Founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates
Laura Bates is on a mission to pull apart the sexist establishments that shape our society, from schools, media and politics to the criminal justice system.
The 35-year-old writer founded the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012. It’s an ever-growing online platform for people to share their personal encounters with misogyny.
It didn’t take long for Bates to compile the all-too-familiar rhetoric that women and girls hear from childhood, as she quotes: “‘Are you overreacting?’, ‘he didn’t mean it like that’. ‘It’s just boys being boys.’ ‘He probably likes you, take it as a compliment.’ ‘Why didn’t you leave?’. ‘Were you leading him on?’. ‘Have you been drinking?’. ‘What were you wearing?’.
“There are literally a million ways that our society forces us to either ignore these events, to doubt women or to blame women.”
Bates is the latest guest on The Big Issue’s BetterPod, a weekly podcast exploring how to make changes today to make a more positive tomorrow.
She observes how the normalised language, trends, and cultural perceptions bolster the toxic traditions of powerful institutions.
Since the #MeToo movement there has been clear pushback: a growing online dialogue vocalising that feminism has “gone a bit far.” For all the accusations made since the movement started, legal consequences have proved few and far between.
“If you look at the numbers, 12 million survivors of discrimination, harassment, assault and abuse shared their stories through #MeToo,” Bates says. “And the New York Times estimates that about 200 men faced any kind of repercussions as a result, the vast majority of them not even legal repercussions.
“This idea that the pendulum has swung a bit too far, that feminism has gone too far, and men are the victims now is complete nonsense.”
Amongst the online discourse, anti-feminist ideology has wormed its way into the workplace. A study from the Harvard Business School showed that since the #MeToo movement, 27 per cent of men avoid one-on-one meetings with female co-workers and 19 per cent of men would be reluctant to hire an attractive woman.
Bates described this concept as “a form of extremism, and online radicalisation”, but adds: “Because it’s misogyny, we don’t think of it like that. And because it’s done mainly by white men, we don’t think of it as terrorism. But it is, and it’s effective.”
Bates pays a hard price for being a mouthpiece for feminism.
“I can get 200 rape and death threats on a bad day,” she says.
“But what I feel really proud about is that you can point to specific changes that I know have come about because of the Everyday Sexism project. We have taken the stories from schoolgirls who are being sexually assaulted at school into parliament and use them alongside other women’s organisations to convince MPs and ministers to put sexual consent and healthy relationships on the curriculum. That will make such a difference for the next generation.”
During Bates’ research, what she found “most shocking” is the level of sexual abuse that’s happening in schools. She said, “we like to think of schools as a safe space. And yet the reality is that an average of one rape per day of the school term is being reported as happening inside UK schools. The reality is that a third of teenage girls say that they’re sexually assaulted at school.”
Alongside helping to develop the curriculum, Bates has been a part of retraining thousands of transport police officers to change their approach to sexual offences on public transport which has since “raised reporting by 30 per cent”.
“There’s so much positive that’s come out of it, so much to hold on to and so much to feel hopeful about,” she says. Next on her fix-list is law enforcement.
“What we’ve seen in the last two years is evidence of institutional misogyny, and institutional racism within the police force,” Bates explains.
In a point-blank fashion, she refutes the idiom that it’s “a few bad apples in the system” and instead calls for “real root and branch reform”.
When Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by a serving Met officer in March 2021, the police told women not to go out on their own at night. Following the murder of Sabina Nessa in September 2021, the police handed out 200 rape alarms in the local area. After Bobbi-Anne McLeod was killed in Plymouth last November, the local Conservative city council leader said that “everybody has a responsibility not to try to put themselves in a compromising position.”
“They didn’t stop men to talk to them,” Bates points out.
“People are really ready to accept that there is a degree to which women’s lives inevitably must be constrained by this. If police told men in Clapham that they can’t go out on their own – one of them is raping and murdering people so they need to stay in pairs – people would have been outraged.”
After Sarah Everard, the phrase “she did everything right” trended on social media. One tweet said: “Sarah Everard did everything right. Everything women are ‘supposed’ to. Bright clothing. Main road. Called her man.”
When Ashling Murphy was violently killed going for a run at 4pm in Ireland earlier this year, “she was just going for a run” trended on social media.
Bates continued: “We focus only on the cases of women who our society deems to have been these perfect victims who did all the right things. And that’s why it’s a tragedy.
“What we’re really saying is if she had been drunk or out at 2am, or meeting a client for sex, or doing drugs then it would have been that little bit more inevitable or understandable.”
Bates pointed out that the media focuses primarily on victims of sexual abuse who are white, middle-class, young professional women. She said: “It’s only the tip of the iceberg and prevents us from seeing the whole picture.”
An investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct revealed the sexist culture fostered within the police force. It found Wayne Couzens, the murderer of Everard, had been involved in multiple, unreported accounts of misogynistic behaviour.
The investigation included officers having sex on duty, sending derogatory WhatsApp messages such as: “I would happily rape you,” and: “Getting a woman in to bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife”, with one officer being referred to as: “McRapey Raperson”.
According to the data released via a Freedom of Information request, 2,000 allegations of sexual misconduct including rape have been made against serving police officers over the last four years.
“It’s obviously a system issue and not acknowledging that means that the culture within that system won’t change,” said Bates.
Bates suggests ways we can revise and repair these insidious cultures.
“In the same way that white people have a responsibility to take some of the burden of education from people of colour, who experience it and take it on ourselves to educate ourselves and each other to have those difficult conversations,” she says.
“I’d really like to see men taking on the uncomfortable conversations amongst themselves in male dominated spaces,” Bates says. “Challenging it when it comes up in a WhatsApp group or in a locker room.
“The standard that our mates will accept is really impactful in terms of changing what people consider to be acceptable behaviour. Even if it seems like harmless banter.”
Fix the System, Not the Women by Laura Bates is out now. This interview is part of the latest edition of BetterPod, The Big Issue’s weekly podcast exploring how we can all act today for a better tomorrow. Listen here or at your normal podcast provider.
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.