Nearly one-third of women who take public transport experienced unwanted attention, study finds

Exclusive: 'I was leaving a party and I was at a bus stop in west London and a man came up to me and started masturbating. I was scared. I was on my own,' says victim

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Wednesday 07 November 2018 02:35
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Nearly a third of women who take public transport say they have been subjected to unwanted attention in the past year – with the majority of victims feeling unable to do anything about it, a new study has revealed.

An exclusive survey found 28 per cent of women who have used public transport in the past 12 months say they experienced unwarranted staring, sexual comments, bodily contact, wolf-whistling and exposure.

The research by polling company D-CYFOR found more than half of these women “tried to ignore” it as they did not think there was anything they could do about it.

Asked how safe they have felt using public transport, 73 per cent of women who use it say they feel “safe” whereas 26 per cent say they feel “neither safe nor unsafe” or “unsafe”. Women were found to be 16 per cent less likely than men to feel “safe” when using public transport.

A young woman, who did not want to be named, said she was sexually harassed at a bus stop at the age of 17.

“I was leaving a party and I was at a bus stop in west London and a man came up to me and started masturbating. I was scared. I was on my own,” she said.

“He must have been over 60 and clearly a bit deranged so I was not threatened in that respect. I paced it to the next bus stop and got on the bus home. I should have probably got a cab but I was a teenager and did not really know what I was doing. Not that I should blame myself for what happened.”

She said that if the same thing were to happen now that she was in her mid-twenties, she would probably report it to the police.

“I was naive and did not tell anyone what had happened at the time. Men exposed themselves, or would put their arm around me in the street, or wolf-whistle more when I was a teenager than they have done since I have been in my twenties. While a lot of this is still totally normalised, it is becoming less accepted. A lot has changed in the past 10 years.”

Labour MP Jess Phillips said the findings did “not surprise” her and called on the government to do more to tackle sexual harassment.

“I am a woman who travels on public transport and you see it most days,” she said. ”We have to make sure the companies are using platforms, carriages, and buses to make it clear there is somewhere people can report it. This increases visibility they will not put up with it and acts as a deterrence”.

“There need to be proper pathways for people to report things. For lots of people – men and women – it will just seem like ‘one of those things’ but it is not OK for women to have to tolerate these things while going to work or going to pick up kids or just going about their lives. It is even worse for younger women.”

She argued the government was failing to do anything to stop harassment and ultimately ignored the link between violence against women and everyday street harassment.

“The government is not doing enough to stop rape or brutal domestic violence,” she said. “I still do not think the government has a realisation of the correlation between street harassment and violence against women and girls. The correlation is always misogyny. Also, the burden is still entirely based on the victim – there is not a wholesale cultural response.”

Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, added: “Sexual harassment pervades women’s lives and women feel unsafe when they are out living their lives. To address this, we need to change people’s behaviour by training people who run public transport and those who run pubs and clubs and by exposing the level of harassment that women have to endure.”

Plan International UK, a charity that recently found two-thirds of girls and women aged 14 to 21 have been sexually harassed in public, said the latest data about public transport was “shocking”.

“When girls do speak up about harassment, they are being made to feel like it was their fault, told to take it as a compliment and that ‘boys will be boys’, rather than that their harassers should take responsibility for their actions. The frequency and prevalence of street harassment in their daily lives, combined with these reactions, sends a message that sexual harassment should be tolerated, and expected. This is unacceptable.”

“Girls and young women have told us they are being harassed on a regular basis and that they are changing their behaviour to avoid it – taking a different route home, avoiding public transport, wearing different clothes. They are being told to protect themselves, rather than that their harassers should take responsibility for their actions.”

Detective Inspector Ashley Cooper, of British Transport Police, called for more people to report instances of sexual harassment and assault.

“This report confirms what we already know – that for too long sexual offences on the rail network have gone unreported. Each offence reported to us helps build up a picture of an offender, which may ultimately lead to their arrest and prosecution,” he said.

“With this ethos in mind, we supported Transport for London’s Report it to Stop It campaign, specifically designed to encourage people to report unwanted sexual behaviour across the capital. Based on the campaign’s success in London, we then rolled out this campaign across the national rail network and have since seen the number of sexual offences reported to us increase.”

Last month, a damning report by the committee of MPs warned the government is failing to tackle harassment of women and girls in public places despite the problem being “routine and sometimes relentless”.

The Commons committee said while ministers have committed to tackling harassment overseas, they are not doing enough to address the problem at home. The cross-party group of MPs called for “urgent” action to tackle sexual harassment which it argued was “ingrained” in British culture.

It said this should include tougher action on pornography and against people taking sexual photos of women. They said the government’s “foot appears to be almost entirely off the pedal” when it came to addressing harassment and ministers are at risk of giving the impression they deem the issue “too trivial to address”.

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The warning came after a nine-month inquiry by the committee into sexual harassment of women and girls in public places which found evidence of “relentless” harassment of females on public transport, in bars and clubs, at universities, in parks, on the street and online.

The MPs suggested train operators should be forced to have clear policies on tackling sexual harassment and called for the viewing of pornography on buses to be banned.

Surveys suggest 64 per cent of women, including 85 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places. Thirty-five per cent said they had experienced unwanted touching.

More than 60 per cent of girls and young women say they do not feel safe walking home.

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