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“What I Would Like to See is More Bystanders Stepping in to Take Action”

The Everyday Sexism Project chronicles more than 80,000 instances of sexism around the world, and it’s making a big policy impact.

Illustration by Matt Chase

In April of 2012, Londoner Laura Bates decided to tell her story. After years of experiencing sexual harassment—getting followed home from the bus stop and aggressively propositioned by a stranger, getting groped on public transportation only to have her fellow passengers deny her mere existence when she asked for help, witnessing fellow actresses being treated like objects, and on one occasion getting asked to take her top off at an audition because producers had decided to "sex it up a bit”—the Cambridge graduate knew she could not and should not stay silent any longer.

“I had a sudden awakening after a period when I experienced several different incidents of harassment and groping,” Bates says, “and realized that if they hadn't all happened so close together I never would have thought twice about them, because they were so normal.” So she decided to put her experiences on blast globally and created the Everyday Sexism Project.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Realizing the scope of the problem, she felt compelled to do something about it, especially when she realized that all of their stories shared a common thread: when they dared speak out about sexism, ‘people said women were making a fuss about nothing.’[/quote]

The popular website is a platform for women (and men) around the world to report their experiences with sexism. Now home to more than 80,000 testimonies, the online community began after Bates asked other female acquaintances about their own stories of harassment and gender inequality and was astounded by how many responses she received. Realizing the scope of the problem, she felt compelled to do something about it, especially when she realized that all of their stories shared a common thread: when they dared speak out about sexism, “people said women were making a fuss about nothing.”

The Everyday Sexism site explains the project’s goal thusly: “Women in countries around the world are still waiting to achieve equality. They are underrepresented at nearly every level of political and economic power, they are marginalised and repressed, they experience gender-based violence and their voices are silenced. Every Day. This website simply exists to catalogue women’s experiences of gender imbalance at every level. From the most minor incidents to the most serious. To prove to the world how bad the problem is and just how many women it affects everyday. Please add your story, your mother’s story, your sister’s or your friend’s. Please tell others to add their stories too. And nobody will be able to stop us from talking about it any more.”

Men and women alike have taken to Bates’ movement, and it’s making a difference. In 2012, Everyday Sexism expanded into 18 countries. In May 2013, Facebook, as a direct result of the project’s #FBrape campaign, announced plans to change its policies on rape- and domestic violence-related content. In July 2013, the organization was selected as the subject of a documentary, #SHOUTINGBACK, which was played at Beyoncé’s Chime for Change concert and broadcast live to more than one billion viewers worldwide. Later that year, the British Transport Police used Everyday Sexism testimonies as examples to re-train 2,000 officers to better handle sexual harassment on public transportation. Thanks to the effort, reporting of these crimes has risen by over 20 percent. This spring, the U.K. and Danish governments organized an event about Everyday Sexism at the United Nations. In April 2014, Bates’ book, Everyday Sexism, was published by Simon and Schuster.

The stories chronicled on the Everyday Sexism website, Tumblr, and Twitter are all unique—from the DJ who grew to hate her job after relentless groping, to the transgender women facing extreme street harassment and physical abuse, to the man ridiculed at the office for taking paternity leave.

“The stories that shocked me most were the ones that came in, thick and fast, from children,” explains Bates. “Girls of 12 or 13 who described being groped on the tube in their school uniform. Girls of 14 who told me the pressure to be thin was so all-encompassing it left little time for schoolwork. Girls being harassed and shouted at in the playground. But also the stories from women in the workplace. A city worker who was asked to sit on her boss’ lap if she wanted her Christmas bonus. The Church of England reverend who was constantly being asked if there was a man available to perform the service.”

Raising awareness is, of course, only half the battle, albeit one that Everyday Sexism is in the process of dominating. The other half, concrete, real world change, is equally important. Bates and her partners regularly take their work offline to speak at schools, universities, and local businesses about awareness and policy reform. Their successes to date are no small feat, yet, the bulk of the work—the nitty-gritty of it all—is in the hands of the everyday bystander.

“What I would like to see is more bystanders stepping in to take action,” says Bates. “Send a loud, clear message that [sexism and sexual harassment] isn't acceptable or normal.”

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