Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project in the film “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed.
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Everyday Sexism speech to the UN: “Sexism and sexual harassment is not a ‘women’s issue’ – it is a matter of human rights”

To describe sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence as “women’s issues” side-lines and reduces them, neglects male victims and lets perpetrators off the hook. One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.

A little less than two years ago, I started a project called Everyday Sexism, which invited people to share their daily experiences of gender imbalance. I started the project because when I tried to talk about sexism, I was told again and again that it wasn’t an issue any more – that women were equal and I needed to lighten up, and stop making a fuss about nothing.

Twenty three months later, over fifty thousand people from all over the world have proved those arguments wrong. They have demonstrated unequivocally that everyday sexism is a very real and serious problem, affecting the lives of women and girls, men and boys, often on a daily basis. The stories we received came from people of all ages, nationalities and walks of life.

We heard from a schoolgirl who was so young when she first experienced serious sexual harassment, that when the men who shouted at her referred to her genitalia, she didn’t even know what they meant. From a female engineer who was dismissed in the workplace as a “cute little girl”. A designer whose boss told her he would never employ an unattractive woman. A doctor who was told by a senior consultant to sit on his lap if she wanted his help interpreting an x-ray. A man who was ridiculed by his colleagues for wanting to share parental leave with his partner. A sixteen-year old girl who said it didn’t matter what she did with her life, whether she became a teacher or a doctor, because she felt that as a woman, she would only be a success if she was “sexy” and “hot”. A student who suffered groping from her lecturer in silence because she wanted to excel at programming. A child who experienced systematic abuse from a family member but was disbelieved when she tried to speak out. An elderly woman who carried the burden of her rape in silence for her whole life, because society had taught her it was her own fault.

The stories revealed that for many women sexism combines with other forms of prejudice, resulting in a kind of double discrimination. Like the disabled woman who was asked to do a pole dance around her walking stick; the transgender women who regularly suffered extreme abuse in public spaces; the woman who was told she was only hired so there would be a “sexy Asian in the office”; or the woman who described repeated, aggressive sexual advances from men offering to ‘turn her straight’ when she went out with her female partner.

What the testimonies reveal, again and again, is that these varied experiences of sexism, harassment, assault, discrimination and rape are not isolated incidents, but exist on an interconnected spectrum. The same ideas and attitudes about women that underlie the more “minor” incidents we are often told to brush off or ignore are also at the root of greater inequalities and incidences of sexual violence. For example, the same words and phrases used to a woman who was catcalled in the street were also directed at a victim of sexual assault. A woman who tried to ignore her harasser found that he followed her home and assaulted her on her own doorstep. Women trying to succeed in the male-dominated environment of politics have to contend with a media that objectifies them, reporting on their bodies and clothes instead of their policies.

The treatment of women in one sphere has a clear knock-on effect on behaviour towards them in other areas.

So, to reflect an inter-connected set of problems, we also need a joined-up solution. It won’t work to take measures to increase the representation of women at the top levels of business and politics unless we also challenge the media’s repeated presentation of women as dehumanised sex objects. It won’t work to tackle workplace discrimination, if the moment people step outside the office they exist in a public space where sexual harassment continues to be accepted as the norm. Our efforts to tackle gender imbalance will be more effective if they take into account the way that sexism intersects with other forms of prejudice.

This problem is like a mosaic, and no individual, organisation, or government can solve it alone. But the different solutions are as varied and diverse as the different manifestations of everyday sexism, and each one of us has it within our power to play a part in changing the landscape.

Individual governments can ensure that strong, clear legislation is in place to criminalise and penalise domestic and sexual violence and all forms of discrimination. But they can’t magically change the cultural normalisation of sexism. What we need is a major societal shift in our attitudes and behaviour towards women, so that political and legislative efforts translate into real impact on the ground.

Businesses can address sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the workplace with zero-tolerance approaches, staff training and victim-centred reporting processes. Schools and can educate young people about issues such as consent and healthy relationships and Universities must react decisively to incidents of sexual assault on campus. Families can address issues around sexual assault and respect for others with both boys and girls. Organisations can support this work by providing resources, materials and training.

And individuals have a vital role to play in helping to combat the normalised, socially ingrained sexism we all encounter on a regular basis. By shifting the way we perceive and treat women in our own sphere, we have a knock on impact on the way they are treated elsewhere.

Taking responsibility for this change falls to each one of us, whether it is a university student challenging “banter and jokes about rape on campus, a colleague taking a stand against workplace discrimination, or a bystander intervening when they witness sexual harassment in the street. Men who perhaps rarely witness sexism or harassment and are largely unaware of the problem because they would never dream of perpetrating it themselves can play a vital role in helping to combat it once they have been made aware. The focus should not be on dictating how victims should react in a given situation, but working to prevent the situation from arising in the first place.

Within this process the importance of listening to women’s voices is paramount. For centuries, women have been silenced – through ridicule, dismissal and fear. Countless Everyday Sexism Project entrants specified that this was the first time they had ever told their story. Many described trying to speak up, only to be told they were probably overreacting, or imagining things. Some had reported serious workplace harassment to a human resources department, only to be told to get on with it if they wanted to keep their jobs. Some spoke of hiding sexual abuse for the sake of family honour. Others had spent years finding the courage to speak out about rape, only to be asked “Had you been drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “Did you lead him on?”

Often it is women themselves who are best placed to direct useful action to combat gender inequality. Grassroots projects that put local ownership and knowledge at the centre of their initiatives can inform and support the work of bigger organisations. Although the entries we have collected from our 18 project branches around the world suggest that many experiences of gender inequality are universal, culture and context also mean that there are different unique challenges to overcome in different areas and at different times. What helps to combat the problem in one community will not necessarily work as a “one size fits all” solution. Listening to women’s voices is crucial in finding the way forward.

But this issue is not just about women. It is not a “women’s issue”. It is a matter of human rights. To describe sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence as “women’s issues” side-lines and reduces them, neglects male victims and lets perpetrators off the hook. One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. For many women, sexism and sexual harassment are simply an accepted part of everyday life. These are problems of epidemic proportions, yet they are often so normalised that they become part of the wallpaper. Tackling gender inequality is in everybody’s interest, and it must be everybody’s responsibility.

We can’t do it alone. Our voices are loudest when we raise them together.

Now watch “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed, a film about the work of Laura Bates and the Everyday Sexism project:

“Everyday Sexism...” by Laura Bates will be published by Simon & Schuster on 10 April

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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