I was on a packed bus from King's Cross one summer, standing in the luggage area, when somebody put their fingers between my legs. They let them just rest there, in my crotch; ever so lightly but unmistakably there, strange hands on jeans. I looked around, scanning the faces of my potential harassers, but no one gave the impression that the wandering hand belonged to them. I went into a state of numb denial, unsure whether or not I was imagining the whole thing. I was 16 years old.
Most women, when posed the subject of sexual harassment, will have a story to tell. A story about a busy Tube carriage and a fellow passenger's hand on their body; a story about unwelcome advances on a night out turned nasty. The stories might not include physical contact. They might tell of terrifying journeys home, pursued by shadowy strangers who follow them to their front doors for no apparent reason apart from to intimidate them; of violating encounters with men who reveal or even touch themselves with the sole purpose to make them feel uncomfortable.
When I watched British Transport Police's recent Report It to Stop It video, posted on Transport for London's YouTube channel on 13 April, I felt a chilling familiarity with the ordeal portrayed. I identified strongly with the victim's sense of powerlessness as she is being assaulted, unable to speak out or use any force to deter her harasser. The helplessness she feels as she moves herself out of the situation as best as she can, only to be followed by this stranger, intent on touching her and making her feel scared and unsettled. Her eventual escape and the apparent relief she experiences at being able to report the incident signals a potential solution for people unfortunate enough to find themselves harassed on public transport.
The video has been viewed more than 620,000 times since its release, and has generated a conversation about how TfL and BTP can make the transport network safer for women in particular. Though it has raised some important questions around how sexual assault can be effectively policed on public transport, and how perpetrators can be brought to justice, not all of the feedback has been positive or helpful for women who have experienced sexual harassment in transit, or may experience it at some point in the future.
An assumption has emerged through comment threads that women who find themselves in this kind of situation should respond with loud outbursts and violent actions, to spook their assaulters into backing off, and to publicly embarrass them. Women and men alike have posted suggestions like "grab his balls and twist" and "punch him in the face" as appropriate reactions to being groped or otherwise harassed on the transport network.
I really have to wonder how many of those people have ever been touched inappropriately on a crowded train, or groped in broad daylight, because from my experience, and those of others that I know of, this is by far not the default reaction. It is a dangerous presumption for a number of reasons. It places the onus on the victim to make a change to resolve the situation as it is happening, rather than expecting perpetrators not to grope in the first place. It risks the incident escalating further, and opens up the possibility of further harm being done to the victim. It may do some good in the short term, for the victim's peace of mind, but it will not stop their assailant going on to assault someone else.
I understand the concern that, in reporting harassment that takes place on the Underground, it will be difficult for the police to identify the perpetrator. With so many thousands of people using the Tube daily, how can they trace just one? This is specifically why people who suffer unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport should report such incidents - doing so will build up patterns for the police to follow (perhaps the person has already been reported, for example) which will hopefully lead to identifying assailants. At a time when sexual crimes are consistently not taken as seriously as they should be by society, the media and law enforcement, we need to do all that we can to give the authorities a chance to protect those in need, or else hold them accountable for their failure to do so.
If I'm unfortunate enough to be assaulted on public transport again, it is unlikely that I'll elbow my assailant in the face and shame him with the support of an entire group of strangers. I will, however, do my best to text what, where, when to 61016, so that the British Transport Police have a shot at bringing these people to justice.