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How sexual harassment on public transport affects women around the world

As reports of harassment on London’s underground soar, Dazed explores the global scale of the problem and speaks to women about their experiences

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

Around three years ago, as I exited London’s Hounslow East tube station – somewhere I had never been before, and have never been since – a group of men, as quick as they were organised, surrounded me. Disorienting music blasted into my ears and a mass of black jackets began to engulf me, but a woman’s hand reached in and pulled me to safety.

This experience is not unique, not even to me, but recent statistics show that almost a third of women in the UK experience unwanted attention when travelling, while 43 per cent of serious attacks against women in Paris happen on public transport. Those in Latin America suffer even more: in Bogotá, 86 per cent of women say they feel unsafe during their journeys, and 64 per cent of women in Mexico City have reported being groped or physically harassed.

“The transport system is usually planned by men, thought for men’s needs, and sometimes that is not enough,” Bogotá’s secretary for women Ángela Anzola De Toro said in a recent Guardian interview. “We have a very important need, and this is for public transport that we feel is safe for women.”

As well as launching campaigns which “let men know this is not natural behaviour, it’s not excusable, and is generating a feeling of insecurity in women”, Anzola De Toro believes public spaces must be designed with women in mind. While ensuring commuters can always see and hear one another is a key way to reduce attacks, it also relies on the presumption that bystanders will come to the rescue of victims. 

“It’s surprising how the majority of the community decides to become blind or deaf (when someone is being harassed),” 17-year-old Nini Ramírez, who is based in Bogotá, tells Dazed. Ramírez has experienced catcalling from a young age, with one memory she finds particularly painful. When travelling by public transport to a friend’s house one day, Ramírez was targeted by a man who rubbed his crotch against her until she “no longer had the strength” to sustain herself and broke down in tears. “I’m afraid that I’ll get on public transport again and the same thing will happen.”

Over 5,000 miles away in London, reports of sexual assault on the tube have soared by 42 per cent over the last four years. Although shocking, this figure doesn’t necessarily mean harassment is on the rise; rather, women are feeling compelled to report it. “We did a survey back in 2013,” Mandy McGregor, Transport For London’s (TFL) head of policing, says, “that showed 15 per cent of women experienced (harassment on public transport), but 90 per cent hadn’t reported it to the police.” 

In response, TFL launched their Report It To Stop It campaign in partnership with the British Transport Police (BTP) in April 2015, encouraging women to take their complaints to the police. “While every report won’t result in a conviction, each one helps us build an intelligence picture of where and when offenders commit crimes,” a spokesperson for the BTP reveals. “This consistently helps us identify criminals and bring them to justice.”

With numerous witnesses around them, why would attackers favour public trains and buses? “Public transport provides opportunities for motivated offenders because of the crowded space, the anonymity of it, and the perceived likelihood that they’ll get away with it,” McGregor continues. “If someone recognises their behaviour, the movement of the vehicle enables them to conceal their crimes by saying it was accidental. If (Report It To Stop It) is successful, that means we’re improving women’s confidence to report these offences, which are underreported in society generally.”

Suffering her own experience of harassment in London made 24-year-old Marianne Paul feel more encouraged to report it if something happened again. “I’ve learned the importance of speaking up when these things happen,” she explains. “In light of the #MeToo movement and the upskirting law, I think people are more confident to stand up for themselves and speak out against harassment.”

“Street harassment is often an invisible problem to those who don’t experience it regularly, so it’s hard for others to really understand how pervasive and invasive it can be” – Holly Kearl, Stop Street Harassment

Lexi Manatakis, a 25-year-old woman from Melbourne who lives in London, says she refuses to let perpetrators get away with it, reporting catcallers to their employers when she can. “When I get catcalled from company cars, I make sure to take down the number and license plate,” she explains. “I then call the company and file a complaint. It may seem small but it feels like a big feat in trying to tackle such a deeply embedded issue, especially when most of the time you feel helpless when it happens.”

As laws continue to favour perpetrators over survivors of sexual assault – see: rape trials in which the victim’s choice of underwear is used against her, or lenient sentencing for ‘promising’ athletes – it’s no wonder women are afraid to report harassment. One place working to fix the broken system is France, where harassment now carries a fine of up to €750 (£659). Almost a year later, over 700 men have been fined under the new law, proving the extent of the problem.

While the statistics look promising, 24-year-old Paris-based Sarah Legrand doesn’t think the new law will be effective in stopping harassment. “In order to be punished by the law, they need to be arrested. (Introducing a fine) is not really helpful and definitely doesn’t scare them or make them stop.”

Last year, Paris launched a campaign against sexual harassment on public transport, plastering the metro with posters depicting what it feels like for women facing assault while travelling. The images show women holding onto a metro pole, but surrounded by wolves, sharks, and bears (symbolising predatory men) instead of commuters. “Let’s not play down sexual harassment,” the posters read. “Victims and witnesses, raise the alarm.”

Holly Kearl, founder of activist organisation Stop Street Harassment, believes these kinds of campaigns are instrumental in raising awareness of the seriousness of the problem. “Street harassment is often an invisible problem to those who don’t experience it regularly,” she tells Dazed, “so it’s hard for others to really understand how pervasive and invasive it can be and why it’s upsetting and wrong. So much of our popular culture has turned it into a joke, a compliment, or a minor annoyance, and many people internalise that.”

Sexual harassment on public transport has been found to have concerning mental impacts on those who experience it. “It was a moment in my life where I felt most vulnerable,” 26-year-old Jessica Markowski says of one particular incident. Alone in New York’s subway system, Markowski was approached by a group of men who forced her to the ground by her hair. “I was scared to yell, speak up, scream,” she recalls. “I thought they might do more if I said anything.” The attack still impacts Markowski today, who says she’s “always scared to take the subway”. 

Paul says her experience also had a harrowing impact. “I completely froze and didn’t know what to do,” she explains. “I remember trying to get away but I couldn’t, so I just stood there feeling scared and close to tears. I cried as soon as I got into work because I’d never felt so disgusting.” This feeling of self-repulsion was mirrored in Legrand’s assault, who “showered three times” after the incident because she felt “dirty”. 

In an attempt to curb sexual harassment on public transport, some cities have introduced women-only carriages on trains. These segregated spaces have been commonplace in Mexico City for almost two decades and were generally met with a positive reception, though 21-year-old Bernadette Etienne, who was assaulted in the city’s transport system, tells Dazed that “men are always using them so they don’t work at all”. Etienne says she now avoids using public transport because “men are constantly harassing women and no one bats an eye”, explaining that she no longer speaks up because she realised she “was the only one who cared”. In 2017, UN Women and Mexico City’s authorities introduced a ‘penis seat’ on the metro, highlighting the harassment experienced by women. A ‘for men only’ label read: “It is uncomfortable to sit here, but that is nothing compared to the sexual violence that women suffer on their daily journeys.” 

Despite women-only carriages finding some success in Mexico City, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised in 2015 for suggesting he’d consider them. The party faced further backlash in 2017 after shadow minister Chris Williamson refloated the idea. “We don’t think women should have to change their behaviour and be segregated in a particular carriage because of the actions of predatory men,” McGregor asserts. “TFL’s focus is on targeting the people who are committing these crimes.” 

Legrand agrees: “I don’t think (women-only carriages) are a good idea because it would only be moving the problem. Sexual harassment is going to happen no matter what. Men need to be held responsible for their actions and understand that it’s wrong. Removing women from their eyesight can’t be a long term solution, and might even make things worse.”

Previously ranked as having the most dangerous transport system in the world for women, city councillors in Bogotá trialled women-only carriages, but the policy wasn’t met with much support. As well as men complaining the initiative would be “discriminatory” against them, Anzola De Toro told the Guardian that segregation wasn’t the answer. “Men just have to behave and not enter into these practices,” she said. “Their behaviour has to change, not us and the way we move, and the spaces we occupy, or how we dress. It’s a slippery slope when you start telling women ‘you’ll be safe if you don’t go there’, or ‘you’ll be safe if you don’t wear that’, then it starts infringing on our freedom.” She continued: “Bogotá is at a point where the answer is to change the culture and those behaviours, instead of changing the way women move and use the public space.”

Fearing for your safety during your commute to and from work is exhausting and shouldn’t be seen as a consequence of your gender. With sexual harassment reports on the rise in London, women in New York spending up to $50 (£39) extra a month on transport because of safety concerns, and girls in Bogotá terrified of taking the train, it’s clear that more needs to be done to raise awareness of the global prevalence of assault on public transport. “Helping with school education efforts and community outreach to young people can be crucial in helping to curb future harassment,” Kearl explains. Rather than asking women to adapt to a predatory world, lawmakers could be focusing on punishing offenders and improving education to undo the dangerous normalisation of harassment.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment on public transport in the UK, you can call 0800 40 50 40 or text 61016