Last Monday, while on the tube between Holborn and Highbury, I was leant on by a penis. It wasn’t my boyfriend’s. I’ve no idea who its owner was only that it was definitely there, definitely semi-erect and I was hemmed in (trapped was the word I thought at the time, seated by the door on of those non-seats, on one side a suitcase and on the other, a window).
The whole experience lasted a stop and a half at which point the man – tall, dark haired, tanned, stained teeth, in a Kappa jacket and a white rucksack – got off at Kings Cross and walked away without so much as a second glance. I’d like to say I made eye contact. I didn’t. I’d love to say I pushed him off and screamed in his face but I didn’t, either. Why? Because he was huge, I’m not, and (wily man that he was), he’d managed to bounce in time with the motion so it took a while for me to realise that yes, yes that was indeed his penis. On my leg. He may or may not remember me (that's me, fella, above). But I sure remembered him.
Wolf whistles, lewd comments or in extreme cases, an actual grope or physical contact. Typical behaviour in these modern, equality-driven times, right? Except it shouldn’t be. What happened to me - and, as one survey claims, four in 10 women - is tantamount to sexual assault even if it’s nigh on impossible to prove.
XOJane, the brilliant, cutting femimist site, recently ran a blog (above and here) on the ubiquity of sexual assaults, suffixed (sarcastically, I should add) by the line ‘it’s just one of those things, isn’t it?’ When of course it’s anything but fine. But for some reason it continues to proliferate our daily lives, our commutes and our nights out. It’s not just summer, either. You’d think the rain would keep them away but they always find a location – generally the underground, in bars, on stairs, where it’s dark and hidden (these men are like woodlice) – with which to let their hands and tongues wander freely.
One website, Hollaback, which encourages women to share their experiences and reveal the culprits – literally, hollering back and sometimes by uploading pictures of the offender – was launched a couple of years ago in New York in an attempt to mainstream said incidents. It’s now global and is proving fairly effective. Now, with the help of ‘serial gropee’ and New Yorker, Emily May, they’ve also launched a smartphone app which lets its users anonymously explain what happened, upload their own pictures, and even mark the incident's location on a Google map. This information then gets fed into the ihollaback.org network, and is available in 45 cities and 16 countries. When Emily has enough data about harassment in a particular area, she told Spin magazine, she ‘presents it to the local government and works with them to propose increased education funding or awareness programs.’
The whole Hollaback movement has been fundamental in the on-going fight to stop street harassment. But for many women, especially the ones like me who had the naivety to think it wasn’t actually happening until it had already long happened, it’ll take a lot more than that to stop what I experienced on the Piccadilly line last week. In the interim, I’m getting a smartphone. And will continue, where possible, to avoid dark, dry places where these woodlice proliferate.