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The Shame of Sexism


They say that we're more likely to remember moments when we felt ashamed or embarassed. I guess that makes sense - it triggers a strong reaction and then it's replays in your mind. It lingers.

The Everyday Sexism Twitter feed features instances of sexism which clearly have not been forgotten, perhaps for this reason.

I guess the first instance of something like this I remember is serving the tea at my grandpa's wake to his friends. One of his friends commented that I had a lovely figure, his friends agreed - commenting on my potential future appearance.

It wasn't sexual but it didn't feel right. I was eleven years old and barely had a figure to speak of. It was the first time I realised my body was up for comment and conversation, in a way that didn't seem to happen with my male peers.

The interesting thing is that I never told my parents, or anyone. I guess you could say nothing "happened" to me - but it made me feel uncomfortable and I kept quiet, and perhaps that's worth noting.

Then when I was about fourteen or fifteen I was waiting outside a train station waiting to be picked up by my Dad. A group of lads on the opposite side of the road began shouting how much they would pay to "have" me.

I was wearing baggy jeans, a jumper and winter coat. It wouldn't have been fine if I'd been dressed up, but my casual attire made it all the more confusing.

Since then there's been countless instances of men shouting from cars when I've been walking down the street which I've learned to ignore, though it always makes me feel uncomfortable.

Oh and the touching. Being in a pub or a club - and a man walking through a crowd touching girls at the waist, or worse, on his way - not necessary and yet so commonplace.

Then there's the comments about my health condition. POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) is a chronic illness which causes malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system - not very well known about but very real and an absolute nightmare.

Yet the process of being diagnosed involved far too many "this happens to a lot of young women" comments - maybe so but not to that extent. I was passing out everyday, getting weaker and weaker - but it's ok because we're all in this together?

Comparisons to hysterical women and swooning Jane Austen characters were not helpful. Nor were suggestions from paramedics that maybe the problem was my eating habits and assumed love of dieting. I wondered if these comments would have been made to a male patient of similar age and weight. I expect not.

Of course sexism isn't just about physical appearance. A nice compliment I've had in the past is that I'm funny, which would be appreciated if not for being followed by "for a girl." The idea that we're inherently weaker in this respect absolutely baffles me.

It's a subject which has been written about so often that I won't even go into it too much, but the whole female comedians not being funny thing really gets to me.

I've been at a comedy club with male friends where we've got to an interval and had a chat about the acts, only to be completely flummoxed by their response. "The first guy was great, the girl not so much."

Comedy is one art form where it's an immediate, instinctive reaction - you laugh or you don't. There's no thinking back on it's worth after the show, it's a there and then clear-cut response. So, if the female comedian had elicited no laughter - fair shout. But she had. The guys I was with laughed more at her than the other act.

Even in this instance - where I was sitting with friends and could have questioned their comments, I didn't. In all these instances, the shock, and perhaps the shame, of the situation seems to prevent any real response.

Through The Everyday Sexism Project - thousands of women are having their chance to have that response - too difficult in the moment but now completely possible and actively encouraged.

Women submit their stories via the website or Twitter - stories that could be "serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don't even feel able to protest".

This movement has seen so many people come forward with their experiences. It's making people take notice - showing that sexism is very much alive and well, and absolutely nothing to be laughed at or belittled.

It's when people feel they can act from a place of power rather than shame that action will happen, and that seems to be the case.

People are shouting back online but also now in person - with this platform giving them the confidence and sense of solidarity to respond. As Laura, creator of Everyday Sexism, says "You can't silence somebody when they have 25000 voices behind them saying I believe you".

The #shoutingback campaign as part of the project really does empower women - no longer sitting on their shame, but instead sharing their experiences.

Through that process there's a shift. Rather than the shame lying with the victim, who keeps quiet and is too often presumed to be at fault - the shame is pushed outwards and onto every man that thinks it's acceptable to behave in this way.

So let them have the shame - it really should be with them.