As USI release their report on harassment, sexual violence and assault on Irish campuses, and the Everyday Sexism Project celebrates a million page hits, Aoife Valentine takes a look at the issues of sexism towards and harassment of female students
Ever since Cambridge graduate Laura Bates decided to tackle the issue of sexism at basic levels, it seems as if the issue hasn’t been out of the media spotlight or our Twitter timelines. Though sexism in day-to-day life has always been an issue for women, it has been one that wasn’t often spoken about. Complaints were, and still are, dismissed as overreactions, and instances so commonplace that they had become the norm.
Less than a year and a half ago, Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project, a website where women could submit stories of their experiences of sexism, with the aim being to raise awareness of how routine these instances were, and how much of a problem it still was, and indeed is.
Having experienced multiple instances of street harassment in one week, Bates recognised that she herself hadn’t been acknowledging the issue. “It really just shocked me because I had this sudden realisation that if they hadn’t all happened in the same week, I never would have thought twice about any one of those incidents. I just realised how many things I was dealing with and just putting up with, because it was normal and part of life and part of being a woman.”
Upon speaking to other women about this, Bates realised she was not the only one turning a blind eye. Since April 2012, the site has collected over 50,000 stories of everyday sexism and has racked up over a million page hits. Searching the #everydaysexism hashtag on Twitter will bring you up more than 100 new tweets every day, chronicling women’s experiences of sexism, most notably, street harassment.
Though the site began in the UK, it has since expanded into 18 different countries. “It just goes to show how huge an issue this still is and how much people want and need to address it. Every woman has a story,” says Bates on the expansion. This is true of Ireland, and particularly noticeable on campuses and among the student demographic.
Last week, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) released the results of their Say Something survey on students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault. It concluded that on campuses in Ireland, 31% of women had experienced someone making comments with a sexual overtone that made them feel uncomfortable across three areas including in a learning environment, in the Students’ Union or SU bar, and in other areas of campus.
The figures were similar when it came to wolf-whistles or catcalls with a sexual overtone, with 5% experiencing this in class, 15% in the SU or bar and over a quarter of respondents recorded experiencing this kind of behavior in other areas of their campuses.
Though not specific to experiences on campuses, one in five of those surveyed reported having undergone unwanted sexual experiences, including sexual intercourse, assault, sexual contact and attempted sexual intercourse. When you single out unwanted sexual contact, 11% of respondents noted they had been subjected to this behaviour, which included kissing, touching and molesting through clothes.
This is somewhat unsurprising when you consider the social norms in bars and clubs. A post-graduate film student from Trinity College, Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin, summed up the culture, saying, “There’s a really bad problem in Dublin nightclubs where just being there is taken as consent to do anything to you.
“You can go to a nightclub and it’s just taken as a given that you’re consenting to being groped, or in anyway approached, purely because of your presence. It goes beyond what you’re wearing or beyond whatever vibe you’re giving off to people.”
UCD Students’ Union Gender Equality Coordinator, Rebekah McKinney-Perry, sounds almost despondent when considering her own experiences. “Where to start? I was out last Saturday for a friend’s birthday and in the bar, a man thought it would be totally fine to grab at me and call me ‘sugar tits’ and tell me how great my breasts were. Sadly, this is not out of the ordinary; it has become so normalised that no one else around me said anything to him.”
Outside bars and clubs, the problem doesn’t disappear. DCU student, Valerie Loftus, explains: “A friend was walking down O’Connell Street, when a couple of lads came up to her. They slapped her arse and then ran away. She was with a boy at the time so it was even worse that they just thought there were no boundaries.
“She was really upset because she just thought that if she couldn’t walk down the street even with another person without getting touched or harassed, where could she go? Myself, I’ve gotten called at from cars, beeped at, but you stop noticing, because it happens so much.”
One of the most shocking things Bates reports is the amount of stories coming in from very young people experiencing this kind of harassment. “I’ve spoken to a lot of really young girls for the project. By the age of 15/16, it’s completely normal to them that part of their journey to school is a guy sitting next to them on the Tube and pressing up too close or stroking their legs even though they’re in their school uniform. And if that happens to you when you’re 11 or 12 and you’re too scared to do anything and you don’t know what’s going on, then, by the time you’re 18, 19, 30 or 40, it’s just part of life,” she says.
The recurring theme at the end of every report of these incidents is the dismissal of it. This is something that was reflected in the findings of the Say Something survey, which found that in cases of unwanted sexual experiences, 57% of those surveyed did not believe the incident was serious enough to report and 29% felt too ashamed or embarrassed to report it.
Though those statistics take into account those reporting rape and sexual assault as well as sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact, it is telling that the main reason for not reporting these incidents is not taking it seriously enough.
The overwhelming response from those who do report, or even question these behaviours, is to stop taking it so seriously. Over time, this then becomes normalised and as Bates noted in the beginning, something you turn a blind eye to.
Ní Chiaragáin says, “From very early on, you’re taught to shrug these things off and not to make a scene out of it. There’s always, especially in our peer group, the excuse that it’s ‘just a bit of banter’, so if you are to speak up against it, you just seem like you’ve got no sense of humour and you’re ruining the craic, which is hugely unfair, because if you feel uncomfortable with something someone is saying or doing, you’ve every right to voice that and to have people listen.”
McKinney-Perry echoes these sentiments when she says, “We are encouraged to embrace this as banter and it’s not just men making these jokes any more, women make them too, which is probably more worrying and, to a certain extent, upsetting.” And while advocating for women to speak out, or “shout back”, Bates does admit that: “You feel like if you challenged every instance of it, you’d never get anything done.
While it’s true that women can be sexist against other women, it is also true that not every man harasses women on the street. Part of encouraging women to speak out against everyday sexism for Bates, has been opening people’s eyes to the fact that it is an issue, something she has found many men didn’t realise.
She explains, “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of emails and thousands of tweets from men saying you’ve really opened my eyes; I had no idea that this was such a big problem. Men saying how sorry they are; men saying that they’ve got baby daughters and they don’t want them to grow up in a world like this
“Men are more likely to step in and be an active rather than passive bystander or an influence on their male peers because the Project has opened their eyes to something that through no fault of their own really, they just weren’t aware of before.”
It is difficult, however, not to notice some of the blatant sexism that exists on university campuses themselves. Events that are routinely run in UCD include ‘Rappers and Slappers’ and ‘Stockbrokers and Secretaries’, something that is repeated in universities around the country, and indeed in the UK.
The issue of sexism in education and universities really came to the fore during Freshers’ Week last year for the Everyday Sexism Project. “We suddenly became deluged with thousands of entries from young women who were in their first week at university, away from home feeling vulnerable and being confronted with whole ranges of events with titles like ‘Pimps and Hoes’, ‘Golf Pros and Tennis Hoes’, ‘Rappers and Slappers’,” explains Bates.
“All of these events where it seemed like the women were slags, sluts, wenches, whores, and where there was a pressure for the girls to always be dressing up in a very specific way, when the fancy dress for the boys always was dressing up in a fun way. This isn’t about saying that’s bad, or women shouldn’t dress however they want, it’s about the pressure and the fact that that seemed to be a strong, recurring theme.”
Even outside of the social scene, the project has received consistent reports of sexism in learning environments. “We’ve heard about a lot of casual sexism, even during lectures, just making offhand sexual comments. Quite a lot of reports of lecturers and supervisors being inappropriate, sexually harassing or even assaulting students; it seems to be pretty widespread.”
This is something Loftus touches on when recounting her own experiences, saying “I was in a class and me and another girl were responsible for the design work that day. The lecturer came over to me and says: ‘Hm, it’s usually lads who do the design,’ and I was like ‘Well I do it, and I do it for the school paper as well, so I don’t understand why it’s an issue.’ I didn’t know why he felt like he had to point that out to me. It mostly is, but the way he pointed it out was almost in disbelief.”
It’s among the student demographic that online sexism seems most prominent. According to USI, just over 20% of students reported having experienced online harassment.
This is something Bates notes, with particular reference to Facebook pages: “There’s things like UniLAD, Confessions and Spotted pages where often largely female university students find their pictures posted, without their consent, with sexual comments on them.
“The idea of female students as sexual prey, as wenches to be pursued and graded out of ten and laughed at by the LAD Bible, it kind of just goes on and on. Right now, there’s this sort of lawless sense that anybody can simply terrorise, basically, any woman writing online and part of the normalisation of sexism and violence against women is that that is often not seen as a problem.”
Although this is an issue, it’s also online that women are finding the confidence to speak out about the problem, no doubt in part down to the Project. Bates says, “You shouldn’t underestimate the power that is given to women from that online community and from the ability to actually tell their story and have it heard, and have it not questioned but have it kind of validated by being listened to.
“There seems to be a real feeling of anger; a whole generation of young women are reaching adulthood or leaving university and looking at the world that they expected to be equal in and treat them equally, and finding that that simply isn’t the case and being really angry about that. They’re looking around and seeing what they can do about it.”
This is something Loftus feels is true, concluding: “Whatever shift in opinion there has been lately, people don’t seem to mind speaking out about their experiences as much.
“There’s been a real crackdown on that kind of Lad behaviour and Lad banter. I think people are drawing a line there and saying enough is enough. It’s not right and it’s not fair that women are the butt of the joke or that we can be treated this way because you think it’s funny. I think that that’s important.”