Thursday 22 March 2018

'There's no such thing as a bad feminist. We're just confused'

Everydaysexism founder Laura Bates tells our reporter she hopes her new book throws girls a 'lifeline'

Girl up: ‘Full-time feminist’ Laura Bates created the viral #everydaysexism
Girl up: ‘Full-time feminist’ Laura Bates created the viral #everydaysexism

Chrissie Russell

I want to tell Laura Bates that I like her necklace, but I'm a bit worried that focusing on what she's wearing might make me a bad feminist.

Apparently my concerns are a common occurrence. "There's no such thing as a bad feminist," she laughs. "I think there's so much confusion around feminism, to me it simply means believing that everyone should be treated equally regardless of their sex."

It's okay to compliment jewellery, it's fine to appear semi-naked in a music video, it's fine to think differently to other women, you don't have to hate men, you don't have to be a woman. Bates can rhyme off the 'feminist' myths with ease, not surprising given that full-time feminist could well be her job title these days.

In 2012 she set up the website, out of "sheer frustration", giving women a platform to voice their experiences of sexual violence, assault and discrimination on a regular basis. It became a global phenomenon and Bates ditched her career in acting to become a full-time activist and campaigner.

Her new book, Girl Up, which she's in Dublin to promote, has been the result of four years spent going in and out of schools and universities up and down the country.

"I was talking to young women and feeling devastated when I left that I wasn't able to stay long enough," explains Bates. "They'd be asking questions about sex, relationships, rape, careers and confidence and I realised they were dealing with so much and needed something to hold on to.

"I wanted to throw them a lifeline and I guess that's why it feels so personal to me."

That this is a personal quest becomes instantly clear, both in talking to Bates, a Cambridge graduate, and reading her book. The tone is empathetic and resolutely "non-preachy".

It's the sort of thing that a very cool mum, or very cool dad, might write for their own teenage daughter.

Bates isn't a parent but the comparison delights her. "That's lovely to hear, that's exactly what I wanted," she smiles. "I wanted it to be a sort of no-nonsense survival guide. Something that, if you had to put down in one place, was all that you could tell your daughter.

"I'm sure not everyone is going to follow it to the letter, but if there's something in there that's helpful…," she adds. "I didn't want it to say 'this is what you must do', but I wanted it to give options."

And from options on how to reply to an unwanted text of a penis, to a deciphering of sexist tabloid phrases, there's an impressive volume of material. Girl Up includes inspirational wisdom from kick-ass women in the public eye, graphic sex-ed (if you're reading it on the bus, you might want to watch out for the two-page diagram of the vulva) as well as information on body image, sexism in the media and sexual consent.

There are jokes, puns ('clitorish allsorts' anyone?) and even dancing vaginas in top hats, but, it's hard not to be a little bit depressed by the world view presented.

From dawn until dusk young girls are bombarded with visual images telling them they're not pretty, thin or hair-free enough, they're groped on the bus, sent 'dick pics' by men online then told to calm down if they dare to challenge it.

They have boyfriends who expect them to perform like porn stars and teachers who accuse them of baring too much flesh and titillating their male peers. Really? Is it that bad?

"People say I must be cherry picking the worst examples and scaremongering. What I feel is really useful is to go to the statistics that we have," explains Bates. "We have a YouGov survey that found that 70pc of young people hear 'slut' and 'slag' being used at girls in school more than once a week.

"That one-in-three teenage girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school."

Another piece of research suggests there's one rape a day at UK schools. "And that's just the cases being reported, so yes, it is as bad as all that."

She knows first-hand about the attacks women face, particularly on social media. She was threatened with rape and death on Twitter so much she decided to leave the social networking site. It's interesting (and depressing) though that some of the negativity towards her has come from the sisterhood itself. When she released the bestseller Everyday Sexism in 2014, Germaine Greer was quick to criticise her efforts declaring: "Unpacking your heart with bitter words to an anonymous blog is no substitute for action".

"More than anything I felt really sad about that," says Bates. "I think if you look at the ways we took stories into the real world we know it had a concrete impact. One of the things I'm most proud of is the concrete way we have changed things, we haven't just put things onto a blog."

But she doesn't feel it's beneficial to set women against each other - there's enough of that already. She'd love to see better education around feminist issues in school with "something like" her book addressing gender stereotypes, on the syllabus.

"The most common comment has been people saying 'I wish I'd had this book when I was a teenager'."

The fact is that parents might not want their teens to be having sex, watching porn, sexting or that we lived in a post-sexist world but they are, and as far as Bates is concerned, the best thing they can do is have the conversations.

You might not want to - but just Girl Up and do it.

Irish Independent

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