You know how it is. You’re a senior manager, but are always the one asked to prepare coffee and refreshments for the meetings. You’re riding a crowded train to work, and a hand grabs you from behind. You turn down an approach from a stranger at a bar and get verbally abused. You tell your partner you don’t want to have sex but end up having sex anyway.
Well, you might know if you were a woman. But even when you are a target of sexist behaviour, you don’t know if your experiences are shared by others. You might rationalise the incident – my skirt was rather short, perhaps I should just take it as a complement. Being a target of sexism can be a lonely experience, and seeds of doubt can quickly grow. It wasn’t right, but maybe it was my fault.
The Everyday Sexism Project (ESP) challenges this doubt. Started in the UK in 2012 by feminist writer Laura Bates, women are now sharing their experiences in 20 countries around the world. Taken together, the stories paint a picture of societies where sexist behaviour has become normalised, commonplace and shameless.
Violence and passive bystanders
“I’ve never been assaulted, but I’ve been groped by men who won’t take no for an answer,” explains Helena Hansen, a board member of the Danish Women’s Society and one of the initiators of the Danish branch of ESP.
“Once, when I was out having a beer with a friend, a man standing next to us in the bar got annoyed when she turned down his advances. He then pushed my friend and when I tried to calm the situation, he grabbed and almost broke my wrist, but no one did anything about it. No one intervened, not even the barkeeper. We felt as if we might had done something wrong, because we stood up for ourselves. It showed us that this kind of violence was acceptable because he got rejected, which is scary.”
Hansen sits beside Irene Manteufel, spokesperson for ESP Denmark, who opens up about a similar experience as a teenager.
“A man sat on my lap and when I pushed him away, he punched me in the face and called me a slut. I didn’t report the incident and no one intervened, even though I was in shock. I just thought it was a normal part of going out.”
Since ESP Denmark went online in November last year, hundreds of Danish women have shared similar experiences. The stories run the gamut from overhearing men making derogatory statements about women to unprovoked physical violence and abuse.
Hansen and Manteufel explain that the stories contain many similarities, and that harassers tend to use the same set of disparaging terms when verbally assaulting women.
But another common thread is the sense of shame that women feel when they are subjected to the abuse, and the sense that somehow they invited the unwelcome attention.
“Many contributors say they experience relief by having the opportunity to talk. We know that women practice unconscious survival strategies. They rewrite the encounter in their mind, making excuses for the harasser’s behaviour. What’s striking is the amount of energy women spend doing this,” Manteufel says.
Rape victims in the shadows
The anecdotal evidence of normalised sexism presented by ESP is backed up by statistics. A 2014 study by FRA, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, found that half of Danish women over the age of 16 had experienced either threats or physical or sexual violence.
The EU statistics agency Eurostat also found that rates of violent crime against women increased in Denmark between 2003 and 2009.
Last December, the statistics agency Danmarks Statistik reported a drop in the number of reported rapes, but their numbers were met with immediate scepticism by the Center for Victims of Sexual Assault at the Copenhagen hospital Rigshospitalet. They reported no drop in the number of women seeking help, but registered an increase in the number of women whose rape allegations were rejected by police – up from 2 to 6.6 percent from the previous four years.
Hansen explains that police often ask women who report rape about what they had been wearing, whether they knew the assailant, and if they had been drinking.
“People don’t get raped because of these circumstances. Rape only happens because of rapists. There’s this myth of the ‘perfect rape’ in which the victim is a totally innocent and pure figure, who is then attacked on a sunny day by a man jumping out from behind some bushes. But many rape victims know the people who attacked them, they might be an ex or a friend – so not all rapes are assault rapes.”
This line of questioning demonstrates how pervasive sexism is, argues Manteufel, and that there is a need to change how rape cases are investigated and prosecuted.
“Rape is highly underreported, and one reason is because of the way victims are dealt with. The police won’t pursue cases if it cannot be proved that the alleged assailant didn’t know that the victim didn’t want sex. As long as the rapist can cast enough doubt, the case won’t be pursued. Rape is the only crime where you question a victim in this way, and it’s because of entrenched, subconscious sexist structures within the police.”
A misunderstood movement
This year, an anti-feminist Facebook website exploded in popularity. Women Against Feminism shows images of women holding signs which, for example, proclaim: “I’m not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man hater!”
Pages like these are representative of a pushback against feminism gaining steam online. Some argue that feminism belittles women who enjoy traditional roles, while others argue that gender equality has long been accomplished.
Hansen seems exasperated when the issue is raised.
“There’s this misconception that we already have gender equality, so what’s the fuss about?” explains Hansen. “We have a female prime minister, and women are taking top jobs. But many cultural and gender obstacles remain. We still have an 18 percent pay gap and low representation in corporate board rooms, while thousands experience domestic abuse. Despite this, people say we have equality under the law, so that’s all that matters. They think it’s our own problem, that we’re just being uptight.”
The Everyday Sexism project reveals that gender discrimination is deeply embedded in both institutions and individuals. Hansen and Manteufel argue that the only way to counter it is to make it as unacceptable as racism.
“Our goal is cultural change, but we don’t know all the steps. First comes awareness and recognising that it is a pervasive, and not an individual problem. Then we need to change our behaviour and language and decide on an acceptable way to talk about each other and these issues,” Hansen says.
“The language we use affects how we see things. When a man murders his wife and it’s called a crime of passion or a family tragedy, it diminishes the criminality of the act.”
While the long-term mission of changing societal attitudes gathers momentum, in the short term, Hansen wants women to feel that it is OK to admit to being the target of sexism or sexual abuse. Only then can they find the support they need – support that it is ESP’s core mission to provide.
“We need to start a new discussion, that it’s ok to be a victim.” M