I follow @EverydaySexism on Twitter, of course, although it makes for such depressing reading that I have been tempted to un-follow. Earlier in the week, I dipped into the book, didn’t feel the need to buy it because I think I’m fairly familiar with Laura Bates’ arguments by now, compelling as they are. I admit to being confused. The stream of harassment, catcalling, degradation, assault, misogyny that many women experience day to day (and that is the strength of the Twitter feed, it captures the thousands of incidents that are part of ordinary life for so many women) is not my experience. Reading Lucy Kellaway’s interview with Laura Bates helpfully crystallized my own confusion for me.
Of course, in the bad old days, I got my share of comments from builders or blokes who wouldn’t accept ‘No’ as answer in a bar. I’ve used the ‘I already have a boyfriend’ line to get someone to leave me alone. We all did. I’ve said, straight faced and looking them in the eye, ‘I don’t have a phone’, to avoid giving out my number. I’ve sat on a night bus, listening to a couple of hee-larious drunk guys saying to my boyfriend ‘Oi, mate, your bird’s a bloke’, because I had very short hair. That last comment, if you think about it, achieves multiple layers of sexism in six short words, which would be an admirable brevity of levels of insult if it had been achieved consciously.
Who hasn’t been told by a complete stranger to ‘Smile, luv, it might never happen’, or been casually touched up in a nightclub?
But it’s all different now, and I don’t miss those days. I like being able to appear in public in exercise gear without generating comment. I don’t have to worry about getting my car repaired, or being taken seriously at work. People don’t look past me to the male who must be in charge, and I can eat dinner out on my own without interruption. I don’t even get grief about not having children, possibly because I am so robustly unapologetic about it. (‘Do you have children?’ ‘Dear gods no, I don’t like children. I like peace, quiet and disposable income.’) I don’t think that this general lack of hassle is age kicking in just yet, although I do look forward with interest to experiencing the well-documented invisibility of the older woman.
And yet… There’s the conversation I had with a colleague a few years ago, in which we agreed that if exhibiting the behaviors that make you effective at work got you labelled a bitch, so be it. There’s the effort I put into finding clothes that are appropriate for work: smart, stylish but not sexy, as though any unwitting effect my appearance might have is my responsibility. A recommendation for a good pub was expressed as ‘If you want to get him to take you out somewhere nice for dinner…’
This is mild stuff to navigate indeed, not at all the deep waters that young women in particular seem to be facing. What I don’t understand is why what looked like progress is moving backwards. But it does seem to me that the Everyday Sexism Project is throwing out a useful lifeline.