s a case of problem solved.

“They say women have equal rights now so it’s not a problem, but if you look at business and politics you see that women are hugely under-represented. Half the population is experiencing the world differently and it’s vital that we open people’s eyes to what is going on.”

Bates is in Yorkshire tomorrow when she will be giving a talk, entitled Celebrating Modern Feminism, at Sheffield University’s student’s union, as part of this year’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words. For some men the mere mention of the “F” word has them running for the hills, but Bates believes we need to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding feminism. “Some people are afraid of it, they think it’s anti-men and about women ruling the world and it’s not. It’s about equality, something everybody should be supportive of.”

It’s also about empowering women. “There are some incredible campaigners out there like Nimco Ali who is doing amazing work to raise awareness about female genital mutilation, and Lucy-Anne Holmes who set up the No More Page 3 campaign. There’s a real vibrancy about feminism which is wonderful to see.”

Feminism has been back in the news after the Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for not supporting the T-shirt campaign bearing the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”. But for Bates, feminism is about taking action rather than token gestures of solidarity.

“There are bigger issues like the funding of frontline services. In one day last year, Women’s Aid reported that more than 150 women were turned away from the first refuge they approached.”

Her own website has given women a voice but she feels social networks sites have been both a help and a hindrance.

“The internet has drawn back the veil and allowed us to see in. But the anonymity of the internet means people feel able to say the most horrific things to a woman that they wouldn’t say in person.”

At the same time they have raised awareness among girls about some of the issues facing women. “There are 12 year-olds who have found out about feminism through Twitter and Tumblr and become active members,” she says. “There’s also strength in numbers – it’s much harder to bully someone if they’re backed by 50,00 people.”

But what about women who use their sexuality to their advantage? The likes of Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus certainly aren’t afraid to use their bodies to help boost their popularity. However, Bates blames the overt sexualisation of women that makes female performers feel, unlike their male peers, that the only way they can compete in the music and entertainment business is by taking their clothes off.

“There are girls as young as five who are worried about their image and how they look,” she says.

“The message they’re being told is ‘your body is all you have of value and that’s what you will be judged by.”

Even so, she is optimistic about the future.

“Hearing so many stories of discrimination, abuse and harassment has been extremely draining, but what drives you on is the fact that so many women are campaigning on all kinds of issues and things are improving, it feels like the tide is turning.”

• Laura Bates was at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union as part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf event. For details go to www.welcometosheffield.co.uk/visit/off-the-shelf