EQUALITY campaigner Laura Bates has been visiting schools and talking to teenagers about sexual harassment. What she has heard has been so shocking, she’s written a YA novel about it.
‘I was hearing the same story over again,’ she says. ‘I don’t think people understand the reality of what these girls are facing every day.’
The novel is The Burning and it tells the story of Anna, who is forced to leave her school in Birmingham when semi-naked photos of her go viral after they’re posted online by a vengeful ex. She starts again under a new name in Scotland but her former boyfriend tracks her down and reposts the photos on Facebook — and soon her new school friends have joined in the slut-shaming.
‘Girls today are under such pressure,’ says Bates, 32, a former actress. ‘Social media is 24/7. Their phones buzz away like an angry insect on their pillow all night. There is also this enormous pressure on girls to denounce other girls as a means of protecting themselves.’
Pretty much everything that happens to Anna, including photoshopped images of her in sexually compromising positions and having her phone number posted alongside sexually explicit invitations, is based on stories Bates heard during the school visits she has carried out over the past few years.
Bates was a campaigner against sexual abuse long before Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates. She launched her influential blog, Everyday Sexism, in 2012, encouraging women to record instances of sexual harassment. What struck her when she spoke to young people was the confusion surrounding sexual violence.
‘A lot of girls were experiencing rape but would never have used that word because they thought you had to have sex if you had a boyfriend,’ she says.
In the novel, Anna is told by a teacher she is responsible for the way others behave towards her. Bates says punishing girls because of their bodies is historic.
‘I met a girl who had been sent home for wearing a skirt that she had been told would distract the boys,’ she says. ‘It’s not uncommon for girls who report sexual harassment at school to be told that “boys will be boys”. It’s the same story.’
Telling victims of online bullying to switch off their phones is not the answer, says Bates — forcing big tech to remove abusive content is. ‘They make billions of pounds through these young users,’ she adds. But she also thinks society needs to provide a corrective to the confused messages about sex boys in particular are subjected to thanks to the prevalence of online porn.
‘One girl told me her boyfriend had tried to throttle her the first time they had sex,’ she says. ‘She pushed him away and he broke down in tears of relief. He had been terrified because he thought that was what she was expecting because that’s what he had seen happen online.
‘My heart goes out to these boys too. We need to start having appropriate conversations with teenagers about healthy relationships and consent.
‘The government is planning to introduce this soon to the curriculum, which is a great first step. Because if enough people take a stand against something you suck the power from it.’
The Burning is out now.
Laura Bates chose to write a YA novel because she knew her own teenage self would never have read a non-fiction book about abuse.
The power of fiction
‘I learned all about feminism from fiction,’ she says. ‘Everything from Pride And Prejudice and Little Women to Malorie Blackman’s Noughts And Crosses series — they all have heroines who defy socially defined ideas of female behaviour. These books made me realise you can tackle ideas about discrimination and unfairness and inequality in a really powerful way.’