Depressing news this week from the British Transport Police, who have reported an increase in the figures of sexual harassment and assault on trains. They’ve risen by 25% – the highest ever level – with 1,399 attacks between 2013 and 2014. Pretty grim.
But there’s a small silver lining in all the horrible gloom – police posit that the reason the figure has risen isn’t because attacks have actually increased, but because people are now more confident and comfortable in reporting them. They put some of this down to Project Guardian, a project aiming to reduce sexual assault and unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport. And, outside of police initiatives, groups and communities have been popping up over the last few years giving women a place to discuss their experiences.
Everyday Sexism, Hollaback! and regular Twitter feeds have provided women the space to talk about their experiences with people who understand, to share their stories with people who can empathise and, importantly, people who can also recognise themselves as protagonists in these grimly familiar stories.
Since I moved to London, I’ve had three notably terrifying experiences on public transport. On one occasion, a man put his hand between my legs on a Central train that was packed with humid commuters. I said nothing – moved away. Another guy, alone in a late night carriage with me, began to incessantly pester me for my number. At first he was almost charming, but as I became increasingly insistent that I was going home without him, this facade quickly crumbled and he became aggressive. Finally, a few months ago, a man took a picture up my skirt as I walked up an escalator.
These experiences all left me feeling disempowered, scared, and violated. Which is the point – you’re meant to be left feeling ashamed, even though you’re not the one who’s done something wrong. You’re meant to feel powerless, because your perceived powerlessness is what these men rely on to remain unchallenged, to stay under the radar – to get away with it.
It happens online, too, as any woman who has said almost anything on the Internet will attest. Responses can range from death or rape threats, to sexist remarks, or denigrating comments about appearance or weight or personality. Sometimes it’s superficially flattering; the guy who keeps DMing you no matter how many times you ignore his message, the person who asks you out even though they know you’re not interested, even if you’ve said no more than once.
The experience is altogether different from being groped or assaulted in real life, but the resulting feelings aren’t too different – this heavy, strong desire to bury it deep inside you, to push it to the back of your mind because you’re worried what will happen if you talk about it.
But when I have talked about it, it’s been nothing but empowering. I’ve been inundated with tweets and messages from people who have gone through the same things – people who reassured me that I wasn’t overreacting, that the anger and spite and shame I was feeling was natural. By the time the upskirt photo happened, I felt confident enough, my voice strong enough, to report it to the transport police.
Sarah-Louise, a writer from Glasgow, agrees. She was groped and verbally abused on a train, but her experiences online helped her cope.
“When I spoke about it online, I was embraced by the community. I found that not only had others experienced similar situations, but I was actually taken seriously. It empowered me. I felt like I hadn’t lost control”.
Sometimes it’s impossible – it can be unsafe to shout back, both online and in real life. I could never have challenged the man who I was stuck with on the tube at midnight, because there was a chance he would have become violent. Likewise, online threats have gone unconfronted, too dangerous to be tackled head on. And sometimes you can’t do it because to talk about it, let alone report it, would take energy that you just don’t have. And that’s fine too. But providing safe spaces in which women can talk about their experiences is deeply important. It’s vital we don’t let aggressors take our voices from us – it’s the greatest weapon we have.
Main Image: © iStock/tmarvin