Imagine a regular warm Friday night in Poznan. Imagine that you’re a young woman who goes out alone to meet her friends in the Old Town but she misses the bus. Now you can either wait half an hour for another one or walk. You choose the second option. You think that it will take only 15 minutes, the road is straight. But soon you regret this decision. You feel lucky to wear flat shoes as you start thinking that you’ll probably need to flee hearing all the comments and catcalls from the drunk men around you, and thinking what may happen next. Fifteen minutes and six taunts later terrified, humiliated and definitely not in a party mood, you meet your friends and declare that it’s the last time you went out alone at this time.
Sexism is a real problem. And it needs to be emphasized that this problem does not refer just to the atrocious cases of harassment at work, depiction of women as sex objects in advertisements, or the views of some conservative politicians who believe that women are inferior to men, but rather to the everyday aspects like giving coarse comments to passing-by women or demanding to be attended by a man in a shop because woman seems to be less competent. We all hear about the battle with sexism in the public sphere or about institutions that fight for the equal status of men and women and safeguard that the advertisements do not violate the depiction of women. But what about the smaller in scope but even more harmful everyday sexism?
The problem of everyday sexism has become the subject of a heated debate recently as a backlash of the recent shooting in Santa Barbara, where Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six people and injured 13 before killing himself. Rodger justified his outbreak as a punishment for women. He decided to go on a killing spree because some of them didn’t want to date him. He created a video in which he said “I don’t know why you girls aren’t all attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.”
The tragedy resulted in thousands of women sharing their stories of maltreatment or harassment on Twitter, adding a hashtag #YesAllWomen. Women all around the world decided to break the silence and give their own testimony that although we try to reduce sexism in the public sphere it still exists on daily bases. Some of the tweets are instructive, some reassuring, many are disturbing. The response of female Tweeter users was tremendous and some media proclaimed #YesAllWomen the most powerful hashtag ever. But does the campaign really have that much power?
The response from men was immediate – they created #NotAllMen to object to the offensive generalization and to show that they are not like that. They do not harass women but they treat them with respect. The response from women was simple – it’s true that #NotAllMen do it but #YesAllWomen experience it
The main problem with the campaign may be twofold. First, it does not address those who abuse women. Let’s think about the stereotypical man who would catcall a woman in the street. We may picture a construction worker on a break, a member of a street gang, a local drunkard, probably not well educated and most likely supporting the idea that men are superior to women and that men have every right to treat women like objects. Such men do not use Twitter and probably have not heard about the campaign. And even if they did, they do not care. Why would they pay attention to a bunch of whiny butt-ugly lesbians whom no one would touch? Chicks should be happy that someone’s paying them compliments, shouldn’t they?
The Twitter campaign touches mainly women, as most likely all of them at some stage in their lives were the victims of sexism, as well as those men who respect women and simply feel wrongly accused and misjudged. And here we arrive at the other side of the problem. Men declare that they do not disrespect women but very often are also unable to see that someone is harassing a woman. They are not aware of the scale of the phenomenon. To address the problem Eleonore Pourriat, a French director, created a short film “Oppressed majority” in which she presents a matriarchal society where it is men who are the victims of sexism. Pourriat presents a whole spectrum of problems starting with such trivial aspects as shirtless joggers and patronizing neighbours who may not even be aware that what they say or do may be perceived as offensive. Then she touches upon the aspects of sexual inequality in religion and being oppressed by one’s family members. She builds up the story of everyday harassment including catcalling and offensive comments to reach the extreme of sexual violence. Pourriat also depicts the inappropriate treatment of the assault victims, both by the institutions and their own families.
But this is just a fiction. However, the Guardian went one step further and conducted a kind of social experiment in which a women behaved in a sexist way towards men. She catcalled them, made sexual innuendos and openly proposed sex to random men in the street. The outcome was that men mainly either laughed or even agreed to her proposals. But what is the most interesting is the public reception of the video visible in the comments section. It seems that people tend not to see the problem. Mostly they say that girls hitting on men are ridiculously funny or that women lack a sense of humour. In general the situation seems to be the same as in case with Twitter – women are serious, men deny being sexist themselves and pin the blame on some other men.
But also women tend to lose themselves in the anti-sexism frenzy and make claims that do not really address the issue. Female journalists who report on the #YesAllWomen phenomenon tend to make claims such as “we want to feel safe when we walk through a dark alley or a park during the night” or “we don’t want to carry pepper spray with us during the nights”. But isn’t it rather a common sense that tells not only women but also men to avoid dark streets during the night? Lack of safety in the streets after sunset is a problem that concerns whole society. It’s just one aspect of labelling a problem as sexism when in reality it has nothing to do with it. But it indicates that there needs to be a line indicating where sexism ends and other social problems start.
If #YesAllWomen is ineffective then what can be done to tackle the problem? Some suggest that the most powerful would be dialogue. They say that women should tell their partners and men from the closest group of friends an family how often and in what ways they experience everyday sexism. Because it is easy to belittle the problem if we don’t know the victims. If those who experience it are our close ones it’s no longer that simple. And some say that even if only one man changed his attitude towards women as a result of that, it would be a huge success.