Friday, 29 March 2013

Unacceptable Sexism

Recently, Cardiff Women’s Association hosted a talk by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, in which she discussed the ‘Lad Culture’ which is currently encouraging and causing sexist, sexually-aggressive behaviour amongst university students.
Please allow me to begin by saying I absolutely adore this woman and the work she has been doing. If you haven’t already, please head on over to her page at the Independent and read her articles posted there.
            The purpose of her talk at the university was to give a general insight into the work she has been doing and also to talk about sexism that students face almost every day and how they can begin to fight against it. She began by, powerfully, arguing against the comment given by most people these days that ‘women are equal now, more or less’. Here are some of the stats she stated:

·         Only 1 in 5 Global parliamentarians are women
·         One fifth of front page news articles are written by women
·         84% of these are dominated by male subjects or experts
·         One rape occurs every seven minutes
·         One in five women will be a victim of sexual abuse
·         One in three women, around the globe, will be raped or beaten
            These stats hold up to prove that although women may have the votes and legally the same rights as men, in everyday life women are far from equal. With the knowledge of these facts it becomes almost impossible to argue that women are no longer facing sexism. Our daily lives are pervaded by the fear of mistreatment entrenched in sexism, and also the knowledge that women are still incredibly vulnerable to violence and abuse.
            After making it undeniably clear that sexism is still an enormous social issue, Laura then went on to discuss the work of the Everyday Sexism Project and the enormity of it. Since beginning just over a year ago, over 25,000 women have contributed their stories of everyday encounters of sexism and harassment. Scrolling through the endless pages, the myriad of ways in which women are constantly abused, judged, belittled and intimidated by sexist behaviour are evident. The Project’s Twitter page is inundated daily with reports of sexism sent in. A particularly memorable success from this page was #shoutingback which flooded Twitter on the day it went viral, making sexism absolutely impossible to ignore.
            When focusing more closely on the problem of sexism in University, Laura specifically talked about Freshers’ initiation processes which generally involve gender-prescriptive ‘tasks’, most of which are of a sexual nature. She described girls being provided with ‘Slut Names’ which they are then encouraged to write across their chests and countless other horrifying stories. Under the current veil of ‘banter’, this cloak of irony makes it difficult to stand against these sexist and reductive practises. Those who object are criticized for not understanding that these acts are, apparently, ‘funny’; for having no sense of humour; or being a bore. But the fact is, ‘banter’ is simply a way of attempting to normalise and decriminalize sexual harassment, and in some cases, rape. The website UniLad is a perfect example of this, a site which encourages rape and violence against women, all of which is apparently a joke. I don’t buy it.
            After making it explicitly clear to any doubters in the audience that sexism in University culture is a large problem, Laura then went onto talk about more general problems of sexual harassment that women encounter almost daily. She began by explaining the definition of sexual assault, as described by UK Law. Sexual assault is any form of sexual touching which is non-consensual, and in which the perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the victim consents.  This, then, would include every instance of bum pinching that takes place in a club. If this law were to be actually enforced then those running the clubs would have a lot more trouble to deal with. And that is the problem. Such events have been trivialised to the point that if a woman tried to report sexual assault as a consequence of a bum pinch she would likely be laughed off.
            At one point the audience were asked ‘raise your hands if you’ve ever been groped in a club’ – the only people who did not raise their hands were the men in the room. To clarify, in a lecture hall filled with approximately 98% women, I could not see one woman who had not had to endure this demeaning and embarrassing assault. Legally, we have a right to stand against this. But culturally, we will be told we are overreacting
            Through coming together, and collecting their stories, women have found strength to stand against everyday instances of sexism which come to control our lives. Laura’s recommendation for action when we encounter such incidents is to identify the perpetrator and tell them, loudly, to stop *exactly* what they are doing. Her example was ‘man in the yellow hat, please stop touching my leg.' Embarrass them, don’t allow yourself to become a victim, and turn all eyes on them. You have a right to not be touched, and they have a right to be humiliated.
            For me, the message here was that feminism need no longer be part of the history of academia. If you stand for gender equality, you can consider yourself a feminist. Stand strong and speak out for what troubles your life, stand against the ways in which society attempts to reduce you just because you are a woman. Or, men, stand up for the ways in which you see women being held back by stereotypical judgement. Even more, if you find yourself being reduced to an uncontrollable, animalistic, sex-hunting object tell people that no, you are in fact more than that. Fight against the ingrained normalisation that women’s bodies are a public commodity. Your body is yours, it belongs to nobody else. Reduction of women to physical objects happens in the simplest of ways, such as the far too common comment ‘smile, love’ - a way of telling you ‘you are decoration and you are not doing it correctly’.
            Sexism happens daily because that is the nature of our culture. Though we may not be able to alter this overnight, every small change is a victory. Each one will eventually build to a noticeable change when we can look back and think to ourselves that yes, we did good. 

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