Laura Bates: Gender-based violence is everybody’s business
**This piece contains references to content that some readers may find upsetting or triggering**
Zero Tolerance Project Officer Charlotte Gage sat down with Guardian Columnist and Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates to discuss Bristol’s initiative to tackle gender-based violence and how we should be tackling violence both in Bristol and nationally. We also discussed the importance of working with men and boys in raising awareness of, and tackling gender-based violence.
ZT: What do you think about Zero Tolerance as a city-wide initiative?
LB: It is a fantastic idea, linking up existing initiatives can be really powerful. I love the idea of approaching things on different levels at the same time – calling on individuals, businesses, local authorities together is a powerful way to create change.
ZT: What do you think a Zero Tolerance City could look like?
LB: A Zero Tolerance City should be about safety with people able to access public spaces without fear. This not just about women, but about the many different intersections in inequality – often, people can face multiple inequalities including race, sexual identity, disability who may not have the coping mechanisms that for many become part of everyday life. I also would want to see a reduction in the micro-aggression reflected a higher level – for example, it would be great to see shifts in diversity of representation, within the treatment of women in the workplace. This initiative could have huge ripple effects!
ZT: Why is addressing gender-based violence important to you?
LB: Having run the Everyday Sexism Project, I have collected and read thousands of experiences – whether that is the schoolgirl for putting her hand up less because boys in class tell her to get back into the kitchen, or whether it is a woman who cannot use certain streets because she feels unsafe, whether it is someone who is sacked for being pregnant, or whether someone is a victim of domestic violence – these personal stores gives you a drive to want to change things.
ZT: A lot of people think that domestic abuse is a private matter. What are your thoughts on this?
LB: It is vital that we start talking about it not being a problem behind closed doors. It isn’t ‘domestic’ – gender-based violence is everybody’s business, it is a human rights issue and we all have a responsibility to play a part. It is easy for people to use those kinds of arguments to try and step back from the problem, the reality is that nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Step up and look at what that role can be!
ZT: If you were Prime Minister, what top three things would you change to address gender-based violence?
LB: My first priority would be to make sex and relationships education compulsory, specifically to address online pornography, gender stereotypes, healthy relationships and sexual consent. I find it flabbergasting that this isn’t yet the case. In a society where 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, 400,000 are assaulted yet we are not taking action at a level where we can reach everybody with age appropriate messages. I find this absolutely astounding!
My second priority would be to give training to the police and the judiciary on victim blaming. In the most recent British Attitudes Survey, over one third of the public think that a woman in partially, if not fully to blame for being raped if she flirted beforehand with her attacker, and over ¼ think she is responsibility (at least partially) if she has been drinking. Then when 26% of assaults are recorded as no crimes, this highlights the problem of victim blaming amongst judges and the police.
My third priority would be to look at recent legislation that has been wrongly changed under the last government. For example, tribunal fees and third party harassment. Tribunal fees are now £1,200 upfront costs, and this change has seen the number of cases plummet by 80%. These fees provide a barrier to justice.
ZT: What do you think the key messages are in addressing gender-based violence for men and boys?
LB: For me, the two key messages would be speaking out against sexism and talking about feminism. It is important to hear that feminism is not about vilifying men, or not about suggesting that all men are perpetrators. It is not about men against women nor a battle of sexes, it is about people standing up to prejudice. Everyone will cross its path at some point – you will have an opportunity to decide whether to be the person that looks away, laughs a lot, or the person that steps in. It is about saying that everyone has the opportunity to be part of this change, and we need everybody on-board.
ZT: What are the best ways of engaging men and boys in discussions around gender-based violence?
LB: There are a variety of ways. I have found using social media very successful as you can reach out to people who wouldn’t necessarily reach out and engage with these conversations. Real experiences start coming up in News Feeds who wouldn’t have been aware of the project before and this penetrates people’s consciousness. There is also a negative impact of gender stereotypes on men and boys too that often gets overlooked. As an example, I hear from men who are denied parental leave and ridiculed for asking for it in the office. We need to start working on outdated gender stereotypes about men and women’s roles.
ZT: What are the issues that women face in talking to men about gender-based violence?
LB: It can be very difficult, as there has historically been a risk of blame, disbelief, dismissal. People shouldn’t feel pressured to talk about things they are unable or don’t want to talk about, but when we are able to have open conversations, common misconceptions can be start being dispelled.
ZT: What do you think is the biggest myth around rape culture that needs to be dispelled?
LB: This is difficult to pinpoint as there are unfortunately so many. The one that I come across very frequently is idea that a rapist is a stranger down a dark alleyway – this is far removed from a rapist that could be your partner. This myth also plays into other myths, like a short skirt is somehow putting women in danger – rather than deliberate act perpetrated by someone they know.
ZT: What are the issues around gender-based violence that you see the most in the Everyday Sexism Project?
LB: What I find the most apparent is how wide the spectrum is, there is no single issue that comes up more than others and shows how widespread the problem is, how many people experience it, how connected it is. You can’t just say this is the issue of rape over here and this harassment issue is over here, and the under-representation of women in politics and in the media is way over here… Inevitably, they all feed into each other. How can we address representation of women in politics if we don’t tackle the media that talks about the ‘catwalk’ of Downing Street when women are promoted to the Cabinet.
ZT: What backlash has Everyday Sexism received?
LB: I get a lot of rape and death threats as the owner of project, but I’m lucky to have a good support system – I worry about others that don’t, particularly younger women who don’t necessarily have this in place, as their voices could be silenced.
ZT: So what is next for Everyday Sexism?
LB: We now have a great opportunity to move to the next step – concrete action and change. We have been looking at the stories that we have collected to create change. Ones about young people are being used by a theatre company to create people’s theatre on consent that tours around schools in the UK. Ones about women in the workplace are being put in front of politicians. And then ones on women and harassment on public transport are being used by the Transport Police to help them with their campaigns and awareness. We have seen that reporting has increased by 30% on London Underground thanks to this collaboration so it’s a work in progress!