Last weekend, walking along a Tube platform with a female friend, I was approached by two men. I hadn’t noticed them until the first shouted “FIT” in my face. His friend then proceeded to point at my chest. “What’s this?” he asked, his fingers grazing my chest. Embarrassingly, I took the bait, looking down, only for him to raise his finger up to poke the bottom of my nose.
I didn’t say anything. My friend and I walked away. Normally, I would be angry at myself for failing to say something back. But trying to explain feminism and basic decency to two potentially drunk men twice my size didn’t seem like an option.
That evening, I struggled to sleep. I’ve been shouted at about my appearance or gender more times than I can count – which woman living in London hasn’t? – but this felt different. I’m not sure if it was because one of them had had the audacity to touch me (particularly on my nose, the cause of much teenage insecurity), or because he’d done so in a week where men all over the world were being rightly shamed for their offensive acts.
Mostly, I think what upset me was our collective powerlessness: the fact that men get to do this to women, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.
But now, that’s not the case. Lying awake, I scrolled through Facebook, only to find that a friend had posted about a similar incident. She’d mentioned her physical and verbal assault to police at the station, and had been told that someone had already texted in about the incident. “That’s right,” she wrote, “you can TEXT the police and potentially help someone in danger.”
Between January and March of this year, TfL statistics show that 256 sexual offences were reported on the Tube and DLR networks. That's an 18.5% increase on the same period in 2016. Worryingly, these statistics are likely hugely under-representative, given that a TfL survey found that 90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport is not reported.
People who witness or experience crimes or incidents on the Tube that make them feel uncomfortable regularly don’t say anything. Often it feels like too much of a hassle, or an overreaction, or (especially in London) like none of your business.
But now you can discreetly report crimes or incidents that take place on your train or at your station, totally anonymously. By texting 61016, you can alert the police to someone potentially in danger, or to your own experience of violence or unwanted sexual behaviour.
So I did. I sent a short text, explaining what had happened to me and where. I hadn’t really thought about any next steps – I just wanted to do my bit to make sure the statistics on harassment and abuse on the Tube were accurate, and to feel slightly less powerless.
I was surprised when I turned on my phone the next morning to see several missed calls and a text from the British Transport Police, wanting to discuss what I'd reported in more detail.
I was even more surprised when they followed it up with a call and showed a genuine interest in what had happened to me. The PC I spoke to told me that what I’d experienced was common assault and that the police took it seriously. He said he was going to request CCTV footage from the station I had been at, and I could then pursue the case, at which point they would find and charge or caution the men. Or, if I preferred, I could redact my statement and they could keep the CCTV on file in case a repeat incident of this nature happened at the same station involving men of a similar description. I told him I’d need to think about which route to take, and would give him a call back.
There were a few reasons I needed to think. The thought of it being an overreaction crept into my head – what if I mentioned this to people and they thought I was being ridiculous, petty, a drama queen? But the more I asked my colleagues, boyfriend and family for their opinions, the more people told me to go for it. Collectively, it seems everyone has tired of men trying shit like this with impunity.
I also wondered about future claims. Having recently watched Liar, I wondered if pursuing this case would belittle any more serious claims I may have to (but hope not to) make in the future. Friends and family told me this was ridiculous – there is no limit on the number of crimes you can report (and common assault is a crime).
But more than that, I wondered what these men thought about when they walked off, leaving my friend and I horrified at their actions. Did they high-five over how embarrassed they made us feel? Did they laugh at how powerless women were? Did they even think about the culture of predators and prey that their actions encourage? Probably not.
I thought about the behaviour of these men in such a public place. If they were happy to shout adjectives into – and to touch – my face on a busy platform, what were they capable of in a more secluded environment?
If women do not ‘react’ to these actions, the men committing them won’t stop. The power balance – men as predators, women as prey – will go unchecked, and these men will continue belittling, harassing and assaulting women without ever being held to account for their actions. For me, not allowing the police to find and prosecute, or caution, these men translates to giving them permission to go on acting in such a way towards me and other women.
This is the nature of TfL’s Report It to Stop It scheme. Launched in 2015, the scheme aims to encourage people to report any behaviour that has made them feel uncomfortable while using public transport. You can report anything of a sexual nature, including (but not limited to) rubbing, groping, masturbation, leering, sexual comments, indecent acts, or someone taking photos of you of a sexual nature without your consent. No incident is too small or too trivial to report.
Recognising that “crimes such as these have been historically under-reported,” Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Rickett of the Metropolitan Police Service Roads and Transport Policing Command, said at the launch of the scheme: “We will not tolerate any form of sexual offending on London’s surface transport network… If you have been a victim of such a crime, or you know someone who is, you can be assured that you will be taken seriously.”
Victims should never be held responsible for the actions of their perpetrators, and that stretches as far as reporting. Many victims of unwanted sexual behaviour, assault or harassment may wish to forget about it and move on – and that’s okay.
But for those women who have been assaulted, harassed, attacked or threatened on public transport and would like to report it, know that no incident is too small or trivial. Your claim will always be taken seriously, and you will not be forced to prosecute or to pursue it. By texting 61016, you can report anonymously. Your text may help stop repeat offenders, and protect others. At a minimum, it will provide more representative statistics to show how widespread this issue is.
I have no idea what will happen with my claim. I know that I may have to go to court if these men are caught and plead not guilty. I can’t pretend I’m not a little anxious about it. But I feel much, much better knowing that the roles have been reversed, and that I’m not – women are not – powerless to stop this.