We Need to Talk about Sexual Harassment

There’s been a lot of confusion this morning as various news outlets reported that Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn was calling for the introduction of women-only carriages on trains. So, to clear this up, here is his actual statement on the matter:


Note that calling for a discussion with women on the matter is not the same as blindly supporting it. It’s a shame that issues such as street harassment and sexual abuse are still being discussed today, but the reality is that many women still face harassment on a day to day basis. It’s great that Corbyn is (rightly) allowing women to lead the discussion on what needs to happen to ensure that they feel safe throughout the day, whether it be at home, at work, or on public transport. You can read the rest of Corbyn’s pledge to end street harassment here.

But why has the issue of women-only carriages caused so much debate? Initially, the measure may seem ideal; it’s seemingly put in place to ensure that women are able to travel without the possibility of encountering harassment by men. A nice thought, considering that 32% of women in London say that they’ve been verbally harassed on public transport; 19% have been victims of direct physical abuse.

The reality of the measure is however, much less appealing.

Saying that women should travel in single-sex carriages to avoid harassment is much the same as suggesting that women should dress conservatively in order to avoid being raped. The measure places responsibility in the hands of women. It perpetuates the idea that women should be on constant alert for any breaches to their safety.  It suggests that women who choose to travel with men on public transport are asking to be sexually assaulted, and that they have no one to blame but themselves when it happens.

It fails to place the blame on those who are carrying out this abuse and causing women to feel unsafe on their journeys in the first place. Even though there has been an increase in reports of sexual crime (up 20.8% in the 12 months leading up to March 2014), with the culture of victim-blaming, it’s no wonder that most harassment on public transport is thought to go unreported.

Aside from the idea that women shouldn’t have to be resigned to travelling in single-sex carriages, the measure is completely impractical in terms of funding and policing. The cost of running such carriages would be unjustifiable considering the little impact they would have. Additionally, policing such carriages would be virtually impossible, as cuts to forces means that there would simply be a shortfall of police presence on public transport. Sexual harassment doesn’t end when a woman steps off the train. Instead, it’s a daily occurrence in many women’s lives. From the train to the street, from their workplace to their homes, women are constantly wondering when the next assault will take place.

It’s a shame that the issue of sexual harassment is only covered by the media when a man draws attention to it, but its attention none the less. The fact that women don’t feel safe on public transport should be worrying enough, but the fact that some have suggested women-only carriages, regardless of the associated flaws, shows that we need to have a serious discussion on how best to end sexual harassment, not just on public transport, but everywhere.


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