LONDON – When Laura Bates was followed home one night by a man from her bus, she didn't think much of it. Incidents like that just seemed to be part of living in London.
But the writer said several other similar situations followed within days: One stranger shouted obscenities at her out of a car window. Another propositioned her forcefully in a cafe. A third groped her on the bus, and commuters looked away when she spoke up. She was startled not so much by the incidents — but how accustomed she had become to brushing such behavior aside and not taking action.
"I started talking to other women, and I couldn't believe how many stories they had. I think many of us just think 'maybe I'm unlucky,'" said Bates, 27, in an interview. "Just like me, so many of them said 'until you asked me, I've never talked to anyone about this.'"
Those conversations triggered the birth of the Everyday Sexism project, a website that Bates set up for women to share their experiences of sexism and harassment in their daily lives — in the office, on the train, in school or on the street. Two years on, what started as a simple idea has become a movement that is steadily gaining momentum, galvanizing support from politicians, police and thousands of women and men from Britain and beyond.
The project has collected 70,000 posts from some 20 countries, describing a wide range of unwelcome behavior and offenses from a colleague's casual comment to unreported rapes. Many tell of assault, threats of violence and verbal abuse in public places. Others report seemingly innocuous behavior and comments: One woman tells how a sales assistant handed back her change to her male friend, after she had paid for the goods.
Some are disturbing because those posting are so young: A 12-year-old wrote to tell how she was told to "get back in the kitchen" by her male classmates when she raised her hand to say something, and numerous preteens say they are harassed daily by men who shout at or touch them on the way to school.
The outpouring on Bates' website, and the attention it has garnered, has translated into some successes offline. Bates has addressed a United Nations-hosted forum and worked with British politicians, schools and businesses, and she and other activist groups have collaborated with British Transport Police to help reduce sexual assault and unwanted sexual behavior on subway trains and buses.
"The greatest problem is a high degree of underreporting," said Inspector Ricky Twyford, who oversees the force's awareness campaign. That has improved in the past year or so, he said. "Definitely there has been a shift in the confidence and awareness of people who either experienced or witnessed it to come forward."
The force says reporting rates have increased by 36 percent, while arrests were up 22 percent compared to the year before.
Bates said she was surprised that despite perceived equality in the workplace, sexism in the office remains the most commonly voiced concern on her website.
"There were men in their office printing off pictures of female applicants and rating them out of ten. Other women say their colleagues went to strip clubs at lunch time with clients and they just missed out on these deals," she said. Many such incidents go unreported largely because women are afraid of losing their jobs, she said.
The popularity of social media has been key in sparking interest and debate in women's rights campaigns like Bates'. When a disturbed young man who had professed hostility to women went on a shooting rampage in California in May, hundreds of thousands of women worldwide turned to Twitter to reflect on the misogyny they experience in their own daily lives, using the hashtag YesAllWomen.
Bates said the online community has encouraged women to speak out against sexism even if they have been ridiculed or told "not to make a fuss about it" elsewhere.
"That doesn't work anymore because suddenly 50,000 people are saying the same thing. The social media age has enabled a sort of collective action and made people feel courageous," she said.
Not all the reactions have been positive. Critics have argued that the focus is too trivial and distract from more important women's issues. Others say some of the behavior described in the entries does not count as sexism, or claim the women are being overly sensitive.
Bates has plans to expand the project's reach to places from Mexico to Serbia to India, and says there is still much to be done at home. Sexualized images of women are still everywhere, she said, a major influence on how women are treated from day to day. This week, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced a government shakeup to promote more women to the Cabinet, British tabloids chose to focus on what the female politicians wore and how they styled their hair.
"People say sexism doesn't exist anymore," Bates said. "But it really is one of those things where once you see it, you can't stop seeing it all around you."
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