Thank you, Taylor Swift

Earlier this month, Taylor Swift won her symbolic US$1 (S$1.40) case against a former radio DJ, David Mueller, who assaulted her by groping her bottom under her skirt at a pre-concert photo session in 2013.

When the singer's mother, Mrs Andrea Swift, took the stand during the trial, she testified that her daughter had agonised over the fact that she had said an almost automatic "thank you" to Mueller and his girlfriend after the photo shoot.

"She couldn't believe that after he grabbed her, she thanked them for being there," Mrs Swift said. "It was just destroying her that she said that." In tears, she went on to say: "As a parent, I questioned why I taught her to be so polite." Neither she nor her daughter bears any responsibility whatsoever for the assault, as Swift powerfully pointed out in court.

But Mrs Swift put her finger on an important truth. We raise girls to be pretty, pliant and polite. We raise boys to be loud, demanding and confident.

It starts from babyhood, with onesies featuring pretty princesses and future presidents. We "shush" little girls, contain and silence them, while boys are expected to make noise. We train girls to practise far more self-regulation than their male peers. Research shows that parents interrupt girls more often than boys and that boys are more likely to speak up in the classroom.

For women, being polite often goes hand in hand with self-doubt and subservience. At its root, the very notion of politeness is so gendered in our unequal society that it can simply translate into an overwhelming pressure for women to self-censor or self-flagellate. Often, what we euphemistically describe as "politeness" ends up sounding like an apology for taking up space, for asking anything of others, for even existing at all.

For women, being polite often goes hand in hand with self-doubt and subservience. At its root, the very notion of politeness is so gendered in our unequal society that it can simply translate into an overwhelming pressure for women to self-censor or self-flagellate. Often, what we euphemistically describe as "politeness" ends up sounding like an apology for taking up space, for asking anything of others, for even existing at all.

The reflexive politeness Swift displayed towards her attacker will be instantly recognisable to thousands of women. It is normal to freeze in shock or go on autopilot when experiencing a sexual assault. And for women, it is also common to feel you have no choice but to carry on smiling, swallow your feelings and try not to ruin the party for everybody else.

This imperative not to rock the boat is partly reflected in the huge number of survivors of sexual assault who question whether an attack was their own fault, who don't want to upset friends and family members by telling them, and who don't think it's serious enough to bother the police.

Children learn that it is a worse crime for a girl to make a fuss than it is for a boy to touch her sexually against her will. Is it any surprise that a shockingly low number of women feel able to report a sexual assault and that a shockingly high number of men think they can abuse women with impunity?

The impact of socialised self-doubt extends far beyond sexual violence. We see it in women's unwillingness to apply for jobs unless they fulfil every requirement. We see it in their propensity to use hesitant terms like "just", "if possible" and "I wondered" in e-mail. Women's salaries suffer from a reluctance to negotiate in the way that men do.

The pressure for polite girls to grow into subservient women is reinforced by the way society treats those who dare to step outside these expectations. Women in finance are punished more severely than men for violating the rules. Women who dare to negotiate for higher salaries are penalised for doing so.

Again and again, women who dare to speak out about sexual assault are belittled, dismissed, ignored or abused.

Until these systemic inequalities are addressed, simply telling girls to be "more assertive" will never solve the problem. The way in which we respond to assertive women must change radically, too.

The flip side to all this is the overconfidence of mediocre men, who don't have to worry about being rude because their rudeness is interpreted as leadership or pizzazz.

Men who are more likely to apply for jobs they're less qualified for, who initiate salary negotiations four times more often than women and demand 30 per cent higher salaries.

Then there's the confidence verging on criminality that is actively preached by a subculture of so-called pickup artists who instruct men to push past polite female refusal until they get what they want, regardless of women's wishes.

It is no coincidence that such men celebrated the triumph of US President Donald Trump, a man who has boasted about being able to grab women "by the p***y".

Pressuring girls into putting courtesy first suppresses their ability to resist or protest against both discrimination and abuse.

We should ensure that every girl knows that politeness is less important than her career, her rights and her ability to decide who touches her body.

Swift's court win may have yielded only a single dollar, but to prove this point was invaluable.

NYTIMES

• Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, is the author, most recently, of Girl Up.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Thank you, Taylor Swift'. Print Edition | Subscribe