Book Review: Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates (2016)

April 1st, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Three Cheers for the Clinton Cackle!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault, rape, and violence against women.)

Our experiences of all forms of gender prejudice—from daily sexism to distressing harassment to sexual violence—are part of a continuum that impacts all of us, all the time, shaping ourselves and our ideas about the world. To include stories of assault and rape within a project documenting everyday experiences of gender imbalance is simply to extend its boundaries to the most extreme manifestations of that prejudice. To see how great the damage can be when the minor, “unimportant” issues are allowed to pass without comment. To prove how the steady drip-drip-drip of sexism and sexualization and objectification is connected to the assumption of ownership and control over women’s bodies, and how the background noise of harassment and disrespect connects to the assertion of power that is violence and rape.

And so we accepted all these stories, and more, until in April 2015—exactly three years after the project was launched—one hundred thousand entries had poured in. This is their story. This is the sound of a hundred thousand women’s voices. This is what they’re telling us.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are in the middle of an international epidemic. One in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, 38 percent of all women murdered are killed by their partners. Around the world, women are subjected to forced marriage, stoning, trafficking, female genital mutilation, childhood pregnancy, acid attacks, “honor” killings, “corrective” rape, lives of slavery and servitude because of their second-class citizenship. In some countries they are pushed toward enlarging their breasts to satisfy male demand. In others their breasts are painfully flattened with hot stones to deter male lust. In some places their vaginas are painfully stuffed with dry cotton to make them swell with discomfort so they will tighten for men’s pleasure. In others their sexual organs are decimated to control women’s sexuality.

Actually, I do think you should be alarmed. I think we should all be alarmed.

My curiosity was most definitely piqued when I spotted this title on NetGalley. Of course I’d heard of the Everyday Sexism Project – I’ve been a casual follower for several years on Twitter, though I’ve yet to submit a story – and so a book encompassing the entries (a hundred thousand and counting!) caught my attention. I wasn’t sure what to expect: A catalog of the “best” submissions? (Unlikely, I thought, given the high page count.) An intro-to-feminism guide inspired by women’s shared experiences? An art project or a call to action? As it just so happens, Everyday Sexism is a little bit of each of these – and so, so much more.

In addition to combing through thousands of entries, project founder Laura Bates also interviewed girls and women in preparation for Everyday Sexism. Perhaps it’s merely because Bates does such an expert job of distilling and organizing them, but the women’s stories seem to coalesce around certain areas:

* The silencing of women – by treating the problem [sexism, in its many varied forms] as if it were invisible and/or socially acceptable, and by blaming the victims (Chapter 1).

* Sexism in the political arena, including everything from unequal representation in Congress (or the House of Lords) to sexual harassment and policies shaped by males, for males (Chapter 2).

* Girlhood, when the brainwashing begins early – and so do the unwanted sexual advances (Chapter 3).

* And when girls graduate high school, they have college – complete with toxic lad culture – to look forward to, if they’re lucky enough to attend university (Chapter 4).

* Through street harassment, sexual assault (groping, fondling, etc.), stalking, and rape, women are constantly told that we don’t belong in public spaces; we travel through the world at our own risk (Chapter 5).

* The stories told in popular culture – including the mainstream media, music videos, movies, television, and magazines – rarely include those of women – so it’s not surprising that we’re so often sexualized and objectified…when we appear at all (Chapter 6).

* We fare no better in the workplace, where we earn less, are treated differently because of our potential (never mind intent) to bear children, and (surprise, surprise!) may be sexually harassed or even assaulted by our bosses, colleagues, or clients (Chapter 7).

* Reproduction – including pregnancy, motherhood, contraception, abortion, and childlessness – is yet another minefield for women, though perhaps one that best illustrates the sense of ownership that others assume over our bodies (Chapter 8).

* Those women who exist at the nexus of multiple marginalized identities – women of color; lesbians and bisexual women; women suffering from physical or mental disabilities; trans women; older women – must grapple with other forms of prejudice on top of sexism. Often, the two are intertwined in unique and alarming ways (Chapter 9).

* Women aren’t the only ones who suffer under this system; sexism, with its stifling gender norms and reliance on “othering,” hurts men too (Chapter 10)!

* In its most extreme manifestations, sexism creates a toxic, woman-hating culture that leads to serious, violent crimes, like rape and domestic violence (Chapter 11).

* Lest it all be doom and gloom, Bates ends the discussion with a much-needed look at women (and some men) who are hard at work smashing the patriarchy (Chapter 12).

I don’t read a whole lot of feminist literature these days – not because I don’t proudly wear that label; rather, it’s just all so damn depressing and repetitive! – but I’m so glad I gave Everyday Sexism a try. I think its greatest value is in how Bates so skillfully draws a line between seemingly “innocuous” or less serious forms of sexism – toy aisles segregated by gender; offhanded comments by teachers; the mantra that “boys will be boys” – and more serious issues, such as the wage gap, victim blaming, and the effect of violent, misogynistic pornography on young men and women. All of this exists on the same continuum, with a culture that devalues, dismisses, objectifies, and sexualizes girls and women paving the way for street harassment, sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence. While it’s true that we can’t draw a direct line from The Sun’s Page 3 feature to the catcalls directed at French housing minister Cécile Duflot – on the floor at the National Assembly – in July 2012, it helps to create a climate where such a thing is not only possible, but unsurprising. This stuff doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it’s all about context.

Additionally, Bates peppers the narrative with statistics as well as project entries. The former helps to provide some broader context, while women’s individual stories really drive Bates’s arguments home. At turns humorous and heartbreaking, infuriating and (occasionally) unbelievable, I think the ultimate value of Everyday Sexism lies in the user submissions. These are our sisters, mothers, and friends; our co-workers and daughters and leaders of tomorrow. They are us. We tell stories of being discouraged, belittled, victim-blamed, harassed, and assaulted, all because of our gender. Some entries literally had me in tears. Instead of sharing those, here are three that made me smile.

Known to be a lesbian by my boarding-school administration, I was forcibly set up on a prom date my last year at school. The guy would not keep his hands off me, and told me the faculty had said he had to kiss me to make it a “real date.” (I am guessing they thought corrective kissing wasn’t as serious, but just as effective, as corrective rape.) After I tried to end the “date” by returning to my single-sex dorm, he followed me across the campus. I eventually shoved him into the duckpond (still in his rented polyester tuxedo). I was not allowed to graduate; he was.

Once had a guy ask “Would you mind telling me your bra-size?” I replied “No, but tell me first how big your cock is.” Amazingly he was shocked and found MY comment highly inappropriate.

Tired of cold callers asking to speak to the “man of the house,” now I put them on to my 6-year-old son … he sings them “Sexy and I Know It.”

While I recognized many of the anecdotes and examples offered up by Bates – Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs!” skit; Ray Rice’s 2014 arrest for assaulting his then-girlfriend, Janay Palmer, in a hotel elevator (and the subsequent victim-blaming when she married him); George Will and his “special privileges” campus rape article; Elliot Rodger’s sexist and racist killing spree – much of the information was still new to me, owing at least in part to the international focus. (Bates is from the UK.) For example, did you know that Bishops sit in the House of Lords – thus automatically closing 26 seats to women, right off the top? (How is that okay from a religious or a gender discrimination perspective?)

Likewise, despite my cynicism, I still experienced the occasional jaw-drop moment. The story from the young woman, who was having sex with her boyfriend for the first time, really got me. Midway through, he wrapped his hands around her throat and started to squeeze. She (naturally) freaked out … much to his relief. Turns out the boyfriend didn’t want to choke her, but thought it was expected of him – no thanks to what he’d seen depicted in porn videos.

Critics have dismissed the Everyday Sexism Project – and other online activism – as “slacktivism.” Yet Everyday Sexism shows how cathartic, informative, and empowering it can be to share your stories, have them heard and validated, and receive support and understanding from others like you. Only by dissecting and interrogating sexism can we dismantle it. And the Everyday Sexism Project has had a measurable impact in the “real” world, too: “The British Transport Police has used thousands of the accounts collected by the Everyday Sexism Project to help them retrain two thousand officers for Project Guardian, an initiative specifically designed to fight back against these crimes and their normalization.”

Bates writes with wit, humor, and insight. As depressing a topic as this is, Everyday Sexism is a surprisingly enjoyable, compulsive read. She puts a fresh spin on a old topic in a way that’s relatable to readers both young and old. I also appreciate Bates’s intersectional approach to the problem, which is both threaded throughout the book – and also receives its own chapter, for extra effect.

I recently finished reading Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which deals with the intersection of sexism and racism in the educational setting, and how it can force girls and young women out of school. There is some degree of overlap here, particularly vis-à-vis the design and implementation of school dress codes. Young women’s bodies are unnecessarily sexualized and then policed, all in the name of “protecting” them – and keeping their male peers on task. Girls of color – who are perceived as hypersexual and more mature than they are – are judged more harshly under these rules, as are larger or more curvaceous girls. Sometimes the racism is explicit, such as in dress codes that ban natural or traditional black hairstyles, e.g. afros and dreadlocks. If you’d like to learn more about discrimination in schools, it’s well worth a read.

I only have two (relatively minor) complaints. Firstly, the chapter organization didn’t sit right with me. Sometimes the flow seemed all over the place, with a chapter on women in politics wedged between those on silencing and girlhood, instead of placed next to women in the workplace. Harassment and assault are common across all the chapters, but chapters specifically concerning silencing, street harassment, and violent crimes are located at the beginning, middle, and end of the book. I feel like the conversation would have been better served by beginning with the most serious transgressions – silencing, harassment, and assault – and then transitioning into those areas that help fuel them: girlhood to college to the workplace, then politics, media, and motherhood, perhaps, with dual discrimination, men, and changemakers coming last.

Lastly, Bates bends a little too far backwards (“Not All Men!”) to appease the guys in “What About the Men?” While I love that she addresses the impact of sexism on men – if compassion won’t command their attention, maybe self-interest will – I had a good laugh (heavy on the eye roll) when she insisted that not all men are sexist. Truth-telling time. We’re all at least a little bit sexist (and racist), okay? When you grow up in a culture steeped in sexism, it’s kind of impossible not to be; it’s the air we breathe. She signals out Simon Pegg, among others, for supporting the project. And while that’s great – as is his recent criticism of Mission Impossible posters that objectify Rebecca Ferguson – Pegg, like everyone else living or dead, has also said some sexist shit.

Bates also expresses distaste for the #KillAllMen hashtag, which I see as a way for women – frustrated, angry, without recourse – to blow off steam. No one’s really suggesting that we kill all men; and besides, these “threats” aren’t remotely comparable to the vitriolic streams unleashed on any woman who dares to voice an opinion on the internet. I challenge you to find a man who felt personally unsafe after seeing that hashtag. Seriously, I’ll be waiting.

(It’s kind of like that single, isolated group of BLM protesters who chanted “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!” during a march. Cops and right-wing pundits love to trot this example out in support of the “hateful” nature of the Black Lives Matter Movement. But to suggest that these few dozen citizens actually pose a threat to the well-funded and legally bulletproof juggernaut that is the police state is simply laughable – as is the claim that a humorous rhetorical refrain represents a legitimate call to violence.)

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary. Everyday Sexism deserves a place (though hopefully not permanent!) in every school and public library. This is a conversation starter and a must read, for would-be, budding, and seasoned feminists from all walks of life.

Read with: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris; Kate Harding’s Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It; Bitch magazine; The Mary Sue.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Bates infuses the book with a healthy dose of intersectionality – discussing, for example, the unique strain of sexist/racist street harassment experienced by women of color, as well as the higher rates of sexual harassment, assault and rape for women of color, LGBTQ women, the disabled, sex workers, etc. – and includes one chapter on “double discrimination,” just for good measure.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply