Laura Bates can string together more complex sentences bearing more factual data and incisive arguments with more speed and eloquence than any other public speaker I have ever heard. The Coleridge Lecture, Jenny Lacey assured us, isn’t really a lecture, but it’s plain that Bates would have no difficulty in speaking uninterrupted for forty-five minutes without having to prepare – and it wouldn’t be boring in the least. This is only partly due to her skill as a speaker; it’s also because there is simply so much to say on the theme of her new book, Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism. Her eloquence may be innate, but the remarkable facility with facts speaks of a constant and total involvement in her subject matter, as well as a fine mind. One suspects that if she were Chancellor of the Exchequer – a post no woman has yet taken – she wouldn’t fluff a figure by £20bn.
Bates is known for the Everyday Sexism Project which she founded in 2012: a website providing a platform for people to share their stories, from sexual harassment to airlines putting a husband’s name first on the itinerary even when the wife has paid for the flights. The intention was to make sexism visible again ‘in a modern society that perceives itself to have achieved gender equality’; she had no idea just how much visibility it would achieve. Hundreds of thousands have contributed, and Bates herself is now a public figure appearing regularly on television and radio, at festivals (this one for the third time), schools and in print.
Of course the (present incarnation of the) #MeToo movement had to be tabled for discussion this year. There’s no doubt that the Everyday Sexism Project had already been making waves – was instrumental, in fact, in swelling this latest wave of feminism – but there’s been a great shift since the Weinstein scandal broke. The same people who previously dismissed Bates’s statistics on workplace harassment are now calling her up to tell her how shocking the statistics on workplace harassment are, and would she like to comment? No, actually, she wouldn’t.
She’s also been inundated with requests to appear on shows and panels to debate whether #MeToo has ‘gone too far’.
It’s clear what Bates thinks of that suggestion. She sees #MeToo, much like the Everyday Sexism Project, as having a very similar function to ‘the old consciousness-raising groups’ of the 1960s that feminists adopted from the Civil Rights Movement: far from being a persecutory man-hunt, it serves to shed light on the scale of the problem, to reveal that it is a pattern, to create solidarity and facilitate resistance. She thinks that Tarana Burke, who founded the movement way back in 2006 with an original focus on black and brown women, who for was for years ‘chipping away at the coal face’ uncelebrated, has been ‘very gracious’ about the adoption of her coinage and the redirection of her vision. Although Burke is increasingly being recognised as founder, the media rarely refer to her as a leader still very much at large. As Bates rather dryly puts it, it wasn’t until ‘rich, white, beautiful’ women in Hollywood started using the hashtag that it began to be taken seriously in the mainstream media – and it is the rich white beautiful stories of the famous that tend to be validated by those who would limit the reach of the movement to the likes of Weinstein.
She swiftly despatches the common notion that feminism now equates a hand on the knee with rape: to say that they are on a continuum is not to say that are equally reprehensible. When it comes to other issues, she points out, we are perfectly able to hold a range of severities in mind without the terror that the continuum will collapse into a single value. Why not when it comes to male sexual misconduct? Because this argument is ‘a good method of silencing’ women, she says. No, the real problem is not that women are too quick to label trifles as harassment, assault, or rape; it’s that all-too-often they are hesitant to name these crimes at all. The Everyday Sexism Project documents countless stories of women who didn’t know that what they’d experienced would be classified under the law as harassment, assault or rape.
In other words, the law goes much further than most women do in their minds, let alone the criminal justice system; #MeToo is doing no more than starting to bring public awareness up to speed with legislation. ‘And of course it terrifies people who want to protect the status quo,’ says Bates.
Bates just as adeptly cut down the suggestion that men now are terribly confused and intimidated and really don’t know what’s allowed anymore (interviewer Jenny Lacey knew just which questions to ask). The idea that feminism would do away with or even criminalise flirting and compliments is ‘disingenuous’ and ‘a red herring’. The whole point is that flirting and harassment are not the same thing: one is a reciprocal engagement, the other is not. And ‘the vast majority of people know the difference,’ she says – even men.
Take street harassment: one often hears that feminists think cat-calls and wolf-whistles are assault. ‘If a man were to wolf-whistle you in the street, or flirt with you at a bar, would you feel you’d been sexually assaulted?’ Melanie Phillips asked Bates on the BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze episode ‘Moral Complicity’ broadcast 18 October 2017. It’s a wilful misconstruction that serves very nicely to trivialise; a low shot, and wide of the mark. Bates simply parried this bit irrationality with fact, reminding Phillips of the legal definition of sexual assault, which involves sexual contact without consent. No feminist is arguing that a whistle is sexual assault, only that it may be part of the culture of normalised sexual harassment, as is a phrase like ‘look at the tits on that’.
It’s one thing to compliment or try to engage a woman who catches your eye and smiles at you; it’s another to ‘force your opinion of her body’ upon a woman who is walking along thinking of other things. The latter is about access, entitlement and power: it demonstrates a lack of respect for female privacy and boundaries – the kind of respect that men tend to accord one another unless they are angling for a fight – and it is in this sense that it is on a continuum with behaviours such as sexual assault and rape. No feminist is suggesting a man be put behind bars for a single wolf-whistle; turning the conversation about sexual assault around to wolf-whistling in this way is only ever an attempt at derailing it.
Meanwhile, the point of the conversation on behaviours like wolf-whistling is to raise awareness of the attitudes they reveal, and to demand that they change. The fact that ‘it starts when you’re seven or eight years old: there’s nothing “lovely” or “harmless” about that,’ says Bates. When schoolgirls describe it as ‘“normal”’ to have grown men rubbing their erections up against them as they’re on the way to school, in uniform, how can we think that this conversation has ‘gone too far’? We still have to ‘join up the dots’, says Bates, which is something anti-feminist discourse tries actively to prevent us from doing.
Bates is hot on her intersectionality – I was gratified to hear her mention age (often forgotten) as well as race, class, ability, sexual orientation and gender identity as factors that can aggravate misogyny. Asked by an audience member what her stance was on trans activism and feminism, she described the current state of the online debate, which has ‘become very aggressive and polarised’ as ‘very sad.’ She sees no reason that trans people should be excluded from feminism or women’s bathrooms, but equally thinks that ‘TERF’ – an acronym increasingly used to brand as bigoted any woman seen as dissenting, for instance for emphasising sex rather than gender – is ‘not a helpful term.’ She thinks there has to be more ‘middle ground’ from which we can ‘support’ different groups.
We’re so anxious about ‘getting it right,’ she says: about not spoiling the #MeToo opportunity by making the case too stridently, or not stridently enough; about covering every possible form of oppression at once… but this is just another function of the sexist double standard that requires women to be impossibly perfect. The 79-year-old feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe told Bates in November that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be hobbled by the anxieties that come along with impossible standards: the wrinkles in our new wave will iron themselves out.