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Groped on a bus and fighting back

Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, chats to feminist and author Tara Moss exclusively for Cosmo.

The Everyday Sexism Project has become a media phenomenon. It works as a tool to let survivors of harassment, sexual abuse and violence in 15 countries to speak up and be part of a larger conversation, in a non-threatening way that is safe for them, regardless of their circumstances. It has also allowed many women and girls to realise that they were not alone in their experiences. Here, feminist and writer Tara Moss speaks to the founder (and our girl crush) Laura Bates about why calling out sexism is so damn important.

TM: How did the Everyday Sexism Project come about?

LB: A lot of very sexist things happened at once! I was working as an actress and I turned up to a commercial I was doing for a wardrobe, and they said, “We’d like you to take your top off.” I’d get casting breakdowns that only specified breast and waist size but my partner, who was an actor at the time, would get casting calls that read, ‘this man is intelligent, he has these relationships, this is his job.’

But what pushed it over the edge for me was a completely coincidental bad week. A guy followed me off the bus and sexually propositioned me. A bunch of guys yelled out of a van about sexual stuff they wanted to do to me. I walked past a construction site and a man yelled out, “Look at the tits on that.” Not even “her” – “that”. Then I was on the bus one night, talking to Mum on the phone, and I’d thought the guy next to me had accidentally brushed me with his hand. But it continued and then I realised that he was actually groping me. I stood up and said to Mum, “There is a man on the bus who’s groping my leg.” And everyone stared out the window. There was a real sense of: “This is your problem, you deal with it.” That was my tipping point.

What happened after that?

I started talking to other women about what had happened to me – obsessively! Every woman I spoke to had multiple, recent, extreme stories. I spoke to a woman who worked with mostly men. They would go to strip clubs at lunch with clients, and she would miss out on those deals as a result. Another woman said the men in her office printed out pictures of women applying for jobs and rated them out of 10 for looks. But when I talked about it with men, a lot of them said, “Sexism isn’t an issue anymore.” I felt very frustrated. How could we begin to solve this problem if we don’t see it as a problem that needs to be solved?

I thought a way to do that was to have everyone hear the stories I had just heard from all of these women, to hear what was really going on out there. I thought the best way to translate that was to get women to put their stories on a website for everyone to read. I didn’t know anything about websites but a good friend of mine put it together for free, and he said to me, ‘Do you think you might get some negative comments about this?’ I said, ‘No, surely not!’ which seems very funny to me now.

And now it's HUGE!

Yes. But I never set out for this to be such a phenomenon – I thought, maybe if 30 or 40 women told their stories, I could write an article about it. I never anticipated the response. Even though it was called Everyday Sexism, we got stories of rape and sexual abuse. I was astounded by girls as young as seven telling us about being harassed and groped. That was shocking.

Do you think that they contacted Everyday Sexism because they didn’t have other outlets?

Definitely. We heard from a lot of older women, who had very poignant stories about being raped or abused when they were much younger, they mentioned things like victim blaming and told us that, their whole lives, they’d felt it was their fault. We heard from women who had tried to speak up but were dismissed. Women who went to HR and were told, “Get on with it unless you want to lose your job,” and women who were told to stay quiet because of family honour.

They said that once they saw other women coming forward, they could finally see that it wasn’t their fault. We heard that a lot.

TM: in my book, I talk about things I haven’t talked about in twenty years. I think it’s really easy to underestimate the shaming that comes with silence. Even when there’s good reasons for silence, like safety or legal reasons, the effect of it can be quite shaming. Sexual assault is underreported generally and street harassment is so casual that I think it all becomes part of the same continuum.

LB: I couldn’t agree more.

Do you have any advice for women when it comes to reporting?

Yes, definitely. In the moment it can be quite dangerous, and there is no 'one-
size-fits-all' approach. But say there’s a man in a van harassing you, call the company and report him. We’ve had so many positive responses from that.

Getting a message from your boss, hearing that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable from an authority figure, is very powerful. I also think there’s a lot of strength in collective action. We hear from a lot of girls at school and at uni who deal with some very extreme situations.

Girls tell us they’re in class with boys who say things like, "rape is a compliment," "it’s not rape if she enjoys it," "girls are asking to be raped" – these are all things that girls are hearing. If one of them speaks up on her own, the response tends to be, "you’re frigid, you’re uptight, you can’t take a joke," but that’s just bullying. It isolates one person and ostracises them. But if a whole classroom stands up and says something, it doesn’t isolate that person and it’s more effective. It’s the same as in the workplace, where women are scared about standing up and rocking the boat, but if a group of women say, "right, we need to talk about this issue," it makes it so much harder to dismiss them.

One of the great things about the Everyday Sexism campaign is that you’ve been able to change the way women report incidents of public transport harassment in the UK. That’s such a win.

That was really exciting for us. The British Transport Police were aware that it was a problem, but it was also massively underreported. We had all the information so they invited us to share our stories with them. It wasn’t just about groping. It was about being trapped at the back of the bus and also feeling intimidated. It was about men masturbating and exposing themselves, women being followed from the train or bus, photographs being taken up skirts. The police developed a new number for women to text about their harassment experiences. That raised reporting by 26 per cent, and detection of offenders by 32 per cent. It’s really exciting; that something that started as awareness-raising and solidarity has actually gone on to have some really concrete and real-world applications.

You’ve suffered some social media backlash from the project. Tell us about that?

It’s something that started really early on in the project and took me completely aback at first. I had no expectation of it. It happened very suddenly and I was bombarded with messages. It’s funny actually, because I had tweeted Lady Gaga very early in the project, to drum up some publicity. I woke up the next morning and I had 200 messages. I turned to my boyfriend and said, "Oh my God, Lady Gaga must have tweeted about it, it’s taking off!" and I opened my messages and my stomach just contracted. It was the first time I’d read a message like that: "I want to kill you, I want to rape you, and here’s how I’m going to do it."

I think that something people don’t understand about this is that they think we’re disagreeing with something they’ve said, but in reality these people are writing incredibly long, graphic descriptions of the wounds they’d like to inflict on you, in what order, how you deserve to be raped, what time they’ll rape you. Stuff that goes on in your mind while you try to sleep at night. The idea of ‘just turning the computer off’ and solving the problem is so silly; first of all, that silences me, and second of all, you don’t know that this person doesn’t actually have a plan to kill and rape you.

I think it’s important as well to show people that it’s illegal, that’s why I report it. When people dismiss it out of hand, they don’t acknowledge that, just as it’s illegal to say that you’re going to rape or kill someone in the street, it’s illegal to do it online. I want young women to know that they absolutely do not have to put up with this, you can and should go to the police.

TM: I think a lot of Australians were quite disturbed by the case of Jill Meagher,

who was murdered in 2012. It struck a chord for a number of reasons, one of which was that she seemed like a very everyday, normal woman – so people understood that it could have been anyone. One of the curious things, though, was that even in that scenario, which was so horrific, you still had all the initial reactions of, "What was she doing out night?" "Why didn’t she have a chaperone?" "Why was she wearing a skirt like that?" but one of the things that I hope has come out of that terrible, terrible tragedy is that we are starting to question that dialogue, the way we speak about vicitms.

LB: I think that’s true internationally, too. We saw it in Delhi with the gang rape and murder, the Steubenville case where some of the media sympathised with the perpetrators, it happened in the UK with the Jimmy Savile case – there was a huge amount of attention on the vicitims. "Why are they coming forward now?" "Why didn’t they just deal with it themselves?" It also happened with the reporter Lara Logan in Egypt.

Is this idea of victim-blaming giving completely the wrong idea of how sexual harassment and violence happens?

LB: It’s not usually a shadowy stranger in a dark alleyway who is violent towards women who wear short skirts. Eighty to ninety per cent of rapists are known to their victims. Women are far safer in a dark alleyway, wearing a short skirt, than they are at home in their own beds, because that’s where domestic violence and rape actually happens. Talking about where victims were and what they were wearing promotes the idea that rape is an act of sexual attraction, when it’s an act of power and violence.

TM: I think that happens, in part, because we like to think that, if we do the ‘right things’, it will never happen to us.

And if you're ever a victim of sexual assault or abuse?

Cosmo approached Queensland police to get their advice on how women should deal with sexual harassment on the street, semi-expecting a generic and brief reply. We were taken aback by Sargent Vicki Campbell's awesome response, so felt the need to share the whole thing with you...

It’s difficult to suggest a strategy to employ in all situations as every situation is different and it depends on a lot of variable factors. It depends on how you are feeling on the day. Some days we are feeling fragile (didn’t get enough sleep the night before or having an argument with a loved one) and so any form of harassment might have us in tears or just shoot our confidence down. Other days we wake up feeling like Wonder Woman and any conflict/harassment and we are facing it like tigers. It depends on the environmental factors – are we on our own, are there other people about, are we affected by alcohol drugs etc and of course it depends on the motivation of the harasser. What do they want? Are they just trying to embarrass us or do they want it to escalate? Are they drug or alcohol affected, are they with people or alone?

I think it is important for us to always demonstrate strong positive body language and be aware of our surroundings. There is a whole area of social research relating to how our body language affects our mood. So when we are feeling anxious, self-conscious and not-so-confident pay attention to what our body language is saying to people. If we pay attention and consciously put our body in a strong confident pose – feet apart and balanced, head up shoulders back and looking around, making brief eye contact and taking note of things around you - we actually start feeling a lot more confident and stronger quite quickly.

We should always be committed 110% to our safety and be prepared to do whatever we have to do to stay safe. If that means making a scene, or offending someone or being rude to someone, then so be it. We have the right not to be treated disrespectfully.

Trust your instincts and pay attention to your surroundings when out and about. Resist the urge to get your phone out and text while you are walking places or don’t get distracted by the music on your iPod. You need to be conscious of what is happening around you. This may assist in identifying a potential situation and enable you to avoid it.

If you are getting harassed by a group of people that are hanging out on the street, you can report this to police and when you call them, you can tell them that you walked past and didn’t feel safe and you are just concerned that their behaviour will continue. Police would normally try and at least locate these people and find out who they are. In Queensland we would conduct a “street check” that will record their details and description just in case anything happens. These street checks can either eliminate people from investigations or identify offenders or witnesses to events and are just routine police business.

If the harasser is a worker at a building site, you can always telephone the building developer of the site to report it. Most companies would not appreciate their business being brought into disrepute.

Laws around harassment will be different around all States. In QLD if someone telephones you at all hours of the night or numerous times and you have told them to stop, but they continue to harass you, there are laws around the use of telecommunications devices and someone can be charged. But if someone yelled out to you on the street it may be more difficult to find an offence they have committed.

I could go on and on. I get very frustrated that some people in our society don’t respect our rights to feel safe all the time

Hope this helps.

Kind regards,

Vicki Campbell