One woman’s story of sexual harassment and subsequent victim-blaming on public transport earlier this week serves as a startling reminder of the risk we face everyday simply by being female.
Unwanted sexual advances - whether physical, verbal or non-verbal - are depressingly commonplace for women.
More than 2,000 reports of sexual harassment on London’s public transport were made in 2015/2016. It is estimated that around 90% of cases go unreported, according to TfL’s new ‘Report It To Stop It’ campaign.
Nathalie Gordon, an advertising creative living in London, unwillingly became yet another statistic earlier this week and her story, which she posted on Twitter, is going viral.
Sat on a London bus on her way to a meeting, a man tapped her on the leg to ask for directions. After she replied, he proceeded to ask her where she was going and if she’d like to go for a drink with him.
At that moment, as many women who have been in this position before, she started to feel worried. How could she reject his advances without offending or provoking him?
She politely declined (with a “no, thank you”) and started to put her earphones back in. He reacted aggressively, grabbing them from her hand and telling her not to “be rude”. She apologised. Again, she didn’t want to provoke him.
He then started to “rub his crotch” while staring directly at her. She told him to stop and when he laughed at her, she got up and reported him to the bus driver. But was met with a shocking lack of support.
Faced with disbelief, lack of action and blatant victim-blaming, which is all too familiar for victims of sexual assault, Gordon had no choice but to get off the bus.
Gordon told HuffPost UK: “I literally felt like I had no other choice. I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel like anyone was on my side.”
She promptly reported the incident to the British Transport Police and Transport For London, who she said have been “amazing”.
“Not for a second did they question anything I said,” she said. “They made me feel understood and valued…They made me feel the opposite to the bus driver - safe and totally blameless.”
Siwan Hayward, TfL’s Head of Transport Policing, told HuffPost UK the incident is being investigated and the driver’s response was “completely unacceptable”.
“We do not tolerate unwanted sexual behaviour on our transport network and urge anyone who experiences it to report it to us or to the police so it can be investigated,” Hayward added. (For more information on how to do so, see the foot of this article.)
The differences between the two responses prove that there is still a lot of misunderstanding and this leads to victim-blaming, which can put women off reporting altogether, but Gordon’s story is proof that reporting is worthwhile and you will be taken seriously.
She has received an outpouring of support online since sharing her story, with many women sharing their own experiences and both men and women calling out the actions of both the perpetrator and driver.
There have also been those who have criticised and victim-blamed her online.
That’s why Gordon is using her experience to send a message to men about the reality of sexual harassment and how they can be part of the solution of stopping it once and for all.
Here are four things all women need men to know about sexual harassment.
Men are not entitled to women’s bodies.
No, women don’t owe you anything. Not a thing.
We should not be flattered if you catcall us, we are not putting you in the ‘friend zone’ if we don’t want to date you and no means no.
Caitlin Roper, Campaigns Manager for Collective Shout, told HuffPost UK: “We need to change a culture of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, where men believe women’s bodies are public property and they should be openly appraised, or that women exist for their entertainment.”
That isn’t to say don’t approach a woman who you genuinely find attractive and are interested in talking to or dating. But for God’s sake, read the cues. If a woman has headphones on or is reading a book, she probably would rather be left alone. If she politely declines, smiles or keeps walking, leave her be.
We’re not asking for it. Ever.
When faced with a sexual harassment allegation, the first thought of many is: what was she wearing? But this, ladies and gentlemen, is known as victim-blaming.
Because whether she’s attractive, wearing a short skirt or drunk, a woman is never asking to be sexually harassed.
Roper said: “Sexual harassment is often minimised, regarded by some as a misunderstanding or even a compliment. The reality is this treatment of women by men is an expression of power.”
We need to stop the damaging message that women need to prevent sexual harassment somehow, and focus on the fact that men and boys need to stop perpetrating.
When catcalled or approached by men, many women say they do not know how to respond. A fine line between firm and polite, the biggest fear is that we provoke or even offend.
As Caitlin Moran wrote in 2015 in The Times (£): “Try to imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to live on a planet where half the people on it are just… bigger than you. We are smaller, and softer, and we cannot run as fast as men. We know you can grab us, and we would struggle to get away. We know if you hit us, we’ll go down. We know if you decide to kill us, there’s not much we can do.”
Roper added: “It can be very difficult for victims to come forward or to ask for help - this is often an intimidating or threatening situation and there is often an element of fear and uncertainty about what might happen.”
Silence is complicity.
Whether in the heat of the moment, in raising your sons and daughters, or calling out sexist language in the pub, silence around sexual harassment and rape culture is complicit.
To use the age-old phrase: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Roper said: “We need good men to stand up and speak out against this - it’s not acceptable and victims need to be supported.”
That doesn’t mean confronting perpetrators necessarily, as that may cause further issues, but find a way to help. Get her out of harm’s way, support her and, above all, believe her.
Sadly, this isn’t what happens most of the time. Men and women look on, say nothing, are complicit.
What to do if you are harassed on public transport
Text what, where and when to TfL on 61016 or call 101.
You’ll get a reply within 24 hours.
Your assigned officer will be there to help you through the process.