Everybody has a tipping point. The funny thing is that when mine came, in March 2012, it wasn't something dramatic or extreme, or even particularly out of the ordinary.
It was just another week of little pinpricks: the man who appeared as I sat outside a cafe, seized my hand and refused to let go; the guy who followed me off the bus and lewdly propositioned me all the way to my front door; the man who made a sexual gesture and shouted, "I'm looking for a wife" from his car as I walked wearily home after a long day. I shouted back, "Keep looking!"; but as I trudged home I started to really think about how many of these little incidents I was just putting up with from day to day.
'This kind of thing was just part of life – or, rather, part of being a woman. Simply, I was used to it.'
I remembered the university supervisor who was rumoured to wear a black armband once a year to mourn the anniversary of my college admitting women. I thought about the night that a group of teenage boys had casually walked up behind me in the street before one of them grabbed me, hard, between the legs, forcing his fingers upwards against my jeans.
I recalled the boss who'd sent me strange emails about his sexual fantasies and mysteriously terminated my freelance contract with no explanation almost immediately after learning I had a boyfriend. The university supervisor whose email suggesting we meet for our first tutorial said, "I'll bring a red rose and you bring a copy of yesterday's Times ..." The senior colleague who, on my first day working as an admin temp, aged just 17, propositioned me via the company's internal email system. The guy who sat next to me on the bus and started running his hand up and down my leg – and the other one who sat opposite me and began masturbating under his coat, his confident eyes boring into mine.
I remembered the men who cornered me late one night in a Cambridge street shouting, "We're going to part those legs and f... that c..." and left me cowering against the wall as they strolled away cackling. And the more these incidents came back to me, the more I wondered why I'd played them down at the time – why I'd never complained, or even particularly remembered them until I sat down and really thought about it.
The answer was that these events were normal. They hadn't seemed exceptional enough for me to object to them because they weren't out of the ordinary. Because this kind of thing was just part of life – or, rather, part of being a woman. Simply, I was used to it. And I started to wonder how many other women had had similar experiences and, like me, had simply accepted them and rationalised them and got on with it without really stopping to protest or ask why.
So I started asking around – among friends and family, at parties, even in the supermarket. Over a few weeks I asked every woman I met whether she'd encountered this sort of problem. I thought that if I asked 20 or 30 women, one or two would remember something significant – a bad experience they'd had at university, or in a previous job.
What happened took me completely by surprise. Every woman had a story. But not from five years ago, or 10. They were from last week, or yesterday, or "on my way here today". And they weren't just random, one-off events, but reams of tiny pinpricks – just like my own experiences – so niggling and normalised that to protest each one felt facetious. Yet put them together and the picture created by this mosaic of miniatures was strikingly clear.
This inequality, this pattern of casual intrusion, whereby women could be leered at, touched, harassed and abused without a second thought, was sexism: implicit, explicit and deep-rooted, pretty much everywhere you'd care to look. And if sexism means treating people differently purely because of their sex, then women were experiencing it on a near-daily basis.
The more stories I heard, the more I tried to talk about the problem. Yet time and again I found myself coming up against the same response: sexism doesn't exist any more. Women are equal now, more or less. You career girls these days can have your cake and eat it, what more do you want?
Think about the women in other countries dealing with real problems, people told me – you women have no idea how lucky you are. You have "gilded lives"! You're making a fuss about nothing. You're overreacting. You're uptight, or frigid. You need to learn to take a joke, get a sense of humour, and lighten up.You really need to learn to take a compliment.
How, I wondered, was it possible for there to be so much evidence of the existence of sexism alongside so much protest to the contrary? As I became more aware of the sheer scale of the problem, I also began to understand that it was an invisible one.
People didn't want to acknowledge it, or talk about it – in fact, they often simply refused to believe it still existed. And it wasn't just men who took this view; it was women, too, telling me I was getting worked up about nothing, or being oversensitive, or simply looking for problems where there weren't any.
At first, I wondered if they were right. Because people weren't exactly falling over themselves to share my "Eureka!" moment. This could be like my ill-fated but utter conviction, aged 11, that it was actually "helicockter", not "helicopter", and everyone else was pronouncing it wrong. Perhaps I was just overreacting.
I started wondering whether there might not be a connection between ours being a society in which so many women become so accustomed to experiencing gender-based prejudice that they almost fail to even register it any more, and the fact that men dominate political and economic spheres and a fifth of women suffer some form of sexual assault.
The figures certainly didn't allay my fears and convince me I was just making a mountain out of a molehill; far from it. They suggested an urgent need to pay attention to the "minor" incidents - each and every one of them - in order to start joining the dots and build up a proper picture of what was going on.
So, in April 2012, I started a very simple website where women could upload their stories – from the niggling and normalised to the outrageously offensive – and those who hadn't experienced the problem first-hand could read them and, I hoped, begin to realise what was happening on a daily basis.
Without any funding, or means to publicise the project beyond my own Facebook wall, I thought perhaps 50 or 60 women would add their stories, or that I might be able to persuade a hundred or so of my own friends to add theirs.
Stories began to trickle in during the first few days. Within a week, hundreds of women had added their voices. A week later, the number had doubled, then trebled and quadrupled. I started a Twitter account, @EverydaySexism, and found that people were keen to discuss the phenomenon there, too. The idea spread through social media like wildfire, snowballing and gathering momentum as it travelled. Suddenly stories began to appear from America and Canada, Germany and France, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people started viewing the website each month.
The first time the true scale of what I had started to uncover really hit me was when one woman wrote to me saying: "I'm 58, so I have too much to say in a small box. Here are some highlights arranged in decades."
The stories came from women of all ages, races and ethnicities, of different social backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations, disabled and non-disabled, religious and nonreligious, employed and unemployed. Stories from the workplace to the pavement, from clubs and bars to buses and trains. Of verbal harassment and "jokes", of touching and being belittled and assaulted and raped.
And so we accepted all these stories, and more, until in December 2013 – just 20 months after the project was launched – 50,000 entries had poured in. This is the sound of tens of thousands of women's voices. This is what they're telling us.
Edited extract from Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, published on April 10 by Simon & Schuster.