Last weekend I boarded my train home after an evening out and was disappointed to find all the seats were taken. Then a drunken lech invited me to come and sit on his lap. I politely declined his offer but he continued to pester me for the duration of my journey. Perhaps he didn’t notice my discomfort, though I suspect he did and that it merely served to heighten his enjoyment.
Most women will have experienced an incident like this. Often it gets written off as “banter”, but actually it’s frightening to be trapped in such a situation in a confined space, as you will your train to deliver you safely at your stop before things turn nastier still.
The number of sexual offences on the railways has surged in the past year - some 1,117 were recorded by British Transport Police in the 12 months to March 2014, a 20.8 per cent annual increase, most of which was accounted for by incidents of sexual crime against women and girls.
Transport minister Claire Perry has vowed to tackle this extremely disturbing trend, saying she is “absolutely determined” to boost safety. While it is encouraging that a politician should want to act, it is clear to me that Perry is on the wrong track altogether by entertaining the possibility that “women-only” carriages could be an acceptable answer to sex attacks on passengers.
Segregating men and women is hardly a step forward – quite the opposite in fact. It is insulting to both sexes to suggest that women should be shooed into special carriages of their own to protect them from predatory male counterparts who “just can’t help themselves”.
Not only is it patronising to suggest women require protection from men, and degrading to shame and punish them for the actions of others, it demeans men to treat them with such suspicion and imply that they are all potential sexual predators.
The real problem is the desperate need to educate boys and men about consent and respect for women. Are politicians really blind to it? Or are they just being wilfully ignorant?
In 2011 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that gender segregation was unlawful and abolished the country’s “kosher” public buses, in which female passengers were required to sit at the back. More recently, women in Sao Paulo have protested against the implementation of women-only underground carriages, dubbed “the pink train”, arguing that they should be free to feel safe in public.
Perhaps a solution could be found by reframing the issue and focusing our attention on the source of the problem - those who refuse to exercise control over their sexual urges - instead of penalising the rest of the population.
Perry said she had “come up with some wacky ideas like "three strikes and you’re off". Wacky’s the word. Reprimanding offenders for illegal conduct? What other hare-brained schemes are these politicians going to come up with next? The only thing about this suggestion that strikes me as “wacky” is the notion that guilty parties would be permitted to offend multiple times before action is taken, essentially giving us all two free passes when it comes to committing sexual assault onboard a train. In that case, might we roll this idea out across the country to cover all transgressions, for instance, three bank robberies and then your account is closed?
Another alternative would be to introduce carriages especially for people who fear they may be tempted to sexually assault a fellow passenger. I can’t see many people clamouring to climb aboard those carriages but at least they'd be guaranteed a seat.