Everyday sexism is like an itchy throat – it’s small enough to shrug off, to sleep off with any luck. You ignore that its symptomatic of something bigger, and by never caring quite enough to take good measures against it, you land yourself with a fat, snotty, misogynistic flu.
Everyday sexism is so numbingly normal that it feels facetious to fuss every time. But there’s a connection between these little niggles and more grievous gender-based crimes. Our society is not just a society in which women are so accustomed to sexism that they often ignore it, it is also a society in which men dominate political and economic spheres and 85,000 women are raped each year (UK alone). So maybe all these ‘minor’ incidents aggregate to something bigger – and if we join the dots between them, we’ll start to see what’s really going on.
Sharing stories is crucial to the spirit of empathy between sexes. We help each other to understand what happens to all of us.
Yet efforts to expose everyday sexism are sometimes seen to threaten men. The #Metoo campaign shed revelationary light on the scale of misogyny, while somewhat blurring the shades of sexual assault. Well, whatever your measure of one woman’s experience, without really good reason, don’t belittle it. The reactionary leap to attack complainants as paranoid/precious/attention-seeking/vindictive is suspicious. Why is that the priority? I heard a lot of slander against #MeToo-ers who pointed no fingers and named no names but just wanted to add their voice to the hum. Attacking them doesn’t protect anyone.
It might, however, do damage. It’s not easy to talk about sexual harassment, there’s an unreasonable but powerful psychology of shame. There’s no good reason not to talk, but it never feels appropriate, it feels awkward and embarrassing and you become self-conscious about how someone will react. You also become possessed by the idea that maybe it was your fault (because you’re trained to think like that whenever you’re told off for wearing a short skirt or acting ‘forward’ or whatever qualifies being a ‘tease’) and you don’t want to invite judgement. Speaking out has to be made easier.
Everyday sexism to me
But if you asked me about my everyday experience of sexism, I wouldn’t talk about the harassment. Most of the time it isn’t actually threatening and the objectification is petty and immature – then it’s just like, whatever (oops, normalising). The everyday experience that really grates me is intellectual patronisation.
I notice it in ‘serious’ conversations. That little hint of condescension. You’re chatting with a group of men but they’re talking to you differently to how they’re talking to each other. It’s passive, a lack of regard rather than active disregard, but you have to work that tiny bit harder to be taken seriously. And I do. I mimic ‘male’ language and hold back emotion because winning someone over requires speaking on their terms. According to Sheryl Sandberg, I ‘lean in’.
Now it’s hard to criticise the guys who are culpable, they’re normally alright guys. Culpability is actually the trickiest part, because girls do it too. I’ll never forget this boy in my year 3 class boasting how “all successful people are men: leaders, sportsmen, artists, filmmakers… even the best chefs are men, and cooking is what women do best!” Vapid though this comment is, it totally deflated 8-year old me. I couldn’t explain it… maybe men were just better than women. In a nutshell, we’re stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle: historical, legal prejudice (‘women are not allowed to be managers’) causes de facto inequality (women don’t become managers); time goes by and history speaks of few successful women (which discourages young girls from aspiring and applying).
And so my everyday niggle reflects something bigger. Studies have shown that a business pitch recorded in a male voice is received better by men and women than an identical pitch recorded in a female voice. As a hangover of systematised inequality, of internalised gender conventionalisation in households and school, on TVs and billboards, in pubs and politics, there is now a difference between how many people rate a woman’s opinion and how they rate a man’s.
Fighting everyday sexism
I’m sorry to say, but the solution involves constant self-reflection from women and especially men. Sexism survives in Trojan horse form: bawdy jokes that women feel they have to laugh at or it’ll look like girls really aren’t as funny as boys, toys for boys and toys for girls that put them in brackets, school curricula that go on and on about great male authors and politicians and philosophers but only mention women in ‘gender’ modules. These habits are now the result of complacency rather than active sexism, so while I don’t think we should condemn the culprits, we can politely invite reflection. You can’t remove yourself from society, but it’s a cop-out to blame society for your flaws when society is only the people it consists.
To everyone, I recommend Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism, a fantastic analysis of the relationship between normalised, everyday forms of sexism and the wider patriarchal structures that oppress all by gender. There’s a social media campaign under the same name, which collects accounts from around the world (25 countries and counting). It makes each account audible, amplifying its message with a hundred thousand other voices that iterate the same experience. So if the book is too chunky, follow @EverydaySexism for regulated, Twitter broadcasts about how women constantly encounter sexist behaviour.
Please don’t see it as a verdict on men, if anything it’s a resource for men. Many have found it eye-opening:
“Unfollowed @EverydaySexism, weary of the constant barrage of horror. Then it clicked. That’s what it must be like being a woman. #refollowed”
It’s also a resource for academics, with Bates’ project now central to Women’s Studies. Speaking out helps us to see how ‘the steady drip-drip-drip of sexism and sexualisation and objectification is connected to the assumption of ownership and control over women’s bodies’. These accounts help us learn. So send in your stories, send others to send in theirs, send misogyny out the window.