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…