The F Word – Reclaiming feminism

 There is a look of fear and unease that sometimes fills a person’s face when I tell them I’m a feminist. As if this admission will be shortly followed by a burning bra thrown in their direction or that I’ll put my leg on the table between us and demand they inspect my unshaven body hair. There are a thousand faulty stereotypes of what constitutes a feminist: I am unnecessarily angry, a man hater, and am fighting for a cause that is now obsolete. It is because of these that when I ask other women what they believe in, they too are afraid of my feminism; afraid to admit to it, afraid to identify with it, afraid that by speaking out for equality they will somehow be deemed less attractive. Even in writing this, I have to worry about how I will be perceived. This is the most subtle of sexisms, teaching girls that the submissive acceptance of oppression is desirable in a mate. But this is wrong, and this is not what feminism is about. 

Following the launch of the UN and Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign, a long overdue discussion has made its way into the public’s attention. Feminism, despite the ignorant and outdated stereotypes, is gaining momentum. With more men and women actively identifying and supporting the cause, obvious progress has been made in recent years. With rape culture and its manifestations being mentioned in various articles in The Independent and The Guardian, and advances in LGBT and women’s rights worldwide, it seems that the feminist discussion has spread out from internet forums and debates and into wider circulation. But this is not to say that the underlining prejudice does not remain, because there is so much left to fight for.

In spite this supposed leap forwards for our movement, newspaper headlines and online blogs are littered with tales of sexism and misogynistic behaviour with more and more of those occurring within a university setting. The Everyday Sexism Project offers a critical first hand insight into the daily sexisms many women face, browsing through their hashtag on twitter makes for uncomfortable reading and often triggers the response of “I didn’t realise it was that bad.” One of the main obstacles feminism faces is that sexism isn’t always obvious, but just because you do not see it does not mean it is not there.

A study conducted last year by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics stated that female students in full-time education are at a higher risk of sexual violence than the rest of the female population. Hidden Marks: A Study Of Women Students’ Experiences Of Harassment, Stalking, Violence And Sexual Assault published by the NUS reported that “1 in 7 respondents had experienced some form of serious physical or sexual assault,” and more than two-thirds “had experienced some kind of verbal or nonverbal harassment in or around university.” Given that according to the charity End Violence Against Women a woman is raped in the UK every 6 minutes and up to 3 million women in the UK will experience violence each year; the increase in the likelihood of violence for female students is both unsettling and upsetting.

In addition to these studies, 1 in 5 women in the UK have reported being the victim of sexual abuse since the age of 16, that is 20% of female population – and those are just the ones who have spoken out. Rape Crisis report that only 10% of rapes are committed by strangers, and that the other 90% of rapes are perpetrated by men known by their victims. 90% of women who are raped are done so by their friends, partners or associates. Rape is not limited to dark alleyways and violent strangers, it happens in the homes and workplaces of any women (and man), of any class, age and race. Only 15% of rapes in the UK are reported, and it is this familiarity with the rapists that makes prosecution ever more difficult. Many victims never speak out from fear of being blamed or accused of lying. Issues of victim blaming and ‘slut shaming’ stop women from speaking out, because often those who do are confronted with accusations not of the perpetrator’s actions, but of how she bought it upon herself. There is a disproportionate focus on false rape allegations that have skewed the public’s perception of how often rape actually occurs. In March 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service published a survey that suggested false rape allegations are no more common than in other crimes, and could in fact make up less than 1% of all reports.

This is not to say that violence and sexual abuse does not happen to men, and feminism has no design to dismiss or belittle any victim of it. Violence and victim blaming is unfortunately common across all cultures, and is also incredibly frequent with LGBT and race related hate crimes. Gaining justice for victims of sexual abuse and violence transcends gender, sexuality and race. The LGBT movement is hugely supported by feminists, as are they heavily involved with issues surrounding racism and human rights. The emphasis is merely placed on women within feminism because violence is statistically more common for them. Another report stated that there are around 500,000 victims of sexual assault reported each year, 85%-90% of whom are women. The presence of misogyny is undeniable in our culture, but it does not always manifest itself in such outwardly violent ways.

Even in literature, art and the media there is a need to redefine and re-envision the way women and other minorities are represented. It may seem secondary to the violence suffered but having realistic and accurate portrayals of all genders, sexualities and nationalities is important; especially when considering possible damage to the younger viewers who won’t dream and aspire limitlessly  if they’re constantly told that they’ll never be anything more than the gay best friend or bimbo blonde. A study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed that among the 100 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office in 2012 only 28.4% of speaking characters were female. Once on screen, 31.6% of said women were shown wearing sexually revealing clothing.

The same misrepresentation is common in the lack of diversity within political parties and higher ranking jobs; feminism is fighting the systematic dismissal of minorities and the wage gap between genders. Feminism believes that men are compassionate and emotionally mature, and allows them to be flawed and vulnerable. To allow women to be themselves free from damaging gender roles and oppressive societies is to allow men to be free also. Feminism believes not that women are superior or flawless but that all genders offer strengths that should be celebrated rather placed in competition. Feminism allows men and women and non-binaries to be themselves, it accepts gender not as fixed but fluid.

We’re not asking to be flawless superheroes in every Hollywood blockbuster or to occupy every CEO position available; we’re asking to be human. We’re asking to be heard. We’re asking to not be sexualised on the 3rd page of a national newspaper alongside the weather update. We’re asking to not teach our daughters to care more about their appearance than they do their studies. We’re asking for equality, and if that scares you: then you are part of the problem.

To address every issue feminism is fighting both locally and globally – from ending catcalling and defeating the concept of the ‘friendzone’ to claiming the ownership of our bodies and futures – would be impossible in such a short piece. But Bath Spa is lucky enough to have a vibrant and active feminist society that has an ongoing and open forum, both online and in person in which to discuss it all. If you want to read more about feminism, or have been affected by any of the topics discussed, join Bath Spa’s feminist society or visit Rape Crisis, The Everyday Sexism Project, Everyday Feminism and other similar sites online.
This article was originally published with SpaLife Magazine in October 2014 

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