“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.


 

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.