In December, we asked you to pick up the second title in the DomesticShelters.org Book Club, Girl Up by U.K. author Laura Bates. This super honest book (there’s a color-by-number vulva page) is about our bodies, consent and crushing everyday sexism, according to Bates, the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project.
Why is it relevant to domestic violence? Well, if it’s not obvious, domestic violence is innately tied to a sense of entitlement, typically by men, that implies women’s’ bodies are not their own but rather something that others can control and regulate, such as a partner, and sometimes with violence. Eradicating rampant sexism is one way many believe we can start curbing domestic violence.
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And that starts with women and girls learning how to speak up and establish boundaries around their bodies. Though it’s skewed toward a younger demographic of teens and even pre-teens, Girl Up is for anyone, says Bates.
“I think there is a lot in it that could be useful for people of all ages and genders, not only because so many of us grew up without this information, but also because I think, for adults and parents in particular, it can be really useful to have a window into the reality of young women’s lives.”
Below, the author answers your questions regarding her book.
“Have you always been this frank and honest with your writing?”
Bates: This was definitely a new sphere for me because my first book, Everyday Sexism, was more journalistic in tone and less personal. But I realized the girls I was meeting at schools were bombarded with pressures, scared about sex and nobody was talking to them frankly about these issues and giving them the information they deserved in an honest way. So I tried to write the book in that way so that it would speak to their real life experiences and hopefully provide some of the support they needed.
“Were you scared to publish such a blunt book? I mean, sex-ed classes in schools these days hardly mention sex at all, so to talk about orgasms and masturbation like they’re—god forbid—normal things, that’s radical.”
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Bates: Because I'd worked in this field and been talking about these issues for some years, I wasn't too worried, but actually I was taken aback by how puritanical the reaction to the book was in some areas! It was banned in some schools in Wales, because the school said that they didn't feel parents would want their children to see pictures of dancing vaginas. That really saddened me, because of course it exemplified exactly the kind of taboos and stigma I was hoping to break through, but I hope it also encouraged lots of the girls to read the book subversively as an act of rebellion! (Also I was fascinated by the wording of the objection: was it the vaginas that the school objected to, or the fact they were dancing? I think the idea of promoting female sexuality as something joyful and enjoyable is still seen as very dangerous and subversive!)
“How do I teach my kids to not be sexist?”
Bates: The fact that you're even asking this question is a great sign because it means your kids are already being raised by someone who has these issues on their radar and is mindful of them, which is half the battle! I think little and often is key—it doesn't have to mean sitting your children down and giving them a massive lecture about sexism. It's probably more effective to point out the little things when they crop up—airbrushed adverts, sexist stereotypes, gendered clothing—and by doing that, you give your children the tools to start to recognize these things in the world around them and challenge them, rather than accepting them as simply normal.
“I want to limit my daughter’s access to social media because I’m scared it’ll give her body issues or an eating disorder, since it’s not at all a realistic representation of people. How should I broach this topic?”
Bates: I think that honesty and openness with young people is crucial—the more we talk about these issues the more we show them it's not something they need to hide or be ashamed of, and we open up channels of communication they can use in the future if they have problems. So talking, talking, talking is key. For me, trying to keep kids away from social media isn't necessarily the answer, because they're so likely to find ways to access it anyway. I think the key thing is to really prepare them and arm them with tools to handle it instead. Understanding how unrealistic social media images are, talking about online safety, protecting passwords and contact details, discussing how to respond to unwanted attention online—these are all really positive things to approach with children as they approach social media.
“I love the part [in the book] about teaching kids how to plan a protest. Why do you think it’s important to teach teens about this?”
Bates: We often underestimate young people, either labelling them politically apathetic or suggesting they have no problems to worry about! In reality they are often facing huge issues and giving them the tools and confidence to tackle these themselves can be so empowering. It's tempting to fight our children's battles for them, but helping them to tackle problems and create change themselves can be much more effective in the long run.
“Why are people still calling out girl’s clothing as ‘distracting to boys?’ Doesn’t that just reinforce men are excused for their lust because it’s a woman’s job to control it?”
Bates: Absolutely! One of the biggest problems with school dress codes and discipline is that it is very rooted in traditional and outdated notions of sexuality and relies on the idea that women's bodies are inherently dangerous and men are powerless to prevent themselves from harassing. If we reinforce this at such a young age, it sets the stage for a host of later problems, like young women who don't feel able to report sexual violence because they fear they will be blamed for what they were wearing at the time.
“How could I get my school to use this book instead of the very-much-outdated sex-ed book they’re currently using?”
Bates: Sometimes schools have been using the same materials for decades without really stopping to think about it! Pointing out some of the areas lacking or problematic in the current learning aids might be a good start! If the school is looking for more updated guidance and ideas, there are some great resources online as well, including the Disrespect NoBody website, the sex education forum [in the UK—you may also want to check out this sex-ed site by Planned Parenthood if you’re in the U.S.] and the Scarleteen website.
“What should boys and men do better to support feminism?”
Bates: Having the conversations that have traditionally been carried out between women behind closed doors is a really important first step. Just talking about this issue, acknowledging how widespread it is, and listening to women's stories is a vital part of changing the assumption that sexism no longer exists. Then there's the importance of challenging it—everybody will come across this at some point, whether in a work meeting, walking down the street, or on the bus, and a man making the decision to step in, to object, to challenge another man, can be a very powerful way to disrupt the societal normalization of sexism and harassment.
Our Next Book Club Selection: Talking to Trans Survivors
The third DomesticShelters.org Book Club selection focuses on a marginalized group of survivors. Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, edited by Lexie Bean, is a collection of letters written by trans and non-binary (that means people who don’t identify solely as male or female in gender) survivors to parts of their body, things they want to say to their bodies after assault or violence. It is honest, healing and eye-opening. See our interview next week on this site.
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