When Polly* was 15, a man on a train put both hands down her shirt and grabbed her breasts, then carried on walking. “I couldn't bring myself to report it the police,” Polly, now 22, told The Independent.
Polly is a victim of sexual assault on public transport. And she could not be further from being alone.
Whether on trains, tubes or buses, sexual assault is incredibly common: offences range from making leery comments and rubbing your crotch on another person to rape.
But the most frequent occurrences are sexual touching and ‘upskirting’, which together form 60 per cent of all the British Transport Police’s reported offences.
Upskirting is the covert filming by the suspect of the victim and involves the use of a phone or camera to film up the victim’s skirt, and many women don’t even realise it’s a crime.
21-year-old Rebecca* is one such woman: “I was on the tube in London - it was a really empty carriage and opposite me was this old guy who was creepily staring at me,” she explained to The Independent.
“He was acting strange on his phone and as I stood up to get off he leant forward and tried to take a picture up my skirt. I was wearing tights, but it just felt like the biggest violation of my privacy. I felt so vulnerable and uncomfortable that I didn’t say anything.”
She had a similar experience on a bus when a man took a photo of her breasts: “I saw on his phone that he'd taken a photo of just my boobs and was sending it to someone,” Rebecca said.
“It made me feel physically sick and just violated in such a strange way as that photo is forever.”
According to Superintendent Jenny Gilmer from the British Transport Police, it’s on tubes that assaults are most common.
Whilst many people fear being in an empty tube carriage with just one other person, you’re statistically more at risk of sexual assault during rush hour.
70 per cent of the offences reported to the British Transport Police are sexual assaults on women, 20 per cent are ‘outraging public decency’ (masturbation), six per cent exposure and two per cent sexual assault on men.
96 per cent of the reports to the British Transport Police are from female victims where the assailant was male. However two per cent of assaults are male on male, leaving two percent of assaults by women on men.
Of the 98 per cent of all assaults that are committed by men, 61 per cent of those are aged 20 to 45.
Being sexually assaulted - in whatever form that might be - can leave a person upset, violated, vulnerable, shaken-up, intimidated, uncomfortable, angry, confused and scared. It’s a horrible thing to experience.
Emma*, 25, was a victim of frotteurism on a busy tube ten years ago: “I thought it was an accident but he just kept himself pressed into my bum and was breathing down my neck,” she explains.
“It was so busy that I couldn't really get away and I was too scared to say anything in case it was an accident and I was young too.”
Emma tried to make eye contact with other people on the tube to convey what was happening but to no avail. She got off early at the next stop and ran the rest of the way home crying down the phone to her mother.
It’s enough to make anyone rage.
So many people don’t know how to react when they find themselves victims of sexual assault, and the chances are that even if you think you know what you’d do, in the moment you might find you can’t think.
But what should you do?
Gilmer explains that it’s hard to give conclusive advice on how you should act because each situation is different, but she recommends moving away and creating as much distance as you can between you and the assailant.
“Do not put yourself into a confrontational situation,” she stressed to The Independent. “Personally I wouldn’t say anything or try and take a photo - you have to judge it on the specifics of that situation.”
Once you’re off the train, tube or bus, it’s paramount that you report what happened as quickly as possible to the British Transport police, whether that’s by texting (61016), phoning (0800 40 50 40) or telling an officer in person.
Two years ago, the British Transport Police launched their ‘Report it to stop it’ campaign after a survey found that 90 per cent of people weren’t reporting sexual assaults. In the years since, however, Superintendent Gilmer says they’ve seen a drastic increase in reports.
“We want people to come forward and tell us - we will listen, take it seriously and investigate,” she says.
But many victims are put off because they think whatever happened to them wasn’t serious enough: “People aren’t sure if it was a crime or just unpleasant behaviour but it can still help build up picture of offending,” Gilmer says.
Jasmine*, 21, told The Independent a story of how a man sitting next to her on a train pressed his leg so firmly into hers that she was pinned between him and the window, paralysed and unable to move.
“I guess maybe it sounds silly but it was just such a weird power thing and I felt really vulnerable and caught off guard,” she says.
But Gilmer stresses that no assault is too small: “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. Trust your judgement and your gut,” she says.
In fact, Twitter abounds with stories from women who were taken aback, shocked and impressed at just how seriously the police have taken their reports.
When the campaign originally launched, it focussed on the victims, encouraging them to report their experiences of sexual assault.
But the latest incarnation of the campaign, released earlier this year, sends a message to the perpetrators: “We relaunched the campaign to tell offenders they will be caught and face ramifications,” Gilmer explains.
Although reports have increased, the British Transport Police don’t know if assaults are going down, because they believe there’s still a degree of under-reporting.
Once you report an assault, it’s up to the victim whether they want the police to investigate further - the majority who come forward do so just to tell the police and this is still helpful.
“We cannot compel people to go down the investigative process but the best way of stopping it happening to someone else is to catch the offender,” Gilmer points out. But many victims just don’t want to drag the process out and would rather move on with their lives.
As for the culprits, there are various different sanctions depending on the severity of the offence and whether they’re prolific offenders.
On conviction, the offender will be subject to a Sexual Harm Offenders Prevention Order (SHOPO) which the subject must comply with.
These last for five years but in the event of repeat or serious offending, they can be indefinite. Breaching a SHOPO is punishable with five years’ imprisonment.
Conditions imposed by the British Transport Police following conviction include:
- Not to enter any station or train, including London Underground stations and trains, within England and Wales, unless accompanied by a family member or a suitable appropriate adult.
- Not to communicate with a female person by the use of words or behaviour that is of a sexual nature or by use of words or behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
- Not to travel on any London Underground train or enter any London Underground station at any time, unless previously obtaining written permission from the Public Protection Unit or equivalent department within the British Transport Police.
Gilmer cannot be certain as to what the answer is to stop sexual assaults occurring altogether, but she believes stressing the unacceptability of the behaviour is essential.
We live in a world where women who are yet to experience sexual assault talk about “when” it happens to them, not “if.” It’s undeniably awful, and yet that is the state of our society.
It needs to change.
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