My Brush With an Arse Groper and Why We Shouldn't Dismiss Women Only Train Carriages

5:45pm. The Central Line, somewhere underneath Bond Street. The peak of London’s rush hour. Wedged between babbling tourists and weary stockbrokers is the 18 year old me, all baby-faced and bushy-tailed. A few more months in the big city will teach me to plan excursions in advance so as to avoid the evening crush, but for now I’m grinning and bearing it. I pay little attention to the anonymous people crammed around me, too busy deciding what to have for dinner that night.

Then I feel someone close in behind me. Even by rush hour standards, it’s too close for comfort. It’s soon clear that I’m not imagining things - that portly man with the briefcase has his hand on my backside, not even going for a quick grope but latching on, grasping firmer and firmer. I’m fixed to the spot, caught. This wasn’t something I ever envisaged having to deal with. After a few horribly stretched-out seconds, I make a feeble attempt to reposition myself, shifting around just enough for him to let go but not so much that I’ll be confronted by him. Mercifully, we then pull into the next station, where the exchange of coming and going passengers gives me an opportunity to shuffle away to the other side of the carriage.

An odd, disquieting sense of unease lingered in me for the rest of the eveningAn odd, disquieting sense of unease lingered in me for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but I knew that in that moment I’d felt helpless and even a little ashamed. All things told, though, I consider myself lucky. It was a minor event that I soon brushed off, hopping back onto the train the next day with barely a second thought. If it happened to me now I’d just push the man’s hands away, or embarrass him into withdrawing by loudly announcing what he was doing. In my eyes, it was an unpleasant but isolated incident.

Chances are, I’d feel differently if I was a woman. If I was a woman, I probably wouldn’t see it as a one-off. I might already be in the habit of checking around every time I got on a train to make sure I wasn’t near any perceived threats. Perhaps I’d organise my daily routine to minimise the risk of it happening again - avoiding certain routes at certain times, adhering to a curfew. After all, as a woman I would be much more at risk of all forms of sexual harassment, from catcalling and groping to physical assault.

This week, it was revealed that reported sexual offences on public transport have risen by 25% in the past year. In response, Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn floated the idea of women-only train carriages. He said that he would ‘consult with women, and open it up to hear their views’. He hasn’t been short on backlash since - rival contender Yvette Cooper said it would be ‘turning the clock back’, while Equalities Minister Nicky Morgan said it ‘smacked of segregation’.

They don’t enforce segregation, and no man with any modicum of awareness should take them as an insultOthers have argued that women-only carriages are the preserve of less equal, less developed countries, not progressive 21st century metropolises like London. And of course, in an ideal world women wouldn’t have to separate themselves from men to feel safe. But in an ideal world, sexual harassment would be falling, not rising. Schools would teach boys not to attack women, rather than teaching girls how not to be attacked, and domestic violence services wouldn’t have their budgets cut by over 30%. Unfortunately, the world we live in rarely bears much resemblance to an ideal world.

Another of Corbyn’s rivals, Liz Kendall, was right in saying that women-only carriages were not a ‘sustainable solution’. That doesn’t, however, mean that they couldn’t be an effective short-term measure. They don’t enforce segregation, and no man with any modicum of awareness should take them as an insult. They don’t imply that all men are threats. They simply recognise that feeling safe is as important as being safe, and offer women a means of achieving that sense of safety.  

Neither could women-only carriages be implemented in isolation. They would have to form part of a wider clampdown on harassment, for example through extending Transport for London’s efforts to deploy more officers and run high-profile media campaigns. Such measures would hopefully mean that, in time, travellers would feel so empowered to report assaults that separate carriages would become irrelevant.

Until then, we shouldn’t be too quick to throw women-only carriages under the tracks. And, let’s not forget, they aren’t an actual planned measure yet. Labour aren’t in power, and Corbyn isn’t their leader (for now, at least). Corbyn’s aim was merely to test the waters – if there’s an interest he might pursue the idea, but if not we can assume he’ll drop it. Rather than being blasted for a policy he hasn’t even formally proposed, he should be commended for opening up a much-needed debate.

If you’ve lived anywhere other than beneath a rock for the past three months, you’ll no doubt have heard countless reasons why you should or shouldn’t support Jeremy Corbyn. This incident, however, has given us a revealing insight into what he might be like as Labour’s leader. Instead of just preaching his own opinions, he is doing what so many other policy makers neglect to do – he is listening to the people actually affected by an issue. For the countless women whose day-to-day lives are marred by sexual harassment, this is an approach that can’t come soon enough. Even my naïve 18 year old self would approve.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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