Book Review: Everyday Sexism, by Laura Bates

51ozou3RzmL__SX346_BO1,204,203,200_When I picked this book off the shelf I knew it was going to be the most important read of the year for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. My thoughts below are what came out of reading Everyday Sexism, and the only thing I would have to say that would be anything close to ‘bad’ about it is that it carries a heavy possibility of triggering emotional distress. For that reason alone I would say read with caution, or have a self-care plan set in place while you’re reading so you can set it aside. Have a trusted friend or loved one close at hand to either call or get hugs from. It’s a rough ride, but it’s worth it. I give it five out of five stars.

Read on for my response to it.

 

Demystifying Feminism

For a while, every time I would hear the word feminism I would feel exasperated and a little wary. I am a female, and feminism to me had become almost a bad word. I didn’t really examine why except to know that it seemed to me like a lot of women were taking feminism to an extreme that I didn’t want to be associated with.

About a month ago I finished reading the book Everyday Sexism. It’s written by a woman that had finally simply had enough and so began a project online and on Twitter for women to share their stories of the sexism they experience. Even as I began to read the book I thought, ‘I think I’m just really lucky that I haven’t ever experienced the things that these women are writing in about. I’ve been so lucky to avoid sexism.’ I was only a few pages in when a memory popped into my mind and I thought, ‘oh yeah, that happened. I guess that was definitely sexism.’ Another page turned and suddenly I had four different instances in which I had experienced sexism myself. By the time I was a quarter of the way through the book I had half a dozen.

Everyday Sexism did what the word Feminism could not: It opened my eyes to an inequality I already knew existed, but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around. Now, when I hear the word feminism I think – that’s me. I am a feminist. I am a feminist because I want men and women to be equal. I want everyone to be equal. Like many things that we do and say and follow, there are always those that take that thing to the extreme. I think that is where I had been at with feminism – only witness to the extreme. It occurred to me that I also had to examine other prejudices within myself – prejudices against women, based on past experiences.

My mother left us when I was 15. Her reasons were her own and as an adult I hold no resentment toward her. Even as a teenager I remember feeling relieved that she was leaving so there wouldn’t be any more arguing in the house. But also as a teenager I got to see my dad struggle as a single father to take care of his kids. There are many programs to help single women, but almost none (at least at the time, I’m not sure about it now) to help take care of single fathers. As much as I love my mother, there’s no doubt that my father is the most important person in my life and watching him go through this struck a chord in me that definitely tilted my world view.

Move ahead to my young adult years, when I was seeing physicians – several times I had to see physicians at clinics like Planned Parenthood because I didn’t have insurance through an employer, and I didn’t even know about Medicaid so wouldn’t have even understood how to see if I could apply. None of my experiences with the female doctors in those clinics were positive. From my very first experience, in which the woman proceeded to lecture me about how I wouldn’t get razor burn if I didn’t shave all my hair at my groin, to my last experience in which when I asked about safe sex for female partners with other female partners, the woman told me, “well, nuns don’t get STDs.”   Now, a lot of this could be explained away that this happened in red state Idaho and conservative eastern Washington, respectively, but I had other experiences with female doctors in places I consider much more liberal in which the woman either didn’t listen to me, or talked to me as if I were stupid and just didn’t understand what my body is doing. Combining that with the only other experiences I had with male doctors, experiences in which I was almost always treated with respect, dignity, and kindness, almost fatherly affection (I say almost because I only ever had one male doctor treat me poorly), it’s no wonder that I began to view women less favorably.

Then, looking at the things I have seen on the internet, in which women crying feminism are also crying for death of men, etc., I started to hate that word. Reading Everyday Sexism made me feel a kinship with the word feminism in a way I’ve never felt before. It erased the automatic unease I felt upon hearing the word and instead made me feel a fire to act, to do something more. The women crying feminism and death to men in the same sentence are the extremists. There are always extremists, and like all extremists they give the thing that everyone else is fighting for a bad name. It is my personal responsibility to see past the extremism of anything and really do my due diligence to find out what that thing is about. I feel a little sad that it’s taken me this long to get a sense for what it’s really about.

Feminism = equality for men AND women. It’s that simple.

 

Facing the Sexism

Reading the book also forced me to really look at the different examples of sexism that have happened in my own life. Sexism for me, was not like feminism. I knew full well it happened and it happened to nearly every woman out there. I knew it because I’m afraid to walk alone in the dark. I knew it because I know my chances of getting mugged, raped, murdered are higher than my fiancé’s. But, I thought, I’ve been so lucky to not experience much of it – at least in my adult life. And that’s somewhat true, but sexism starts young. It starts in the colors of boys’ and girls’ clothes, their toys, and continues from there.

It’s the cat calls. The ‘hey baby, need a man?’ questions. The subtle and not-so-subtle stares that drive terror into the heart of every woman and makes them ask themselves, “is today the day I get raped?” Or worse, “is today the day I get raped again?” Oh, but that hasn’t happened to me, I thought.

As I mentioned earlier, though, it only took me a few pages to start remembering things that did happen. Just touching on the surface items that have happened in my life, because I don’t feel like talking about anything else, it was clear to see I was not victimless.

  • As a young girl, getting teased by boys for being ‘flat chested’.
  • Walking down the street with friends and getting cat called.
  • Being the only one in a group of friends to stop some boys from pulling off my best friend’s swim suit top.
  • Getting called a cherry popper in 7th grade by two boys on skateboards, only to have one of them point out, “dude, that was a girl, not a boy,” and hear them laugh at how ugly I was.

And that was just it for most of my young pre-teen and teen years. I didn’t think things really happened to me because I was the ‘ugly one’, but they were happening to me all along, regardless of whatever my perceptions of my looks were.

Jumping ahead to my first relationship: my boyfriend not stopping intercourse because he was “almost done”, even though I was in an intense amount of pain. I should have pushed him off me, but instead I grit my teeth and dealt with it because it seemed rude not to. It begs the question now – did he rape me, then? I had said no and he didn’t stop. More like begged and coaxed me not to stop. Rape still feels like such a strong word for that situation, but based on everything I know now, the answer feels like it might be yes. The fact that even now I still try to explain it away, still try to make excuses in his favor angers me. I remember how upset I was and the feeling of betrayal that he didn’t listen to me. I later found out that I had a cyst on an ovary the size of a softball – no wonder it hurt! The relationship did not last much longer after that, for which I can only be thankful.

Jumping ahead yet still to a time when I thought a man that was quite a bit older than me was quirky and cute. I was an adult in my twenties, so I had no problem with his age. I wanted to hang out with him and get to know him. It quickly became evident that he came on too strong and had a problem with alcohol that I was not willing to be a part of, so I called off any shot at a relationship and insisted we just be friends. Then started the harassment. The name calling through emails and left voicemails. I found myself wondering, because he knew what bus I took to get home, if he would follow me home. Would he hurt my dad, who I was living with at the time? Even as worried as I was, I was too afraid to tell my dad – someone with law enforcement experience that could have helped me spot signs of him, could have very well taken care of the issue – too ashamed to admit that I had been interested in a man so much older than me, despite the 18 year difference between my own parents. I’m more ashamed now that I never spoke up. And the harassment didn’t stop there. He stalked me through email and phone for years. Oh, it eventually tapered off. I’d get a drunk email or a voicemail that ranged from pining and lamenting that we had never been able to get together to calling me all kinds of foul names for ‘leading him on.’ Strange. It was always my understanding, of course, that “no, I’m not interested in a relationship with you,” was the furthest thing from leading a person on, but gee, I guess I was wrong. His last phone call to me was the first year I moved into my house with my fiancé and our roommates, just six years ago. The stalking had been going on for almost three years. I pretended I was someone else and told him he had the wrong number and I never heard from him again. It’s sad, and scary, and a little bit funny that all he had to do was call it again when I wasn’t around to answer and he’d know I lied based on my voicemail greeting. I’m glad that he didn’t bother.

 

But those were all small incidents, I thought. I’m pretty lucky. I haven’t had to deal with a handsy boss and worry about getting fired for complaining. I’m comfortable around males and other than those few incidents, I’ve not had to deal with sexism in recent years from a personal perspective. And then the final recollection hit me. And it wasn’t a “big” thing, nothing really. I was in a tire shop waiting in line and an old man was behind me. He made some comment about babies because I was watching a baby that someone else was carrying and interacting with it. I gave him my usual response of, “no babies for me, I’m afraid. Not interested.” And he gave back the typical response I always receive of, “don’t worry you’ll change your mind.” As if everyone else knows my mind better than I do. As if my decision whether or not to bear children has anything to do with them in the first place. But that’s a different thought to follow altogether. Then, calm as you please, as I’m looking forward I feel hands on my shoulders start to rub/massage me. Reading through Everyday Sexism I kept finding myself thinking, “if that had happened to me, I would have done this or that. I would say this or that and I would shout and scream,” but the cold hard fact is that I froze. Was this really happening? Was this total stranger rubbing my shoulders, without my permission, without asking, without saying a fucking word?! I didn’t know what the hell to do. I was stuck in a complete state of shock and disbelief. And then, quick as it started, it stopped and the man left. No one had said a word to him. Not me, not anyone in the reception that had seen it – and they had seen it. As I looked around to see if anyone had seen, my eyes caught another woman sitting at a table with wide eyed disbelief and she stared back at me, both of us sharing the same look, the same thought – I could feel it radiating through her the same as it was through me – both of our bodies shouting that what had just happened was wrong, but what could we do about it?!

“That was weird,” she said.

“That was very weird,” I replied.

That was weird.

That was weird.

Is that really the only thing we could say or do to sum up the blatant disregard and disrespect of my own person? But it was nothing, I argued away. It was nothing compared to what some women go through. Some women have had it so much worse.

And that is the cold, hard fact of sexism. It is insidious. And it is so commonplace that we can write most of it off as ‘not that bad’ or ‘gee, I’m so lucky that I wasn’t raped’. Having read this book, it occurs to me now that every instance is a “big deal”. Every tiny, whispered comment that crawls in the cracks of who we are and makes us doubt ourselves, every cat call, every leer, every misogynist bumper sticker is a big deal.

And it has got. To. Stop.

I will always be grateful that I read this book. I want everyone I know to read it. I want every young man and woman to read it. I want to do more to educate people, to do more to help stop it, and I’m looking forward to future endeavors to get myself involved. And hopefully, just hopefully, this own personal entry of mine will do a little something to help as well.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about the Everyday Sexism project, you can visit her website here: http://everydaysexism.com/

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