Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m a bit of a control freak. If ever a situation arises wherein I lack control, it tends to bother me. A lot. As a woman who has difficulty giving a hairdresser free rein over her fringe, I find it particularly hard to relinquish all power to Mr Random on the street, or Mr Banter in the office. Yet that’s what I find myself doing almost every day, when confronted with casual sexism.
As I pointed out in my last post, every woman’s experience with sexism is slightly different to the next, as are every feminist’s reasons for identifying as such. Personally, my feminist Kryptonite is the issue of casual, everyday sexism.
‘But we’ve moved on from the 50s – we’re a civilised bunch!’, I hear you say (possibly). You’d be right in thinking that sexism isn’t quite as prevalent or overt as it used to be. You only have to watch one episode of Mad Men to be reminded that a heavenly wardrobe was the only good thing a woman was entitled to in that day and age. But back to today, and the constant drip-drip-drip of casual sexism has led to us barely noticing, or even simply accepting, much of it. It’s dangerous stuff, this Kryptonite.
Ask any woman and, feminist or not, she will surely be able to reel off a list of instances in which she has been targeted and treated unfavourably simply for being a woman. Instances in which she loses all her power as an individual, and becomes simply an object for ridicule, a target for unsolicited abuse.
To illustrate this point, here are a few examples of my own brushes with everyday sexism. Off the top of what might, in these situations, be referred to as my ‘pretty little head’…
In a previous job, an older and very senior male colleague of mine repeatedly referred to me as ‘Princess’, and was known to pat me on the head for a job well done. Strangely enough, I never saw him repeat this with male colleagues.
More or less every morning, on my 30 minute walk to work, I encounter large, rather intimidating groups of builders. Reactions as I walk past vary from creepy stares, to bizarrely aggressive ‘compliments’, to outright insults. As a result, I’ve changed my route to work several times.
In another previous job, I took the lead on a major project. At my first meeting with a Mr X, who I was going to be working closely with, I took two male colleagues along with me. Mr X spent the entire two-hour long meeting looking from my one male colleague to the other, making a concerted effort not to catch my eye in-between, lest he explode with barely-contained rage over my female presence. I did wonder if I might have imagined this. As it turns out, he is a known misogynist.
On purchasing a car for my partner and I, the car salesman went to shake my boyfriend’s hand, completely blanking me. He then directed all conversation towards my boyfriend, and despaired that the car had a flat tyre because the previous owner was a ‘bloody woman driver’.
Aged 16, I found myself walking down a pavement-less road. A middle-aged male cyclist rang his bell and I moved out of the way. As he passed me, he slowed down to shout a borderline-psychotic tirade of abuse, littered with such gentile vocab as ‘stupid f***ing girl’, ‘c**t’, ‘slag’ and ‘slut’. A young male passerby, having witnessed this, ran over to intervene. The cyclist uttered a ‘sorry, mate’ in his direction and cycled off.
Hopefully the above will offer a little flavour of the situations many women find themselves in on a regular basis. When considered individually, they may seem minor and insignificant – hell, some of them might be dismissed as simple ‘banter’ – but, faced with these scenarios on far too recurrent a basis, it’s easy to be left feeling worthless and powerless, with nothing but your biological make-up to blame. For strong, opinionated women, this is a particularly difficult feeling to deal with.
So what can we do to take control over the situation? Recently, an interesting project has sprung up, hoping to address this very issue.
The Everyday Sexism Project aims “to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis”, in the hopes of giving a voice to the many women who would otherwise stay silent about these experiences. Just a quick visit to their site, or a glance at their Twitter page, can leave you exhausted from the sheer variety and proliferation of examples on offer. Thankfully, it also serves to remind you that you are far from alone. Somehow, reading and relating to the tales of hundreds of other women can make you feel less powerless. More hopeful.
However, when sitting at your computer in the comfort of your own home, it’s easy to feel brave. What about when you’re confronted with Actual Real Life Sexism, occurring right in front of your Actual Real Life Face? Ideally, for every instance of everyday sexism encountered, you would have a perfectly tailored comeback or counter-action that would simultaneously liberate you of all anger and teach perpetrator of said sexism the error of their ways. In a utopian situation, the perpetrator would fall to their knees in a moment of earth-shattering clarity, whimpering and mentally calculating the overheads for opening a shelter for abused women. However, this isn’t strictly realistic. It hardly EVER happens that way for me.
In some situations (say during conversation with friends/colleagues), pointing out that something is unacceptable might result in an apology and a brief feeling of self-righteousness. It might teach someone something, at least in that moment. Sadly, there are many situations where standing up for yourself can be at best highly impractical, and at worst, even dangerous.
Being harassed in the street is a reality for most women. It can range from being simply a pain in the proverbial, to being outright terrifying. And it’s almost always impossible to know how to react. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve wanted to retaliate. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I fire back a quick expletive. Sometimes I deploy my patented ‘Look of ACTUAL DEATH’. But much of the time, sadly, I just keep walking. I’ve learnt that, for the most part, reacting to this type of harrassment just aggravates the situation. Sometimes to the point of danger. Dishing out reciprocal abuse just doesn’t seem the best way of clawing back power and reclaiming the situation.
The Hollaback project offers a safer, more constructive way of dealing with street harassment. Utilising a range of mobile technologies, Hollaback allows women to record and report instances of harassment. Hollaback also provides a programme of education, to help change attitudes towards this issue. Like the Everyday Sexism Project, this initiative offers women a sense of solidarity and empowerment where they need it most.
Now, I’ve always been taught that it’s rude to interrupt, but at this point, I feel the need to interject (own apology accepted) with a small confession. Writing this post took me a lot longer than usual. Why? Because I like to wrap my posts up into neat little ‘problem/solution’ packages. Easily digestible and with a happy, logical ending. But when I came to write this post, whilst the problem was loud and clear, the solution wasn’t quite so apparent. What answers could I really offer that would undo the work of centuries of ingrained sexism? Is there really a way to bring everyday sexism to an end? Then I realised that I, like the certified control freak I am, was getting ahead of myself.
At present, so much casual, everyday sexism is ignored or accepted (by both men and women) that simply opening up this issue for discussion is a step forward. At the core of Hollaback’s model “lies the belief that movements start with people telling their stories”. Maybe the simple sharing of stories is enough to nudge people into asking questions. Maybe, like a botched maths homework sum, scrawling a red line around the issue of everyday sexism is enough to draw our attention to a problem that needs solving.
What both the Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback offer is a way to collate and present instances of everyday sexism – taking the experiences we might otherwise keep to ourselves, and making them publicly visible. Suddenly, instead of simply moaning to your best friend, you’re telling the whole world. And judging by the mainstream media coverage both the projects are now garnering, the world is starting to listen.
…How’s that for a power trip?