“He just pulled my hand in to his lap”: what it’s really like to be assaulted on the London Underground

A woman on the London Underground, 2012. Image: Getty.

Sexual harassment is rife in public spaces, and as an integral part of daily life, public transport is no exception. As global as it is endemic, women are forced to negotiate the risk and reality of sexual harassment as they get from A to B on a daily basis.

On the London Underground, the extent of the issue became apparent in 2013 after a Transport for London (TfL) survey revealed that 15 per cent of Londoners had experienced some form of unwanted sexual attention on public transport in the city. A large proportion of these incidents happened on the Underground.

In my research, I spoke to women who had experienced sexual harassment on the tube. The unique nature of the space of the underground and the way people interact with each other when they’re using it mean that the abuse manifests itself in particular ways.

As Eliza, who has lived in London and used the tube her whole life said:

On the tube you’re simultaneously in close proximity with so many people and yet you’re completely anonymous. Everyone is in their own world... and I think some people take advantage of that.

Groping or “frotteuring” are the most common offences, and generally happen in the morning and evening rush hours. Masturbation and indecent exposures are more likely on quieter, off-peak trains.

The women I spoke to also described being “upskirted” – having someone take a photo up their skirt – and having indecent images randomly sent to them via the airdrop function on their phone. They said they had been followed, ejaculated on, had to deflect drunken come-ons, and put up with verbal and physical aggression.

The daily crush provides useful cover for perpetrators. Image: Axel Drainville/Flickr/creative commons.

Taylor, a 33-year old project manager in Canary Wharf, east London, called her experience “insidious”. On a late evening tube, she described how a man came and sat next to her:

He just pulled my hand in to his lap and held it there... I just froze... I was looking around trying to make eye contact with someone to say, ‘Get this guy off me’. The longer I left it, the more I felt like I couldn’t move... it lasted 15 minutes. Afterwards... I was so ashamed and confused by my own reaction.

When I asked her if she had reported the incident, she shook her head and said:

I had a hard time even explaining it to my boyfriend. How would I go about talking to the police? There’s no way they’d take that seriously.

The TfL survey showed that only one in ten people made reports after experiencing a sexual offence on the Underground. Due to the nature of the environment and the type of incidents that occur, reporting and policing sexual harassment on the tube comes with its own set of difficulties.

Unlike most acts of sexual violence, offences on the underground are committed by strangers. The police therefore have to rely on CCTV, Oyster card data, and, most importantly, information from victims when looking into a case. In a fast paced, densely packed, transitory environment, that can be extremely challenging.

Anonymity

Ruth, who commuted on the Waterloo and City line, described how she wasn’t even sure who assaulted her:

I felt someone’s hand touch me... between my legs... The carriage was packed full of men in suits, I couldn’t tell where the hand was coming from and no one looked suspicious. So at first I thought maybe I was imagining it, or it was an accident. Then the fingers moved from side to side... What was I going to do? If I’d said who’s touching me, no one would admit it. It would be so embarrassing. The tube arrived, the doors opened and everybody got off.

That kind of uncertainty and ambiguity often affects women’s reactions – both while an incident is happening and afterwards – making them reluctant to come forward. They also report a fear of being victim blamed, and thinking the incident was not serious enough to bother the police with, demonstrating the pervasive normalisation of sexual harassment. Furthermore, some women said they didn’t report simply because they wanted to avoid their day being further disrupted, which, considering the energy that often already goes into avoiding and negotiating sexual assault, is as valid a reason as any.

However as Rach stated, perhaps the onus should not be on women to report in the first place:

Everyone said to me, report it, you should report it. But I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to have to relive it again... It’s not my responsibility and I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty.

Loughborough University.

In an attempt to overcome some of these barriers and to put less pressure on victims, British Transport Police have taken various measures. There is now a number you can text to report incidents and undercover officers who are specially trained to spot this kind of behaviour are patrolling the Underground network.

The ConversationThe recent proliferation in reporting and public story sharing has led to an increased awareness that women are forced to negotiate this behaviour on a regular, often daily, basis in all kinds of places. Perhaps we should use this momentum to transfer the pressure and obligation to combat sexually invasive behaviour away from those who have already been victimised and instead collectively challenge issues of normalisation and bystander apathy that allow these incidents to occur on such a pervasive level.

Sian Lewis, Doctoral Researcher. Feminist Urban Sociologist, Loughborough University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL