Sexism goes underground

Prospect Magazine

Sexism goes underground


A women-only train carriage in India © Ajay Tallam


Challenged at a party a few months’ ago as to why I think we still need feminism in Britain, I mentioned a nasty encounter I’d had earlier that week. After meeting an old friend for dinner in central London after work, I caught the Tube home from Piccadilly Circus. At the next station, three men got on. At first they just stood near me, talking to each other. I noticed they kept looking at me, but I buried my head in the Evening Standard and ignored it. But the next time I looked up from the newspaper they had turned to stand in a circle around me so that I was cornered in the edge of the carriage. All three were staring down at me, grinning. “She’s cute,” said one of them. “She’s really cute,” said another. “Who’s going to take her home then?” the third asked. There were a few people sitting near us, but I’m not sure anyone even noticed. “You should have her,” one of them said, signalling to his friend, who just stared at me, grinning and nodding. The doors opened and I took the opportunity to push my way through the men until I was out on the platform—it was a huge relief when the doors closed and the Tube pulled out of the station.

I thought the guy at the party would be surprised to learn that such things happen regularly to women travelling on public transport alone. Instead, he burst out laughing. “That’s not sexism!” he said. “That’s just banter.”

For me, harassment on public transport is a very clear expression of latent sexism in society, partly because it happens so often, and partly because people think so little of it. Most women I know have experienced something unpleasant on the Tube or train—and much as people might try to pass it off as a joke, it is indicative of troubling underlying attitudes towards women. But if you complain, you’re told it doesn’t matter, or you’re making it up, or “it’s just banter.”

This is part of what makes it so hard to speak up when something happens. One woman I spoke to had been on a Tube when another passenger fainted. As she bent over to help, the man behind her groped her. She jumped up to challenge him; he immediately left the carriage. But it was the reaction she got from other passengers that was almost worse than the event itself. “When something like that happens to you, it’s such a shock that you don’t know how to react,” she told me. “When I shouted at that guy on the tube, everyone looked at me like I’d done something wrong. And after he got off, nobody asked me if I was OK.”

Everyday Sexism and the British Transport Police launched a joint project earlier this year—Project Guardian—to help tackle the problem. Although harassment on public transport happens so regularly, very few people report it to the police. When asked on Twitter what discourages people from coming forward, Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, replied: “1) Normalisation—sadly it’s so common that women get used to it. 2) Embarrassment—society wrongly shames the victim. 3) Confusion about the law—people don’t know if it’s serious enough to report, or if it will be taken seriously. 4) Not knowing who to report it to.”

The campaign encourages people to come forward when something happens and has been hugely successful. The British Transport Police have specially trained all 2,000 officers to deal with sexual offences and are running a social media campaign to help identify suspects. In the six months to October, “detected crimes” (that is, crimes where the offender is charged or summonsed, or the person receives a caution, reprimand or warning) for sexual harassment on public transport were up 20 per cent on last year.

Widespread sexual harassment on public transport is not an issue limited to the UK. Project Guardian drew on a similar project carried out by transport police in Boston, and there have been related campaigns across the US, including in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, DC, and Chicago.

When I visited Taiwan earlier this year, there were posters all over the Taipei underground proclaiming that harassment would not be tolerated. In one incident when a woman was groped on a bus in Taipei, she reported it to the driver who simply drove to the nearest police station, with the culprit on board—an extraordinary show of support for the victim. The act has been repeated by bus drivers several times since then and recently “sexual harassment and pick-pocketing” buttons have been installed on some buses so passengers can easily raise the alarm. The fact that these measures are seen to be needed says a lot about how much harassment must happen, but at least the problem is being taken seriously and women are being encouraged to speak up.

And some of you may remember Ellie Cosgrave, the woman who on International Women’s Day danced on the London underground to reclaim the space where a man had ejaculated on her. She was contacted afterwards by people in New York and Paris who had had similar things happen to them. Some countries, such as Japan and Mexico, have resorted to offering women-only carriages—helpful in practical terms, but it seems to be stepping around the problem rather than solving it.

Hollaback! is a women’s organisation founded in New York to tackle street harassment, including harassment on transport—studies show that between 77 and 100 per cent of women worldwide will experience street harassment. They now have branches in 22 countries, including India, Australia, South Africa, Germany and the UK, and were involved with drafting Project Guardian.

“Since starting Hollaback! in 2005, we’ve received thousands of reports of harassment on public transit,” co-founder Emily May told me. “Some harassers take advantage of the fact you can’t escape. Others, especially gropers, take advantage of the close proximity. We’ve heard grotesque stories of women being groped in their sleep or ejaculated on… It’s sick.”

She also told me about the damaging impact of harassment on public transport. “Once you’ve been harassed trains become a site of trauma that you have to endure daily just to get to work or school. In many cities, women have few other options, as public transportation is the only affordable method of travel.”

When I spoke to the woman who had been groped while she helped a fellow passenger on the tube, one thing she said stuck in my mind. “It’s not that I accept [being harassed on the Tube],” she said, “but if you’re going to live and work in London for a long time then it’s going to happen.”

Women have grown to accept harassment as inevitable if they are audacious enough to want to travel around their own city by themselves—Laura Bates hit the nail on the head when she talked about normalisation. But I for one am fed up of being hassled and harassed as I try to travel around my city, both on the street and on public transport, in a way that men rarely have to worry about. It’s frustrating that we need something like Project Guardian to prevent harassment from happening, but perhaps their efforts will help to show that it shouldn’t be dismissed as “banter.”

To find out more, follow the #ProjGuardian hashtag on Twitter.

  1. December 7, 2013


    Urgh a drunk guy once cornered me on an otherwise empty train and started kissing my hand. I was completely terrified, he seemed really volatile. Luckily he got out the stop before mine. When I told a friend about it, he said that I shouldn’t have been travelling alone. I said that when I’m one of only 2 people on a mode of public transport, I always manage to not sexually harass the other person. He told me that I should just be more careful about it in future.

  2. December 16, 2013

    Carolina D.

    Mexico city also has a specific area in the train, painted in pink from the outside, designed specifically for women to avoid harassment during rush hour, when the train is so packed it can get pretty scary. Obviously, what might look like “progress” from a Western perspective ( look, Mexico has a feminist section in the train!) is actually a minimum requirement that will help women not get groped and harassed constantly while taking public transportation. Thank you for this piece!

  3. December 19, 2013


    Not to be funny, but what they were saying was at each other’s expense, not yours, and was clearly a private conversation you were evesdropping on. Feminism in the UK is the domain of people with unfalsifiable paranoias. If you want to see sexism, come to South Africa, we have it in spades. Go into rural farming communities, and there is no such thing as female aspirations, aside perhaps of being mothers and good wives. Thailand is likely little different, and a comparison with the UK seems inappropriate.

    What about men, then? Do you think there is a man alive on this planet who would report sexual harassment by a woman? He’d be laughed under the door. Sure, there still is sexual harassment, but are you going to continue crying patriarchy until the roles are reversed from 1950, or is equillebrium close enough?

    “ugh, a drunk guy once kissed my hand”, please. I have had worse from ugly drunk women grinding their way into me when i least desired it, and stood firm. I’ll grant you, men are scarier, uglier, bigger and stronger, but if you’re living in London, its not likely to result in robbery or rape like where i come from. He’s probably just going to be very annoying. Most of us are petrified of rubbing you the wrong way (excuse the expression), and thus dont engage enough to titillate anybody. We are screwed either way (well, not so much back home).

    And yes, i know what its like to be sexually harrassed by a man in the manner you speak of. I also just put up with it. even if hes bigger than me. Because the alternative is that i put the man in jail for something that would be welcomed by a different individual, and which probably came with no ill intent. Women have not grown to accept harrassment – they are more sensitive to it. That is why the statistics go up – there are women who will report shifty glances as sexual harassment, or excessively friendly language.

    Also bear in mind that with smaller corpus callosi, men are less capable of figuring out social situaltions or interpreting social cues correctly. To exaggerate inappropriately, Id say most of us are borderline asperger’s cases. But nice research. And I’ll probably be one of the only men to read this article, meaning that your entire board will be peppered entirely with female opinions, amplifying your little echo chamber.

  4. December 20, 2013


    Rob, what makes you so sure I’m not from SA? Coincidentally enough I was sexually assaulted in the Western Cape when I was 14. Never got robbed though. I guess I was lucky?

    Are you trying to imply that women reporting shifty glances is something that makes it into the UK Court of Law? I can assure you it falls well below the current or the previous definition of sexual assault. Any evidence from a sexual assault case that ‘falls below’ the minimum definition of sexual assault is removed from preliminary evidence because it is deemed irrelevant. Do you know much about this part of the law? I can’t imagine where you are getting your information from.

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