New research shows women are reporting more sexual harassment on public transport – but why?
It’s a strange sort of disconnect. You’re in a public place, surrounded by crowds of people, yet you’ve never felt more vulnerable. Maybe it’s the man standing so close to you on the 8.02am train that you can feel the buttons of his jeans digging into your lower back. Perhaps it’s the person on the night bus with his eyes burning into the back of your head. The one who makes lewd comments as you get up from your seat to move closer to the driver; just to feel a fraction safer as you make your way home alone.
Sexual harassment on public transport is rife and the numbers make uncomfortable reading. A report by the Women And Equalities Committee just last week concluded that the volume of harassment faced by women in public spaces is “relentless”. In fact, 64% of women say they have faced sexual harassment in a public place (rising to 85% of 18-25-year-olds).
And historically we haven’t spoken up about it – it was previously estimated that 90% of cases on London transport go unreported. But more recent studies carried out by Transport for London have shown that the number of women reporting sexual harassment is now on the rise.
According to the network, more than 2,400 sexual offences were reported last year, that’s up 53% from 2014/15.
But is it really surprising that women are speaking louder about crimes committed against them? This upward tick is taking place against the backdrop of #MeToo, one of the most momentous women’s movements in decades. “This [surge in reporting] is very much a consequence of that movement,” says Dr Kaitlynn Mendes, a professor of media and communication at the University of Leicester specialising in everyday sexism and rape culture.
“There is more press around rape culture and misogyny, and this validates women’s experiences, making them feel that they will be believed if they speak out, too.”
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, author of The Right Amount Of Panic: How Women Trade Freedom For Safety, agrees. “The fact that there’s an increase in these reporting figures, to me, would not show that there is an increase in this type of behaviour, but more that we’re in a different cultural moment,” she says. “People feel that things that have been minimised and trivialised in the past are now going to be taken seriously.”
Why it happens
What’s less heartening, however, is that this sort of harassment is still happening. Unsafe transport systems are a global problem. According to last year’s global mobility report, 53% of women in developed countries feel “unsafe” or “very unsafe” when waiting on a railway platform after dark.
Just over the channel in France, for example, a report showed that 267,000 people, mostly women, were sexually abused on public transport over two years.
But why are these busy, public spaces, often patrolled by security or police, such a hotbed for these crimes? “Public transport is one of the most common places women will be assaulted,” says Mendes.
“This is often because it is crowded, so men feel they can get away with more. And as women we have been socialised not to make a fuss, not to take up space and not to draw attention. That can be taken advantage of.” It’s the perfect storm. When public transport is at its busiest, it allows hundreds of people to cluster together – meaning some can take advantage with sleight of hand: rubbing, touching, pressing.
Conversely, when carriages are quiet and echoing, it allows perpetrators to prey. Some would argue that there is no safe time at all for women like you and us just going about our days.
“My assault happened at about 6pm on a busy Tube train,” says Lizzie, 33. “I noticed a man looking me up and down. He seemed nervous. Fidgety. But as the train pulled into the station he reached over, put his hand down my top and grabbed by breast.” Instead of pushing him away, or yelling obscenities, Lizzie says, she froze. “I never, ever thought I’d react to something like that by just standing still. I’m a feisty person, normally. But the shock was absolutely momentous.”
Dee, 29, had a similar experience. “It was rush hour and I was on a packed Tube on the way home. This guy behind me pushed himself up against my back and he had an erection. I felt panicked and froze and let it happen for about 20 seconds before I did anything. Then I just thought, ‘No!’ I pulled away, turned around and screamed at him to get off me.”
But what these women, and lots of women, had in common in the past, is that they did not report these crimes to the police. It speaks volumes that, until now, we have felt it’s the best course of action to just stay quiet.
“Many women, when they’re harassed or assaulted, won’t think, ‘Why did he do it?’” says Mendes. “Instead, they’ll think, ‘What did I do to provoke it?’” But it’s also, arguably, because when sexual assault isn’t rape, it’s historically been thought of as a sort of ‘cultural grey area’, where boundaries are muddied. That is what has changed with #MeToo.
“When it isn’t rape or overt harassment, women in the past haven’t had the framework to articulate why they don’t feel good about what they’ve experienced,” says Mendes. “It’s the grey zone. But there’s been a shift in public consciousness and what we accept as normal now.”
What you can do
Thankfully that shift means many women no longer feel they will be ignored. But it is important to remember that it is not solely women’s responsibility to report these crimes. It’s also men’s responsibility not to commit them.
None of this would be happening if men had taken it upon themselves not to act in this way. To know that even a brush of the knee on a busy train or unbroken eye contact on a deserted Tube can be threatening.
So what can we do if we see an assault? How can we navigate the quandary of speaking out versus staying quiet (who can forget the footage of French woman Marie Laguerre being punched after she told a man to stop whistling at her?) “Research has shown that it’s best to engage with the woman being harassed, as engaging with the man can escalate things,” says Vera-Gray. “Ask her about the book she’s reading, what she did that day. That way, you can gauge how she’s feeling and also let the man know there’s someone watching.”
And really, when it comes to sexual harassment, no crime is too small to report. “Women are starting to recognise these things for the first time – the fact that, no, it’s not just boys being boys. It’s not something we have to put up with,” says Mendes. “We’re talking back and we’re challenging those attitudes. Women have been having these conversations about harassment among themselves for a long time, but now the difference is a wider audience is listening.”