Content warning: sexual harassment/assault
There are many unpleasant aspects about using public transport – obnoxiously loud phone chatter, people who seem to object to deodorant use and questionable seat-covers that haven’t been washed since the Sydney Olympics.
None, however, are more troubling than sexual harassment.
This was made painfully clear to me a few weeks ago when I was catching the bus home after a fruitful day spent procrastinating in the library. Because it was peak hour, the bus was at full capacity. As I clung onto the nearest pole I felt someone push into me. But given the fact that we were in some kind of human sardine can, I dismissed it and moved to the left to give the person more room. However, as I moved away I felt them edge closer and thrust into me again. And again. And again. I turned around and my eyes were met with a middle-aged man who was staring at me with a sickening Cheshire grin.
This was by no means my first experience of sexual harassment on public transport, which, throughout my life, has often been the site of both verbal and physical harassment. For me and many other wom*n, sexual violence and public transport are inextricably linked.
The recent #MeToo movement has brought sexual harassment to the forefront of public consciousness and has engendered discussions about sexual violence, particularly focused around the workplace. However, street harassment, or more specifically, harassment on public transport, has largely been left out of the conversation. Despite this, public transport is consistently identified as one of the worst spaces for sexual harassment where wom*n experience both verbal and physical abuse on a frighteningly regular basis.
Victorian police statistics from 2013-14 show that one in eleven wom*n have reported being sexually harassed on public transport. But as researcher Dr Nicole Kalms points out, this is a highly conservative figure as “around 80 per cent of cases don’t get reported at all.” Sexual violence on public transport can range from unwanted sexual comments, leering, touching, groping, indecent exposure, and even to incidents of rape. This type of harassment is often intersected with elements of racism, homophobia, ableism and transphobia.
According to a study by Plan International, almost half of wom*n (44%) felt uncomfortable taking public transport alone during the day and an overwhelming majority (92%) felt uncomfortable taking public transport alone at night. These statistics speak to the fact that wom*n’s experiences of public spaces are being coloured by incidents of abuse, which remain an omnipresent threat throughout our everyday lives. The prevalence of sexual harassment is an indictment on our ability to move freely and uninhibited within public places. This is particularly poignant given that wom*n’s presence in these places is highly symbolic of our broader movement into the public sphere and street harassment is a direct threat on our right to exist in these spaces.
Public transport is a vital service for wom*n in urban areas, providing them with access to employment, education, health and other services. However according to a journal article published by Natalie Gardner “harassment and subsequent fear of crime may increase car use over public transport use.” Not only is sexual harassment on public transport violating, but it can also compromise wom*n’s freedom of movement by forcing them to take alternative modes of transport in response to it.
Perfunctory attempts have been made to address this issue, however they have all been directed towards the behaviour of wom*n as opposed to the deep underlying misogyny in our society. Last year Victoria launched the “Hands off” campaign – which despite it’s good intentions, placed the onus on wom*n to report their assault rather than on men not to assault wom*n in the first place. This could also be seen in 2013 when the NSW Rape Crisis Centre and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union put forth a proposal to designate ‘wom*n only’ carriages. Segregating wom*n within public transport will only serve to further marginalise us within society and instead of addressing the root cause of this issue (misogyny), wom*n’s only carriages simply remove us from the picture all together.
These solutions attempt to change the behaviour of wom*n rather than the behaviour of the perpetrators themselves, which is characteristic of the victim blaming culture in which we live. This is a sentiment which was echoed by Eva Cox when she spoke to the Daily Telegraph: “I suspect if men are being drunk and obnoxious they ought to be stuck away in a separate carriage rather than limit wom*n to the special carriage. I think we should lock up the potential perpetrators. Or keep them away from the wom*n rather than the other way around.”
Sexual violence in public spaces should not be accepted as a quotidian feature of wom*n’s everyday lives. We should not have to navigate around the fear that we may encounter the wrong man on our way to the bus stop, whilst sitting on a train or waiting at the station.
Sexual harassment in public places is a symptom of the festering misogyny within our culture and will only be resolved when the patriarchal power structures of society are dismantled. Wom*n ought to have the right to move freely and unencumbered within public spaces however, until that becomes a reality I suggest Transport NSW take up Eva Cox’s idea and designate a ‘predators only’ carriage.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*ns edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.