Nearly eleven years ago, when I was 20, a man sat next to me on the train from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London King’s Cross. He started talking to me – despite the fact that being the bookish chick I am I was clearly reading a novel. This is always a difficult conundrum for women in public space. On the one hand, we’re warned against strange men. We’re told never to speak to strangers. On the other, we’re told to always be nice, to be accommodating. Smile. Don’t complain. Don’t be a stuck up bitch.
The latter lesson, as it so often does when someone is insistently talking to you, won out. I was nice. I was accommodating. I wasn’t a stuck up bitch.
I later had to leg it across King’s Cross and jump on to the nearest bus, as this man chased after me, shouting my name.
Don’t lead a man on, Sian. What did you expect him to think, with you being so nice, so accommodating, not being a stuck up bitch? What else had you led him to expect?
It was this story, and a dreary litany of similar stories involving being harassed, groped, assaulted (but not wanked on, thank God, although I know women who have endured this) on public transport (in general, not always on trains) that meant my gut response to Jeremy Corbyn’s reported proposal of women-only train carriages was:
Wouldn’t it be nice. Wouldn’t it be a relief. To not have to worry. To not have to feel anxious. To not panic that the man sat there might turn into the man who chased me, who groped me, who harassed me, who tried to assault me.
And it would be nice. It would be a relief. But it wouldn’t be a solution.
I should point out now that despite some media misrepresentation, Jeremy Corbyn was not announcing a policy of women-only train carriages, but wants instead to consult women about the best ways to tackle the daily harassment we put up with. This is a really good thing that, if he’s elected, will hopefully build on the work of Labour women such as Vera Baird and Yvette Cooper who have been raising this issue for years.
Anyway, hope that clears that up. Now back to trains.
So yes, women-only train carriages may be nice for all the reasons I mention above. But they won’t be a solution.
Because all they do is move the issue away from the perpetrator’s behaviour, and instead put all the focus onto the victim’s behaviour.
Women-only train carriages tell us that in order to avoid male violence, we need to move out the way. There’s nothing in this message that challenges abusive men. There’s nothing here that challenges male entitlement to women’s time and bodies. Instead, it’s a ‘solution’ that shrugs at male violence, treats it as something inevitable, and tells women that we must take steps to avoid it. We must sit in the women-only carriage.
Anything that treats male violence as an inevitable part of women’s lives will never succeed in ending violent male entitlement.
So-called solutions like women-only train carriages make women the problem – they treat harassment as a problem for women that we have to take actions to fix. It doesn’t tell the man who chased me that he needs to stop feeling entitled to my time and body. It doesn’t tell the man who wanked on my friend that he’s a criminal. It doesn’t tell the man who groped me that I have a right to my bodily autonomy that he had no right to violate.
It tells those men that they can carry on as normal, because women will now keep out of their way. It tells men that we women will clean up the mess, and remove ourselves. It tells men that they get all the rights to public space, and we’ll squeeze ourselves into the back of the train. It refuses to admit that if violent men are assaulting women on trains, then those men are the problem.
I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday about whether women-only train carriages would in fact work as a short-term solution to counter male violence on public transport. And sure, there is an argument here. The evidence suggests that levels of sexual harassment are reduced in women-only spaces (duh!) because men are not present. I know that sounds like it’s stating the obvious but it’s worth making the point.
However, my counter argument would be that even as a short-term solution, we know that telling women to modify their behaviour is destined to failure. And we know this because it has been our response to male violence since the year dot. We already put a ridiculous amount of restrictions on women’s freedom in public space. The warnings about how best to “protect” ourselves from predatory men are engraved in our minds. We tell women not to drink too much, in case they get raped. We tell women not to dress in certain ways, in case they get raped. We tell women not to walk home alone, in case they get raped. We tell women to get taxis, in case they get raped.
Every year in the UK, around 80,000 women and girls are raped. There are around 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year.
Clearly, telling women to change our behaviour isn't working. Clearly putting the onus on women to 'prevent' rape isn't working, when so many men continue to rape and assault women with impunity.
Because telling women to change their behaviour achieves nothing. It does nothing to stop rapes from happening. And it achieves nothing due to one very simple reason: male violence isn’t caused by women’s behaviour, it is caused by violent men.
Women-only train carriages are on a railroad to nowhere. If we continue to tell women that they are the ones who need to change to avoid male violence, then male violence will continue unabated. Male entitlement to women’s space, to women’s time and to women’s bodies will remain unchallenged. The underlying attitudes that allow and excuse male violence will carry on as normal, as women once again are expected to remove ourselves from public space that we should all have equal access to.
So, as tempting as it is to never have to feel that twitch of anxiety on a train again, I’m going to demand bigger change. I’m going to demand women’s liberation from male violence.
Because it’s the attitudes and behaviours of men that need to change. Not where I choose to sit on the train.