Figures showing a 25% increase in sex offences reported to the British Transport Police (BTP) have been met with a tsunami of women sharing their own experiences of assault and harassment. The figures and responses act as a stark reminder of the extent of abuse, but also, more positively, the success of the BTP in encouraging people to report - the first, and critical step in tackling this crime.
Like many women, I am also no stranger to harassment on public transport. At 20, whilst travelling on a train to Oxford, a drunk sat down and tried to engage me in conversation. After making it clear I was uninterested he proceeded to become very aggressive, repeatedly shouting that he was going to f***ing kill me. Shaken, I moved to another carriage. He followed. This continued. After alerting train staff I was advised the man could not be removed from the train as he had a valid ticket. I was alone and very frightened. I had reported the incident but nothing was done.
Fast track to London five years later and after exiting the tube onto a largely empty platform, a man tightly grabbed my bum. I froze. 20 seconds later he dropped his hand and walked, nonchalantly, on. I felt violated and weak for doing nothing, but given my previous experiences, had little confidence in action being taken if it was reported.
On a scale of harassment, these incidents are mild. They are however indicative of the daily experiences of women, on and off public transport, in a society where a minority, but active group of men, feel it is ok to cop a feel if they want.
Whilst the BTP's numbers are deeply alarming, the police have suggested that the hike is largely due to an effective programme aimed at reducing sexual offences on public transport and increasing reporting rates. This programme included providing officers with appropriate training, setting up text numbers for reporting, and running a hard hitting video campaign, 'Report It Stop It'. On a BBC Radio 5 Live show this week, a woman shared her own story of assault on the tube, and her subsequent experience of reporting it. The BTP's support after the incident was reassuring. After the woman had been followed and spat on, the police took samples of the spit for records and gave advice on how to reduce risks of assault in the future. The caller felt she had been listened to and taken seriously. BTP's efforts show that with the right focus, training and effective marketing, cultural change on how sexual offences are perceived and acted on can be initiated.
Harassment and sexual abuse of women doesn't just stop at public transport though. Hollaback, a global movement to end street harassment, filmed a woman walking for ten hours on New York's streets. It documents over 100 incidents of sexual harassment with one man shouting, "Someone is acknowledging you for being beautiful. You should say thank you more." In his eyes, not only was it ok for him to harass this woman, but she should also be grateful for him doing so.
Off the streets and into bars harassment can take a more sinister turn. Poor reporting means there are no reliable statistics on how many women's drinks are spiked in the UK, but if media coverage and anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, it looks to be a significant and growing problem. In a Swansea university study, 1 in 3 students suspected they had been spiked, two thirds of them were women. After drinking a single G&T at a party hosted by a prestigious university club, my friend and I collapsed. It turns out the club member who served us with the 'flirtatious' quip, "I've mixed these especially for you," had probably added more than just gin to the mix. We reported the incidents to the university. The club hosted another event the following term.
I feel hopeful that things will get better on our tubes and trains, but the attention and investment the British Transport Police have prioritised needs to be adopted more systematically elsewhere - in the broader police force, in the management of bars and clubs, on our streets. Verbal harassment is not flirtation. Bottoms are not there for a gratuitous grope. If you spike a drink you are violating someone's body and the law. We need to focus on making victims feel confident that if they report abuse they will be taken seriously and that the incident will be followed up. Report it, stop it.