Sexual assault on public transport

There are more people reporting accounts of sexual assault or harassment on trains than ever, meaning victims are now more confident speaking out. But what counts as sexual assault on public transport, and what can you do if you're in that situation?

nervous looking woman on london tube train

Sexual assault on trains is way too common.

What counts as sexual assault on public transport?

Sexual assault or harassment is any behaviour that is unwanted, non-consenting, and makes you uncomfortable. A spokesperson at British Transport Police, who have implemented Project Guardian to tackle this behaviour, say they “use the term ‘unwanted sexual behaviour’ so it’s definitely not limited to just physical contact”.

This unwanted behaviour can include touching you without your consent (e.g. standing way too close so they can sneakily grope your bum), making sexual comments, rubbing against you, leering at you, or even masturbating in front of you.

There is no difference between being sexually harassed on a busy train or bus in daylight compared to down a dark alleyway alone on the way back from your friend’s, so if you feel uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour, you have every right to report it.

I’m being sexually assaulted/harassed, what do I do?

There is no right way to react in the moment. Our bodies have natural instincts and everyone will respond differently. Some people freeze and wait for it to be over, some shout out, some fight back, and some people try and move away. Don’t feel ashamed of how you react in that situation and don’t judge someone else’s reaction. Victim blaming is not cool, people.

If you can, and feel able to, try and move away. You can switch seats, move to another part of the carriage, or switch carriages altogether.

Can I do anything if I see it happen to someone else? 

Yes. If you see someone else being sexually assaulted or harassed, it’s a great move if you can step in to help. “We appreciate it’s tough to speak up when it happens,” British Transport Police say, “but if you can challenge without putting your safety at risk, do.”

If you can, try and put yourself between the perpetrator and victim. If you can’t, then try to make eye contact with the victim. This can comfort them in knowing they have support. If the perpetrator leaves, you can then speak to the victim to make sure they are ok and to support them with reporting if necessary.

Should I report it? 

You don’t have to, but reporting an incident like this is definitely worth it, even if it’s weeks after it happened. Not only might the perpetrator be caught, but it will help in continuing to highlight the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

If you do want to report it, whether you’re a victim or a witness, you can text British Transport Police on 61016 or ring them on 0800 40 50 40.

Texting what, where and when it happened is a great way of discreetly reporting, especially if you are still in the situation. You should then be contacted within 24 hours. It’s even possible that an officer can come and meet the train you are on at a further station stop.

Alternatively, you can always speak to a member of train staff or a police officer.

In an emergency, always call 999.

I don’t want to report it because…

It wasn’t really that serious: You can never report anything too trivial when it comes to sexual assault or harassment. Your feelings are valid; if you are intimidated or uncomfortable by someone’s behaviour you have every right to report it.

They won’t catch them: There are often repeat offenders who have the same behavioural patterns so reporting your incident could also help somebody else’s case too. CCTV footage can also be used to trace perpetrators and patrolling police (both uniformed and not) can be deployed in hot spot areas.

It’s just life: Just because this awful behaviour is common doesn’t mean it’s right. Sexual assault is a criminal offence, no matter the context or the gender you identify as. Your body is your own and nobody else’s.

No one will believe me: Will anyone listen to you? “Yes and yes again,” British Transport Police say. “We want everyone to know that they will be believed and officers will do all they can to investigate.”

If you don’t feel like you can report it, other organisations such as Rape Crisis and Survivors UK can give support, advice or just an ear. There are people out there who will believe you.

Next Steps

  • Rape Crisis offers support and advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter how long ago the attack was. 0808 802 99 99
  • SurvivorsUK offers advice and support to male victims of rape and sexual assault. Text on 020 3322 1860.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 18-Mar-2016

Photo by Shutterstock.