Everyday Sexism project founder Laura Bates on death threats and her new book ahead of Bradford Literature Festival

Writer and campaigner Laura Bates is devoted to combating violence against women. She’s bringing the message of her new book to Yorkshire. Andrew Vine reports.

DEATH threats are a fact of life for Laura Bates. She sometimes receives 200 a day via email or social media, and they are chillingly specific. “It’s not just someone saying, ‘I’ll kill you’,” says Laura. “It’s people saying, ‘This is the piece of furniture I’d like to use to give you internal injuries,’ or ‘These are the seven knives I’ll use to disembowel you, and this is the order I’ll use them in’.”

Laura, 35, has endured this for 10 years, ever since she established the Everyday Sexism website to give women and girls a forum to tell their stories of assault, harassment and misogyny. More than 200,000 from around the world have posted on it. Police installed high-level security at her home because of the threats, and the precautions she must observe include not revealing where she lives or anything about her personal life.

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“You do live with a level of fear,” says Laura. “I would defy anybody to say they wouldn’t, if you are constantly reading strangers’ fantasises about how they would like to rape you, disembowel and murder you and it’s really difficult to quantify the extent to which those threats are credible.”

Laura Bates will be discussing her new book at Bradford Literature Festival. Picture: Brian Ach/Getty for The Women’s Media Center

How credible the threats are has been illustrated by a couple of disturbing incidents surrounding the publication of her new book, Fix the System, Not the Women, which Laura will be discussing at Bradford Literature Festival on July 1.

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In Fix the System, Not the Women she argues that sexism is embedded in education, politics, the media, policing and the criminal justice system – and that women are expected to keep themselves safe, instead of the emphasis being on stopping male aggression.

As if to underline the urgency of the issue, whilst Laura was finishing her book last year, the murders of three women shocked the country - Sabina Nessa, 28, in London, Bobbi-Ann McLeod, 18, in Plymouth and Ashling Murphy, 23, in Ireland.

“There is a sense of impotence and frustration that women are dying and nothing is changing, and that is what I felt as I was writing the book,” said Laura. “I didn’t write the book as fast as women were dying. Between the second and third draft, Sabina Nessa died, between the third draft and the copy edit, Bobbi-Ann died, between the copy edit and the proof, Ashling Murphy died. Having to add their names felt devastating, and that sense of devastation is what I’ve felt from women since writing the book. It’s time for change to be something that is driven from the highest levels and is sustainable.”

One of her central arguments is that violence against women is routinely dismissed as isolated incidents, including the murder of Sarah Everard, 33, in London last year by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens. “You only have to glance at the statistics to see very clear proof of the fact these are systemic problems and not isolated incidents”, says Laura.

“When you look at schools, almost a third of girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching, and 80 per cent of girls told a recent Ofsted enquiry that sexual assault is common in their group, and so normal they wouldn’t consider reporting it.

“You look at policing, where 2,000 Met officers were accused of sexual misconduct within a four-year period alone, or look at our Parliament where 56 MPs are under investigation for sexual misconduct, which amounts to almost a tenth of our elected representatives. It’s clear that nobody should be fobbing us off with terminology about isolated incidents when these are very obviously institutional problems.”

Laura, who grew up in Somerset and London and graduated in English literature from Cambridge before becoming an actress, started the Everyday Sexism website in 2012 after becoming the victim of assault and harassment. “I was sexually harassed, followed home and sexually assaulted all within the space of about a week, and it was the recognition if those events hadn’t happened all in the same week, I might never have thought twice about any one of them.

“If you look at the list of my own experiences, what’s striking about it is that in no way is it an unusual list. It’s normal. There is almost no woman I’ve ever met who does not have a list like it. We are constantly encouraged to blame ourselves, to think that we’re overreacting and that we’ve made a mistake. So there is something incredibly powerful about reclaiming acknowledgement of what our experiences have been and where they’ve come from.”

Worryingly, in her work with schools, Laura is finding that whilst many boys are passionate about gender equality, others are developing some disturbing views. “There is a significant minority of boys who have experienced a form of radicalisation and grooming online and who have absorbed really extremist ideology, boys who are convinced that feminism is about hurting men and a witch-hunt that has gone too far, that men are losing their jobs because of false allegations, that the gender pay gap is a myth and so on. “What’s worrying is there isn’t an acknowledgement that it’s happening, and it’s slipping under the radar.”

Online pornography is making matters worse. “It very frequently depicts sex as something violent, degrading, humiliating, which is done by men to women for men’s sexual pleasure. I went to a school where they’d had a rape case involving a 14-year-old boy, and a teacher had asked him why didn’t he stop when she was crying, and he said, ‘It’s normal for girls to cry during sex’.”

“I also feel enormous optimism from the young people I work with at schools. The girls I work with are brave and strong and powerful and they are fighting back tooth and nail. “When I was at school, we wouldn’t have known what the word feminism was, but they are so aware and engaged and starting their own campaigns and feminism societies, and that gives me great hope for the future.”

Laura Bates will be talking about her new book at Bradford Literature Festival on Friday July 1. Details from www.bradfordlitfest.co.uk

The Everyday Sexism project can be found at www.everydaysexism.com.

Laura’s previous books are Everyday Sexism: The Project that Inspired a Worldwide Movement, Girl Up: Kick Ass, Claim Your Woman Card, and Crush Everyday Sexism, Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism, The Burning, and Men Who Hate Women.

She was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 2015 Birthday Honours for services to gender equality.

Her latest book, Fix the System, Not the Women is published by Simon and Schuster.