Breaking the trend of the last few days, my tale of harassment happens on a train rather than on the street.
Although I’ve had my fair share of leery, creepy men and their unwanted attention, I’ve never experienced the kind of verbal abuse that lots of women were talking about last week. My story is not about drunk men, dark evenings and inappropriate banter. It happened on a commuter train, silently, in the middle of the day.
It began relatively innocuously. I was minding my own business, nursing a (slight) hangover on a Virgin train between Birmingham and London at around five o’clock on a cold December afternoon in the window seat of a carriage full to the brim with businessmen (quietly) conducting their business on their laptops, (loudly) discussing their next meeting on their iPhones and Blackberries and (probably) texting their mistresses the time they were coming over that weekend.
At Rugby a man came and sat next to me. This in itself wasn’t all that remarkable as there were few free seats left on the train and despite my slight claustrophobia and dislike of people I don’t know near me it did not bother me too much. For half an hour nothing happened, I looked out the window, listening to my iPod and thought about the night before while he read the Daily Star or some other tabloid that I wasn’t really paying attention to.
Then he decided to ‘fall asleep’.
I didn’t noticed much at first until his fingers started to graze my thigh slightly. I shifted uncomfortably so they’d fall off, yet the hand remained. I coughed loudly so he was jolted awake and his hand moved as he stirred. Thinking it was innocent I looked out the window again. A few minutes later I felt the hand again this time they were edging a bit closer to my crotch. Then I realised his eyelashes were flickering the way my little sister and I’s used to when we were little and were trying to feign sleep to my parents.
Horrified that this was deliberate I trying edging closer to the window but, as anyone who has ever been on a Virgin train will attest that, this did not make much difference.
So I was stuck. Of course what pass through my mind was forcibly pushing his hand away, telling him to piss off or standing up and asking one of the other passengers to swap with me. But I did nothing. I squirmed and I wriggled and I squished myself up against the window until he got off the stop before I did. I think it went on for another half an hour in all.
And I did nothing. That’s the worst. Out of everything that has happen in my life, this particular incident doesn’t make the top ten on its own. It’s not what happened, or that horrible guy, it’s how I reacted.
I wanted to say something but I was too scared of what other people would think. I was scared that I was overreacting. Because he didn’t try to grope me fully and because I was wearing jeans I tried to rationalise it and told myself that if I screamed everyone else who just think I’m being over dramatic. The other businessmen might have sided with the guy or thought I’d made it up.
This is why I want to tell this story and why I decided to publish it under my own name even though I’d rather my parents didn’t find out about it. My mother told me a story years ago about being groped on the Underground in her twenties as part of her ‘don’t trust strangers’ speech at around ten or eleven but as I was already becoming a nascent feminist I assumed that this sort of thing didn’t happen anymore, especially not to girls like me. The Queen of standing up to the boys, feminist rhetoric and answering back.
To paraphrase a bad* eighties movie; nobody puts me in a corner.
And yet I let this happen because I was scared people would think I was a silly little girl. In hindsight, those men probably would have rushed to my defence if I’d protested but I was too afraid to test that theory because there are so many occasions where women are told we’re overreacting to sexism and abuse; its harmless or just ‘a bit of banter’.
So in a way I suppose this is my call to arms. We’ve won a lot of battles over the past hundred years, we can vote, think and say what we like; we have options to fight back against this sort of thing we just have to use them. Just because we can shrug it off doesn’t mean we should or that men like that should be allowed to get away with it.
When it comes to sneaky abuse like this its time women fought back because when we do will probably find everyone is already behind us.
Caroline is a student at Birmingham University. She’s also a freelance journalist and blogger, providing insights into political, social, and economic news from around the world. You can follow her on Twitter here, or you can check out her superb blog here.
*AWOT does not support the theory that Dirty Dancing is anything other than cinematic brilliance.