Vast Majority Of Women Experience Harassment on Public Transit

January 1st 2016

In summer 2009, an older man approached me on the Paris subway and said in English, "I want to sit on your legs." Assuming he meant to say he wanted my seat, I stood up and offered him my spot. Then he grabbed both of my shoulders and yelled into my face, "I want to sit on your legs." That's when I realized he didn't care about having a somewhere to plop down on a crowded train. He'd intended to harass me, and a group of grown men watched as he did. This infuriated me.

It appears that many women are familiar with public transit harassment in the Paris area. This year, the French government's High Council for Equality Between Men and Women published a report that reveals 100 percent of female survey participants in the Paris region had been harassed on public transit.

“The problem is that harassment on public transport has basically been trivialized," Margaux Collet, a spokesperson for the advocacy organization, Dare Feminism, told The Local of the report. "The figures are shocking. It exists everywhere, but it’s something young foreign women notice when they come to Paris."

An international survey conducted by Cornell University and the anti–street harassment group Hollaback! also found that nearly 75 percent of those surveyed worldwide of women were familiar with having to change their transportation plans as a because of harassment.

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Lille, another French city located near France's border with Belgium, recently released a video that reveals some of the horrible things people have said to women on public transit. The video includes English subtitles and reveals one woman was asked by a stranger, "Can I rape you please?"

Harassment against women is a problem all over the world, and it happens outside public transit as well. Despite the humiliation that this harassment can bring, some argue that women who experience it should be flattered by the attention rather than feel violated. Among many other things, this logic overlooks the fact that some of the women who experience harassment aren't even 18 yet.

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In a piece about harassment in Paris, Refinery 29 interviewed 17-year-old high school student Zoe Coutard, who said she was 14 the first time she experienced this kind of harassment.

"Often, men think that going up to a woman and saying, 'You’re beautiful,' is always a compliment," Coutard said. "But the truth women are told from a young age is that we’re in danger of being harmed in some way. So if someone comes up to me in the street and says, 'You're sexy,' it’s not a compliment, it's scary. On top of that, I never know how someone is going to react if I say no."

RELATED: How To Deal With Street Harassment: Turn The Camera Around

Though harassment against women still remains a huge problem all over, many people are working to raise awareness of the issue. This year, Parisian transport provider RATP worked with the association STOP Harcèlement de Rue (Stop Street Harassment) and other advocacy groups to create an extensive and visible anti-street harassment initiative that arms travelers with emergency numbers to report harassment and informs potential harassers that there are steep financial consequences to harassing strangers. Street harassers may be fined 75,000 Euros and/or sentenced to five years behind bars. The campaign includes awareness signs and posters on subway cars, trains, and stations.

In the U.S., Hollaback! encourages women to stand up to street harassment to the extent that they feel comfortable doing so and has also carved out a space on social media for women to share their experiences with harassment. Last year, Hollaback! teamed with Rob Bliss Creative to produce a video titled "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman," which shows a woman enduring crude and inappropriate comments from men all day as she moves through the city. The video has been viewed more than 41 million times.

The video was lauded by many for depicting how frequently street harassment takes place, but it also received criticism for editing white men out of the footage and seeming to only show men of color. Hollaback! later apologized for this.

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"I did at the end of the video make it clear that we had people of all backgrounds who catcalled because I felt this might come up," Rob Bliss, the video director, said in an interview with Bustle. "[T]hose two guys that follow [the woman] make up literally half of the video, and because by chance, they were Black, now half of the video is showing Black guys. That just only further demonstrates how statistically inaccurate something like this is, and how it shouldn’t be taken so literally."

As ATTN: previously put it, "the backlash took away from the greater message, which is that street harassment is a degrading, totally sexist, humiliating part of our culture."

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