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.