Emily Beecher hasn’t really stopped thinking about it since it happened. The night a drunk man started harassing her on the Piccadilly line: leering, leaning into her, shouting about her “great tits” in front of the rest of the carriage.
It’s what happened next that makes this particular incident stand out in her depressingly long history of Tube harassments. Another man stepped in.
“He didn’t even speak to the other guy, he just put himself between us and asked me if I was OK,” recalls Beecher, 41, a producer from north London. “That’s what made me cry, because there have been so many times when no one has done that.” Beecher admits she was one of the lucky ones. A survey released by YouGov last week revealed that more than half of women say they’ve suffered sexual harassment on public transport in London, the most common being deliberately pressed up against by a stranger.
As many as 12 per cent say they’ve seen a flasher expose themselves and eight per cent have had a complete stranger request sexual favours. Almost two thirds of incidents are on the Tube.
For Beecher, the statistics are sad but not a shock. She’s surprised the figures aren’t higher. “How many of the people who reported being harassed had been harassed multiple times?” she wonders. Sexual harassment on the Tube has become a regular occurrence for many women she knows, and most go without reporting it.
For London support charity Solace Women’s Aid, this lack of formal reporting is a large part of the issue: only two per cent of victims feel able to make a complaint, according to recent figures. “This speaks volumes to how society continues to minimise women’s experience of sexual harassment and the lack of confidence women have in being believed and taken seriously,” a spokesman warned.
What’s behind this lack of reporting? For some, it’s a case of normalisation. Women across the capital say men rubbing up against them, watching porn beside them and shouting “sexual, explicit things” at them across the Tube has become a “normal part of London life” while using public transport.
“It’s horrible at the time but I never even think to report it,” admits one Circle line user. “I was worried it wasn’t ‘extreme’ enough,” wrote another female commuter on Twitter — a common rhetoric Netflix explores in the latest series of hit teen series Sex Education when a man masturbates on Aimee’s leg on a bus.
“I’m fine,” the 17-year-old tells her friend Maeve, shrugging it off. It’s only when Maeve encourages her to report the incident that the weight of what happened sinks in — and even then she apologises for “wasting” officers’ time.
British Transport Police has run a Report It To Stop It campaign since 2015, encouraging victims to text 61016 to report an incident, but many women say a lack of faith in the system stops them contacting authorities.
Cyberflashing — the modern phenomenon of sending unsolicited images to a stranger’s phone using AirDrop — was made illegal in Scotland in 2010 but is still legal in England (despite “traditional” flashers landing two years in prison), making it an easy way for sex pests to harass women (and men) without consequences.
“The perpetrators get away scot-free,” complains one female commuter, 26, who was sent 120 “d*ck pics” by a stranger on a bus last year. She didn’t bother to report the incident precisely because it wasn’t an offence.
But marketing director Joanna Montgomery says that cyberflashing is arguably more dangerous: technology has enabled perpetrators to gain a new layer of anonymity. “With old-school flashing at least you could see that it was a pathetic old man, and you could just turn around,” says Montgomery, 41, who was sent a picture of a man’s genitals while sitting at a bus stop in Streatham last year.
“The one I got is clearly a young man so I couldn’t be as confident I could escape or take him on, and I was alone at the bus stop. I assumed he was watching me, which was the creepy thing. Walking home I was thinking, ‘Is he following me?’” She screenshotted the image and showed friends, but didn’t think to report it. “I’d never even heard of the concept before.”
Journalist Lauren Clarke, 27, is one of the two per cent of victims who did report her harassment on the Tube, but the response has left her feeling angrier. She was groped multiple times by a stranger on the Central line in September and reported the man’s clothing, backpack and Tube stop to police, but was told “nothing could be done” because there was no CCTV.
The Central is one of two Tube lines without CCTV (the other is the Bakerloo), despite one in four sexual assaults happening on the red line. Up to 100 assaults were reported on the Central line between 2016 and 2018 — nearly double that of the next most reported line, the Victoria, at 55.
Cameras are not due to be introduced until 2023 but Mayor Sadiq Khan is under pressure to bring this forward. His potential successor, Tory candidate Shaun Bailey, says perpetrators are targeting the line because of the absence of cameras and The London Assembly filed a motion in October urging Khan to shorten the four-year wait. “At the current rate, thousands of women will be assaulted in that time,” Bailey warned last year.
Clarke feels angry that women’s safety has become a matter of money. “We’re encouraged to use the Tube, we’re encouraged to get to work on public transport but to know that your only option is fundamentally not really policed or safe is terrifying.”
Despite her frustration, she’d still encourage victims to report incidents because “it can add to a stack of evidence”. “Each offence reported to us helps build up a picture of an offender,” said a police spokesman this week.
For Beecher, the solution is also cultural: prevention needs to be a communal effort. Ever since another passenger stepped in to block a stranger harassing her last year, she’s made a conscious pledge to do the same. Last month, she stepped in to help a passenger in her twenties who was being harassed by a drunk man. “I could see the relief in her face the moment I called him out.
Upskirting campaigner Gina Martin agrees: billboards discussing harassment should be commonplace on the Tube. “Signs should encourage people to report it even if it didn’t happen to them,” says Martin, who still thinks about the time a man groped her on the Northern line in 2017. “I let it rest there for two stops. Then, finally, I said loudly ‘Could you please remove your hand from my bum cheek’. The hand slipped away, but the guy didn’t even flinch. No one said a word. I got off at the next stop half-wanting to cry, half-wanting to scream. I felt humiliated and violated.”
Beecher realises not everyone always feels safe to step in — especially when the culprit is bigger and stronger. Which is why men need to be part of the solution. “As women we can call it out as much as we want but we also need men as our allies,” she says, referring to last month’s incident. “It’s really easy [for that man] to say, ‘This woman was a total b***h to me on the Tube,’ but if there had been another guy in the carriage when I called out his behaviour with the girl, that would have reinforced the message. As a feminist I hate to be like ‘We need men to help us with this problem,’ but 99 per cent of guys that do this don’t think there’s anything wrong with their behaviour.” Until that changes, sexual harassment will continue to be normalised.
Clarke agrees: the figures for sexual harassment would be far higher if more women saw themselves as victims. “My initial reaction was ‘these things happen’,” she sighs, describing the call she received from Victim Support a few days after reporting the incident to police. “I felt like a fraud for using the title [victim], because if that’s the case we’re all victims. How awful to have to think like that.”