Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

4Women and girls’ safety on public transport

Victimisation and perpetration on public transport

109.A survey by Transport for London in 2013 found that 15 per cent of women had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour while travelling on public transport in London over the previous 12 months, and that 90 per cent had not reported it to the police. The most commonly experienced types of unwanted sexual behaviour were groping or touching, staring, sexual comments and body rubbing. Transport for London noted that the “overwhelming majority” of these offences took place during the rush hour peaks.177 As with sexual violence elsewhere, sexual offences on the transport network are significantly under-reported.178

110.Women relayed accounts of a wide range of disturbing experiences of men groping and frotteuring (rubbing against them with an erection) in rush hour. More common at off-peak times were men masturbating or flashing, and late in the evening or at night on public transport women said they were grabbed and kissed, propositioned, or verbally abused. Women also experienced ‘upskirting’ (photos being taken of their legs or up their skirts), stalking and being ejaculated on.179 Viewing pornography while on public transport is another form of harassment that has been facilitated by the ubiquity of mobile devices. Professor Clare McGlynn told us: “While the porn-viewer is entitled to privacy and freedom, as members of the public, we too are entitled to privacy in public and to feel safe (and porn watching in public can be threatening).”180

111.Young women are particularly targeted.181 Sian Lewis has carried out research on women’s experiences of sexual harassment on the London Underground. One of her research participants said she was 12 when a man put his hand up her skirt and that it was “the first time I was looked at like that, in a sexual way”. The incident made her fearful and she is uncomfortable travelling on the tube to this day. Another participant was 14 and in her school uniform when she was trapped in a carriage alone with a man who was masturbating. Neither of these women had told anyone about the experience until they were in their thirties; they had not fully understood what was happening to them at the time and had partly blamed themselves.182

The specific context of sexual harassment on public transport

112.Public transport systems around the world are known to be ‘crime attractors’ for sex offenders. Sexual harassment on public transport has specific features and impacts because it takes place in a transitory environment and in particular kinds of spaces. Women may not know who has assaulted them, particularly in rush hour, and may not react because they are trapped, or fear the situation escalating or feel embarrassed to say anything.183 Transport for London told us:

Motivated offenders will target public transport as a place to commit offences because of the opportunity it provides. Crowded trains and buses allow offenders to touch or rub other passengers and evade detection, as they can claim it was accidental or a result of the movement of the vehicle. For a sex offender, public transport is a ‘target rich’ environment. [ … ] There are also factors about the transport environment, as with other public spaces, that can make it more appealing to perpetrators. These include anonymity; using crowded spaces and the movement of the vehicle to conceal unwanted sexual behaviour; the perceived likelihood of getting away with it and the perceived lack of capable guardianship.184

DI Cooper of British Transport Police told us that the railway environment particularly lends itself to the perpetration of ‘upskirting’ as women walk up stairs and escalators.185

Impact and ‘safety work’

113.Women and girls can experience a range of negative consequences of sexual harassment on public transport including mental health problems, reduced self-esteem, anxiety and feeling trapped and vulnerable.186 In research for Plan UK with girls and young women, 14 per cent of respondents said that, to avoid sexual harassment, they would not sit on the top of a bus or in an empty train or tube carriage.187 Dr Jackie Gray of Middlesex University gave us examples of women and girls only travelling at certain times, not travelling alone, being aware of where they sit or stand and trying to place barriers between them and other travellers: “Where such limits on behaviour are not available, women and girls may have to use public transport whilst being fearful of it.”188 According to one survey, almost half of women do conscious “safety planning” when they go out in the evenings, such as avoiding public transport and paying for taxis, leaving early or taking a different route.189 Sian Lewis found that even where women did not change their travel patterns, “[sexual harassment] made them more aware of the potential risks, and reminded them that they were women in a public space, and took away their sense of ownership of the city.”190

Project Guardian and Report It to Stop It

114.In 2013, Project Guardian—a partnership initiative between Transport for London, British Transport Police, the Metropolitan Police Service and the City of London Police—was launched to tackle unwanted sexual behaviour on London’s public transport network. Its three main strands of activity were enhanced enforcement and investigation, improving victim support and communication activities.191 The number of sexual offences on London public transport that were reported to the police more than doubled between 2012–13 and 2016–17, with the most significant increase coming after the April 2015 launch of the ‘Report it to Stop it’ campaign, the successor to Project Guardian. This involved an enhanced policing effort, making it easier for victims to report offences by text message, and publicising those results in the media. In line with international obligations to work with civil society on sexual harassment, women’s organisations and others with expertise on women’s safety advised on the development of the initiative.192 Notably, Report It to Stop It achieved results without making people more fearful of travelling.193 Barriers to reporting remain, however.194

115.Report It To Stop It was rolled out in March 2018 across the national rail network.195 It is not clear whether there is consistent action on women and girls’ safety across other forms of public transport in the UK. DI Cooper told us that “some train operators have staff training on this kind of issue—looking not necessarily just at sex offences but at wider vulnerability issues, and looking out for that kind of thing. Some are perhaps more willing to engage in that process than others.”196

Preventing sexual harassment on public transport

116.Prevention of sexual harassment has been an important part of the response by some transport authorities internationally, including through publicity campaigns. As with sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence elsewhere,197 researchers warn that an important consideration in developing initiatives and public awareness campaigns on public transport is to avoid either explicitly or implicitly blaming victims for their harassment.198 Suggestions of introducing women-only carriages as a way of keeping women safe on trains have been criticised as further limiting women’s freedom, not being effective and not tackling the reasons why sexual harassment on public transport (or elsewhere) occurs in the first place.199 Dr Jackie Gray gave us one example of a more effective approach:

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had a poster campaign that was very clearly not victim-blaming—it was clear that these behaviours are not acceptable. Associated with that—it is not clear that it is the reason for it—was greater reporting and a greater clearup rate afterwards. If we were to want to get greater public awareness of these issues—the public includes potential victims and potential perpetrators—that is a way of speaking to people. We have seen campaigns in the past that have made behaviours become normative—drink-driving and wearing seatbelts are classic examples—so certainly that kind of thing, although not just by itself, but in concert with a variety of other interventions, such as staffing and all the rest of it.200

117.We asked DI Cooper about preventing sexual harassment and other sexual violence on public transport. He told us that part of prevention is about “catching people”. He also said that:

We have a number of plain-clothes teams, undercover teams if you like, that work on the tube and rail networks. [ … ] High profile police officers in uniform on the network is helpful in terms of reassurance, and there are immediate deterrents for an offender committing an offence there and then, but the undercover plain-clothes officers that they can’t see coming is what really seems to be effective at deterring people.201

118.As in other areas, we have seen little evidence of work taking place to prevent sexual harassment on public transport before it happens, known as ‘primary prevention’. We asked DI Cooper why train operators do not feel it is appropriate to set out a set of social rules for travelling. He said:

this is about not wanting to create an environment that makes people feel unsafe. What I mean by that is that train operators feel that it would create a feeling of insecurity to have a poster campaign on train carriages and in stations that talked about looking out for sex offenders, people acting in a sexually predatory way or people causing sexual harassment. [ … ] People are comfortable with campaigns like ‘Report it to stop it’ where we ask them to come forward and let us know.202

119.International evidence suggests that the most effective interventions on public transport adopt a combination of different approaches which make it harder for potential offenders to offend, give victims the means and confidence to report, and create a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.203 Dr Jackie Gray identified priorities for further action, including research into how to encourage safe bystander intervention, public awareness campaigns, rigorous evaluation of interventions, and research into the decision-making of offenders in order to develop prevention initiatives.204

120.Some good work is taking place to address sexual harassment on public transport, but there is no central direction to ensure that it is both consistent and comprehensive across the whole transport network. It is also focused on reporting and prosecutions rather than preventing sexual harassment from happening and changing beliefs about the kind of behaviour that is acceptable.

121.The good work that Transport for London and British Transport Police have taken to address sexual misconduct under the Project Guardian and Report It to Stop It campaigns should be supported across the national rail network. The Department for Transport should require train operators in their Franchise Agreements to have a robust policy on sexual misconduct which should include action to prevent all forms of sexual violence including sexual harassment happening on their services in the first place, as well as tackling it when it happens. The Department for Transport should issue guidance to local authorities who let public transport contracts to ensure that bus operators, light rail, tram and other transport providers to whom they let contracts are required to have a robust policy on sexual harassment.

122.Technological developments and widespread use of mobile devices means that viewing pornography on public transport has developed as a new form of sexual harassment in public. Policy needs to take account that public transport is not an age-restricted space; any pornographic material viewed in this space is therefore potentially seen by children. The Government should use rail Franchise Agreements to require train operators to block pornography through public WiFi on public transport and prohibit this activity through individual internet connection so that all passengers can travel comfortably and safely. The Department for Transport should direct bus companies to fulfil their obligations on passenger safety by bringing forward amendments to the Public Service Vehicles Regulations 1990 to specifically prohibit sexual harassment as defined by the Equality Act 2010, and to prohibit viewing pornography on buses.

177 Transport for London (SPP0092)

179 Transport for London (SPP0092), Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

180 Professor Clare McGlynn (SPP0047)

181 Dr Jackie Gray (SPP0103), Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

182 Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

183 Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

184 Transport for London (SPP0092)

186 Q103, Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

187 Street Harassment It’s Not Ok, Plan International UK, 2018

188 Dr Jackie Gray (SPP0103)

189 End Violence Against Women Coalition (SPP0096)

190 Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

191 Transport for London (SPP0092)

192 Transport for London (SPP0092)

194 Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

199 Actually, No: Women-only transportation won’t end harassment, by Holly Kearl, takepart website, accessed October 2018

Published: 23 October 2018