Sexual harassment and assault of women on trains must be taken more seriously

I am rather embarrassed when I see members of my own gender rushing into comments threads about women’s rights/safety with “This is sexist against men”/”What about men/everybody”-type comments.

A) It’s boring. B) It’s embarrassing. Do they not realise how stupid they look?

Men have enormous privileges in life. So much so that we walk tall through life without actually realising how privileged we are as a gender. Is it not appropriate that we occasionally shut the hell up and listen to the experiences of others who do not have such a privileged lot in life (generally)?

There has been a good debate spurred on by the Jeremy Corbyn suggestion of a debate on women-only carriages.

If I might use a (I think) American expression: the “key take-away” from this women-only carriages issue is this:

The safety of women, particularly, on trains is a very important issue and we need to find ways to address it. I suspect such ways will improve safety for everyone. But specific ways need to be found nonetheless that make women more safe on trains and also make women feel more safe on trains.

In fact the women-only carriage thing is a non-starter for a load of practical reasons. If you have women-only carriages it is conceivable that you actually reduce the safety of women on trains. Bear in mind that it is likely that such a carriage would not always be at the end of the train. So people would walk through it. So it would perhaps make women more vulnerable to attack from people walking through the carriage. Also, as Caron points out, it would probably make women who don’t use such carriages more vulnerable to predation.

But there is a serious problem with how casually society in general treats sexual harassment and assault of women on trains and it is specific to women. (Yes, there is a general problem of train safety for all, but there is a very specific women’s safety issue which has specific root causes and effects, and requires very specific, targeted solutions). When I am reading quietly on the train, I don’t get people sidling up to me and saying “What you reading then?”. I don’t get people leering at me. I don’t get people following me when I get off the train. I don’t get people putting their hand on my bottom or gratifying themselves in front of me.

I would recommend this article from Monique Villa which hits the nail on the head:

…women-only carriages are surely not the ideal solution. Shouldn’t public money be spent to tackle the real root of the problem, which is sexual discrimination and assault? Wouldn’t that achieve a better and lasting impact?

From verbal abuse to being followed, from unwanted sexual comments to physical assault, sexual harassment should be taken seriously and prosecuted accordingly. If the general feeling is that such crime is ‘too petty’ to be looked into by the authorities, how can we expect women to step up and report it? The message must be clear, and must be addressed right to the perpetrators: we will identify and prosecute you.

Along similar lines, our esteemed editor Caron writes:

So what would work? Raising awareness of the problem, as the British Transport Police have done, is important. Corbyn also came up with the idea of a 24 hour hotline to report such crimes. That has merit.

I also think that those of us who use public transport should look out for our fellow travellers. We tend to bury ourselves in our now thoughts and resolutely avoid any sort of interaction with the world around us. Keep an eye out for women who look uncomfortable and intervene to help them. If you see someone being groped on a crowded carriage, get up and offer them your seat or your space and report the perpetrator. These people need to be convicted.

One thing I’ve learnt this week is that the British Transport Police encourage reports of sexual harassment by text on 61016.

I finish with the words of Louise Jones (whose article is explicit):

People need to know that this happens a lot and it NEEDS to be talked about. Stories need to be shared and those men need to be shamed and caught. Shout out and grab his arm and demand respect and attention. Support a woman if she does shout out. Look out for it happening to those who are frozen. Look out for me. Make him cry and call the police. Make the biggest fuss you possibly can.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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24 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Aug '15 - 12:04pm

    I agree that saying “what about the men” is sometimes annoying, but I think it is sometimes necessary. I’m not “stupid”, I know full well that most of the media won’t take this approach and plenty will mock me, but I think culture can change over this issue where more people of both genders feel free to discuss matters.

    We have a gap between what people write in the media and what people write below the line and it is not just on this website but other political websites, newspapers and even Twitter too and I think it can be closed a bit.

    Best regards

  • There’s a lot of MRA tomfoolery and sexism on the internet.

  • “In fact the women-only carriage thing is a non-starter for a load of practical reasons. If you have women-only carriages it is conceivable that you actually reduce the safety of women on trains. Bear in mind that it is likely that such a carriage would not always be at the end of the train. So people would walk through it. So it would perhaps make women more vulnerable to attack from people walking through the carriage.”

    Given that a Yougov poll of female public transport users in London last year found that 45% of women thought that they would feel safer using a women-only carriage, with only 23% disagreeing, the above quote sounds suspiciously like “mansplaining”.

  • John Tilley 29th Aug '15 - 1:42pm

    Stuart 29th Aug ’15 – 12:45pm
    “……Yougov poll of female public transport users in London last year found that 45% of women thought that they would feel safer using a women-only carriage, with only 23% disagreeing, ”

    I read this week that more than half of all passenger journeys in England on public transport every day are within London.
    Anyone who has ever commuted in the rush hour in London by train or tube knows that there is a problem of harassment.
    Anyone who has had to endure “strap-hanging” squashed into a carriage designed for less than half the number of passenger you are “sharing” the space with understands. At some point in any journey through the centre of London at peak time all of the other passengers seem to be within a few centimetres of your nose.

    It is just one of the failures of Boris whose preference for photo-opportunities over any effective work as Mayor of London has seen things get worse rather than better.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 29th Aug '15 - 1:47pm

    Having family in Mumbai, I’m aware of the women-only areas on the Mumbai commuter rail services, which are clearly marked, well-used and, importantly, well-patrolled. They appear to be a success, given that they’ve been there for at least forty years.

    I tend to the view that it’s worth trying something if there’s a possibility that it will help, so why not?

  • Richard Easter 29th Aug '15 - 2:48pm

    Perhaps the DFT shouldn’t be so obsessed with removing guards from trains and running them Driver Only (DOO) for starters. The McNulty report calls for full DOO nationwide. I have no idea how this is to be enforced if guards are removed from services. Rail Minister Claire Perry is on record saying that DOO trains are far safer than having guards on board, in some bizarre misuse of statistics.

    Additionally the obsession the DFT have with shorter trains to replace the old British Rail stock (the 7 and 8 car 125s were replaced with 4 and 5 car units on Cross Country, and Great Western will have a majority of 5 car sets to replace 8 car 125s from 2020). A women only carriage next to the guard’s compartment on an 11 carriage train is no bother. Such a thing on a short train with no onboard staff and unstaffed stations is quite another.

  • Jenny Barnes 29th Aug '15 - 2:59pm

    The sort of equality we want is for women (and indeed other minority groups) to feel as safe as men on trains. It would be great if everyone felt safer, too, but this is specifically about IN equality of outcomes, because some men feel they have the right to harrass women in public spaces.

    So “what about the menz” type comments are not only irritating, they are, in fact, off topic.

  • To be honest Paul, I dislike that horrible neologism because it’s the kind of word that seems designed to divide people. We’re all human beings and we’re all capable of empathising with those who are different to us, so we’re all entitled to an opinion. I was having a go at the word rather than your post, pretty much all of which I would agree with.

  • I wrote a piece for LDV not that long ago on the civil liberties implications of sexual assault and the fear of sexual assault – that it has always dogged women and affected our choices: https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-sexual-assault-and-fear-of-sexual-assault-a-civil-liberties-issue-46101.html

    However, I do not think women-only carriages are a good idea. I think many would feel more vulnerable in a carriage for women only, certainly if it was not policed. If a man then gets into the carriage – who would stop him? – women would be more fearful because it would seem like a provocation or a threat.

    Men and women should not have to live like this. The answer lies in more staff at stations and guards on trains, and educating men that sexual harassment is a sign of weakness and no better than racism or homophobia.

  • I must admit I don’t get to travel much on trains any more, but surely a simple start would be a high profile poster campaign would be a start (witnessed a sexual assault – call xxxxx)? It’s often not just victims who freeze, sometimes witnesses get stuck as well (e.g. what do I do, will I get in trouble if I interfere and so on), so perhaps info posters may help?

    @Paul Walters
    “I don’t get people sidling up to me and saying “What you reading then?””

    Try looking less grumpy, I used to get asked that question by men and women and have had some interesting conversations because of it.

  • @Jenny Barnes – “The sort of equality we want is for women (and indeed other minority groups) to feel as safe as men on trains. ”

    More men are assaulted on trains than women. So you are saying that you want more women to be assaulted. Did you really mean this?

  • Malcolm Todd 30th Aug '15 - 12:11am

    “More men are assaulted on trains than women.”

    Are you sure about that, MBoy? Assaults on men are, I would guess, overwhelmingly openly violent assaults that tend to be reported to police; assaults on women are mostly sexual assaults, conducted furtively or in isolated circumstances, and not reported due both to embarrassment and a lack of objective evidence. If you talk to women about this, most will tell you that they have experienced assaults of this sort on public transport – and in most cases it probably hasn’t even occurred to them to report it.

  • @Malcolm, are you equating having your bum/groin squeezed with having your nose broken? I’ve had both, and let me tell you there is no comparison.

  • The last time I saw a woman getting hassled on a train it was by a rail employee – Southern Rail. Happy to report I intervened on her behalf. Rail passengers do look out for others, patronising pieces like this are wide of the mark.

  • Jenny Barnes 30th Aug '15 - 8:48am

    Mboy
    “More men are assaulted on trains than women. So you are saying that you want more women to be assaulted. Did you really mean this?”

    Evidence?

    No, of course I don’t want women to be subjected to physical assault as well as sexual harassment, However, there is an implicit threat of physical assault in sexual harassment – maybe if women responded to sexual harassment more aggressively the balance would change.

    Oh yes, thanks for the “What about the menz” comment in article specifically pointing out the stupidity of such comments.

  • Paul, thank you for this piece.

    Mboy: I too have had unwanted bum groping and my nose broken by a stranger (on different occasions) and you’re right, it is completely different. One of them is just being elbowed in the face, which can happen to all of us, and is therefore something to shrug off. The other is a reminder that a minority of people think that my gender makes me meat that they can handle at will, and nobody will intervene if I try to do anything (when I punched the bum groper, I was told that I was over reacting, that he probably did it by accident, that these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do).

    So yes, you’re right, trying to equate the two is foolish when one is an accident and the other is evidence of systemic oppression. That IS the point you were trying to make, right?

  • James Brough 30th Aug '15 - 9:40am

    Eddie – I sometimes think that, even if we did have a culture where people of any gender – I wouldn’t limit it to two – were free to discuss anything, some people would still be complaining that men weren’t being treated fairly.

    By the way, it’s November 19th.

  • @Jennie, if you’re arguing that having your bum groped by a stranger is substantively worse than having your nose (deliberately) broken in an attack by a stranger, them that’s a very interesting proposition, and if commonly believed by women it would certainly go a long way to explaining the disconnect in the way men and women look at this issue.

    It would also indicate that our sentencing policies are wildly out and need urgent reform. I’m quite honest when I say that I’m interested in that debate being had. Right now I remain sceptical that your view would be the majority opinion of women who have experienced both groping and having their nose broken in an attack, but I’m perfectly willing to be persuaded. It really would be a major change in the way society looks at these things.

  • Stuart

    ” the above quote sounds suspiciously like “mansplaining””

    I would just refer to my comment on the previous post:
    “Regardless of the merits of the term “mansplaining” which I think we appear to be about to disappear down a rabbit hole over, is it relevant in this context?

    If we for the moment accept Georges’s gender studies-esk definition:
    “patronising behaviour type where men […] talk down to women and explain how they know better about women’s own lived experiences.”
    This is not a discussion about someone’s experience it is about a public policy response (or potentially an organised piece of collective action by private providers) to an experience. That response will intern cause responses in both women and men (including the tiny minority who are perpetrators), which then determine what the effect is.

    Please explain what the value the term “mansplaining” brings to the discussion?”

  • Julie Maxon 30th Aug '15 - 1:06pm

    @ Jennie – very well said and well done for punching the bum groper. Did you break his nose by any chance?

  • Jennie

    “when I punched the bum groper, I was told that I was over reacting, that he probably did it by accident”

    Well done, perhaps you should have pointed out to your critic that an appropriate responce should be a very powerful kick to the groin so you were actually underreacting.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Aug '15 - 3:15pm

    Yes James, there will always be men complaining, but I’d rather some complaining than some kind of new chivalry where men aren’t allowed to stand up for their interests.

    Regards

  • Tsar Nicholas 30th Aug '15 - 8:48pm

    As a bloke, let me have my 10 cents worth.

    I have never felt unsafe on an intercity 125 (which is well staffed), but I have felt unsafe (drunks, yobs and so on) on suburban trains.

    The difficulty is that you could probably have a women-only carriage on a 12 car intercity train. However, it would cause quite a lot of problems if you did the same on a 2 car suburban set.

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