The Blog

Reclaiming the Commute: Dealing With Unwanted Attention on Public Transport

I love my commute. There is always a seat, the ticket inspectors make friendly conversation and the view frequently yields animals I've only ever seen in books. This time last year, however, the thought of taking the train would fill me with dread.

The British Transport Police are getting tough on sexual offences, the victims of which are largely women. Unwanted sexual attention from fellow passengers must be reported in order that the commute - and indeed, public transport - can be reclaimed. The following guide comprises a series of suggestions as to how tackle undesired and potentially threatening behaviour.

I love my commute. There is always a seat, the ticket inspectors make friendly conversation and the view frequently yields animals I've only ever seen in books.

This time last year, however, the thought of taking the train would fill me with dread. A passenger had begun to exhibit inappropriate behaviour towards me, and his actions, though subtle, were nonetheless unsettling; they would include staring, sitting very close to me in spite of my efforts to evade him, and following me closely at the end of the journey - again, notwithstanding my attempts to make a quick getaway - in order to say hello, touch my arm and then briskly walk on.

Though my instincts had always told me that something was wrong, my initial reaction was to trivialise his behaviour, an approach that was buttressed by the apologist stance taken by a lot of my friends.

The thing is, I'd never experienced this kind of attention from a stranger before and was afraid of misinterpreting his actions. Yet for many women - and some men - who commute on a daily basis, undesired attention, be it as sinister as groping or as subtle as moving seats to be near someone, is a dismally prevalent component. The actions of the passenger finally culminated in my reporting him to the British Transport Police, who urge people to report all offences of this kind, no matter how 'serious' they consider them to be. However, the trajectory that led to this point was by no means linear, and my doubts did compel me to engage in different methods of rather than act on my instincts. The guide below deals with how unwanted attention on public transport should be dealt with.


Seek advice, but trust your instincts

Distinguishing between harmless and potentially threatening behaviour is not always an easy task, and there may be times when you need to seek peers' advice as a way of gauging somebody's intentions. My advice would be this: if you feel at all uncomfortable, and your instinct is telling you that something insidious is at play, report the passenger. It's then in the hands of the British Transport Police.

Keep a diary

As with any form of harassment, keeping a diary allows you to visualise behavioural patterns that you may not be able to immediately recall during a conversation. If it does get to the point where you want to contact the police, going over your diary will help you create a more thorough report.

Report it as soon as possible

Keeping a diary is important, but don't wait too long before you report it. How long you leave it depends on how threatened you feel, and is difficult to quantify; I'd say a fortnight is long enough to track and record someone's behaviour.

However, if you feel you've left it too long, report it anyway. It's ok to report a historical case. I went to the police a few months after the incident had begun, and they dealt with the case as though it were recent and collaboratively we organised a very discrete system for identifying the man. He was then given a warning, and told that if his actions continued, he would be arrested.


Rely on methods of evasion to deter the perpetrator

At first, I tried all sorts: wearing glasses, putting headphones in, moving to another carriage. Ultimately, though, we cannot always predict how somebody will interpret our efforts, in spite of how failsafe we're convinced they are. Somebody from whom you are receiving unwanted attention might think you are playing hard to get, and this could just encourage them further. The best thing to do is behave as you always would and file a report.

Cause a scene

Women are often advised to call someone out on their inappropriate behaviour in full earshot of other passengers, in order that they stop what they are doing on account of sheer embarrassment. My advice would be: don't. You never know how someone may later react to this, or how they might react in the moment. It might feel empowering, but you can never be certain of someone's propensity to hold a grudge or lash out.

Blame yourself

I used to wonder if I had instigated the whole scenario, as I remember once smiling at the passenger in the street. Yet there are always going to be people who misinterpret your signals, and you are absolutely not responsible for their actions; the blame for unwanted behaviour lies solely at their door.

You should never be made to feel like you have to change who you are or how you relate to people.

Likewise, however, if being more curt with strangers makes you feels comfortable, no one should discourage you from this; ultimately, you need to feel safe using public transport. This is what reclaiming the commute is all about.

Have you ever experienced harassment or unwanted attention on public transport? How did you deal with it?