Over the last couple of days, I read the book Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed me tweeting about it, and exploring the ideas that I’m now writing this blog post about.
(CW: discussion of street harassment and fairly mild descriptions of assault.)
I’ve been meaning to read Everyday Sexism for a while — it’s been recommended to me, and I’ve seen it referenced, but I’m not great at non-fiction and I thought it was going to be a difficult read. And I was right. Not because the writing is especially complex (compared to some of the academia I’ve waded through, it’s comparatively readable), but because it’s emotionally draining and painful. I cried at least three times while reading this.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on street harassment and assault — in other words, the kind of sexism that ought to be obvious, but which we’ve normalised to the point where it becomes everyday background noise. Some of it seems ‘severe’ in nature; other experiences are more horrifying because of their sheer scale and repetition and the fact that they happen all the time, to so many people, on such a regular basis.
People have been facing street harassment since they were children. People get groped and followed home and shouted at and treated as objects and frightened half to death and attacked and this happens to thousands upon thousands of people every day. It’s overwhelming, and heartbreaking, and horrifying. It made me realise how lucky I’ve been that I’ve hardly experienced this at all.
On reading this, I began to think about my own experiences, and the lack of them. I live in a relatively quiet area, which might be part of the reason, and I also tend to dress in baggy, androgynous clothing that probably means the majority of passers-by can’t be sure if I’m female in the first place. However, there have been two incidents of public harassment that I can remember — it’s possible there’ve been others that I’ve either blocked out, or which I didn’t notice at the time, by virtue of always having headphones in when I’m out and about.
One of them was when I was eighteen and walking home from a harp lesson; two young men in a car yelled something to the effect of, “Oi, lesbian!” to which I responded, “Oh, wow, that’s original!” Being butch affects the type of street harassment you receive; it’s less cat-calling and more just assumptions of your sexuality. I’m not sure what gave me the courage to yell back at them, but it seemed to shut them up, mostly out of surprise.
The other was similar, although I was younger (twelve or thirteen) and dressed as a pirate and it happened at school. Some older boys made a comment that went along the lines of, “Look at that homosexual,” (yes, that’s literally the word they used), which greatly offended twelve-year-old me. Because apparently cross-dressing made me a lesbian. Fascinating, that.
(I can’t find it right now, but my diary entry at the time is super funny now. I wrote something like, “I’m NOT a homosexual, I’m NOT!” sounding very indignant about it. After I figured out I was queer, this was one of those moments that seemed a lot funnier in hindsight. It’s also possible I ought to have read a bit more into my lifelong penchant for cross-dressing, but they say hindsight’s 20/20.)
On the subject of assault, I’ve also had experience of a male friend trying to kiss me despite me having explicitly stated that I didn’t want him to, and trying to make me sit on his lap. On more than one occasion I physically pushed him away, as well as having physically said in writing that I wasn’t interested in a relationship with him — because he was twenty and I was fifteen and while I might not have known much at that age, I knew that would affect the power dynamic between us and that it wouldn’t work. This story is also made worse when you consider that on one occasion when he tried to kiss me, I had just nearly fainted in a shopping centre due to what I believed was tonsilitis (it turned out to be a severe throat infection and fever), and he’d had to take me home. Not only did I have a very valid reason not to want anyone near me, because I had a lot of germs to pass on, but I also wasn’t in a fit state to assert my will because, y’know, I was totally out of it with a high temperature. Not cool.
We’re no longer friends — we stopped speaking in late 2013 — and I was deeply screwed up for a while because of the way he constantly overstepped my boundaries, not least because at the time it didn’t seem like a big deal and it wasn’t until later, when I was more educated on issues of consent, that I realised this could be classified as assault. I ended up having panic attacks at the mere thought of him for several months until I managed to work past it, so… that sucked.
But that incident, and the two I mentioned before, are nothing compared to some people’s experience. They were not only comparatively mild, but also infrequent. In other words, I was lucky.
And there are several reasons why this is deeply screwed up.
- First, that only having a few experiences of harassment and assault is ‘lucky’, when it should be that nobody has any. But this has become normal, so that my experience is the opposite of shocking.
- Secondly, that I find myself wondering what I did right, in a way that suggests other people did something wrong. Is it the area I live in, how I dress, the places I went, the friends I had as a teenager, the fact that I don’t drink, because I’m butch, because I’m small? What was different about the male friends I had as a teenager that meant only one of them turned out to be a dick? How did I avoid this? Did I do something that protected me that other people didn’t do? Which is screwed up, because it suggests it’s in some way other people’s fault that they faced those experiences, when really it is just luck and circumstance.
- Thirdly, and this is the most insidious part of it all, that part of me wonders what’s wrong with me. Whether the fact that I’ve never been cat-called except to be accused of being gay means that I’m ugly, that there’s something unappealing or uninteresting about me. And that’s screwed up on so many levels.
- Cat-calling isn’t a compliment, and it doesn’t have any impact on your value or worth or attractiveness generally.
- I have absolutely no interest in being attractive to men at any point in my life anyway.
- In fact, I go out of my way to dress in a way that makes it impossible to see me in a sexual way because I’m deeply uncomfortable with being sexualised to an extent that has affected my entire understanding of my sexuality and gender identity (more on that in future, probably).
- Therefore, not being cat-called should feel like an achievement, because it means I’ve succeeded in my aims to be seen as something other than a sexual object.
- Yet somehow, despite all of these facts and despite the fact a very large part of me thinks how lucky I am and is constantly grateful not to have encountered these behaviours, there’s still a corner of my brain that whispers that there’s something wrong with me because even sexist dickheads on the street don’t find me attractive.
- If that’s what ‘good enough’ is, I don’t want to meet that standard! But part of me has been conditioned to think that I should, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t shut up that whisper entirely.
And this is what’s so insidious about it. That I can’t just think about my own luck, but I find myself fighting the parts of my brain that fall into sexist traps: first, which tell me I did something right and therefore suggest others did something wrong in a horrible victim-blaming way, and second, which tell me I did something wrong.
It runs deep, and it has a profound impact. My relationship with femininity has been deeply affected by the extent to which society sexualises the female body, and my own discomfort with being perceived in a sexual way because it’s so unlike how I understand myself, as an asexual person. And maybe at some point I’ll talk about my gender identity and how that’s shifted over the last few years, although I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it.
In the meantime, though, I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the scale and extent to which this permeates society. I would like to think things have got better since the book was published in 2013 (?), and that maybe that’s why my experience is comparatively mild, but there are stories there from people who were thirteen, fifteen, seventeen at the time that it was collected and written, the same age that I would have been.
I don’t really have any answers, just some thoughts on the ways in which this sexism creeps into our brains even when we think we’ve been relatively unaffected by it. If anyone’s got anything to add, or thoughts on their own reading of Everyday Sexism, feel free to comment and we can have a bit of discussion.