A Woman on Public Transport is Not Public Property

Smash the patriarchy hammer

I read this today: It’s a story about a woman – Nathalie Gordon (@awlilnatty) – who was on a bus, with her headphones in, when a man made unwanted advances. She was polite to each of his intrusions, and the incident ended with him masturbating in the seat beside her, and her reporting this to the bus driver. The driver shrugged and asked her what she expected.


In response, Nathalie reveals that what she expects is:

Respect for women no matter who they are, or what they look like, or what they’re wearing; respect for women who don’t want go for a drink, who ask for help, who are afraid; to feel safe on the bus, the street, in her house or anywhere she chooses to go; not to be on guard everywhere she goes; she expects men to stop thinking every woman on the planet owes them something; good men to be on our side, to support us, to listen, to care, to stand up for us when we can’t, and to educate others.


It doesn’t sound like too much to expect, does it? Sadly, if you’re a woman, it appears that, if this is what you expect, you’re expecting too much. I shared Nathalie’s piece with friends. Interestingly, every woman who responded, had a similar story to tell. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a woman alive who has not been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention. Not only have we been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention, we’ve also been on the receiving end of comments like:

‘What do you expect – you’re a pretty girl?’ (So, should I disfigure myself to make myself less of a target?)

‘Take it as a compliment.’ (Really? Assault is a compliment?)

‘What were you doing?’ (Usually minding our own business.)

‘What were you wearing?’ (Clothes. Always.)


Those of us who also have daughters related our concerns regarding our girls, and how society views (literally), and treats, them. I was reminded of the work my girls and I had to do before I could allow them to take public transport on their own. To prepare my (then) 11 year old for taking a single bus (in other words, there was no need for her to change buses) from outside her school to the end of our road took hours. I spoke to her and her sister about the rules:

  1. Greet the driver (to be polite, but also so s/he registers that you are a minor onboard, unaccompanied);
  2. If you must sit beside someone, choose to sit beside a woman rather than a man.
  3. Stay sitting on the aisle seat, allow someone to pass by you, so they get the window seat.
  4. Stay downstairs. Even if there are no seats downstairs, and there are seats upstairs, stay standing downstairs.
  5. If possible, stay where the bus driver can see you.
  6. You do not have to be polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable.
  7. If you feel threatened or unsafe, move seats. You do not have to justify your feelings, even to yourself. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
  8. If someone makes you feel unsafe, go to the bus driver and tell him/her.


Then, we role-played, several times, over several days, how to act / re-act if someone made them feel uncomfortable. We defined what that might be – talking to them when they didn’t want to be spoken to, saying things – racist, sexist or personal things – that made them feel uncomfortable. Pretending not to speak English if they felt that would keep them safer (they can get away with this, because they look ‘foreign’).   I gave them permission to be rude to someone they didn’t feel safe beside. I practised being a lecherous male and putting a hand on my daughters’ knees, so they could practise shouting ‘Stop touching me!’ (I was amazed at how long it took to get them to shout. How well society has taught them to be quiet!). I got them to practice getting out of their seats and going to the driver. I gave them permission to defend themselves, and showed them how.


As I discussed these measures with my friends this morning, a thought struck me; if I had sons, it would never have occurred to me to go to such lengths before letting them take the bus on their own. I can’t imagine that I would have felt the need to do more than have one conversation with a son about general safety and what to do if he was uncomfortable. The difference being that, as a mother of daughters, I know my children will have to confront a male making unwanted advances. I know they will need to know how to react. I know they will have to confront lecherous males (they do, on a regular basis), and I want them to feel empowered in those situations. Don’t get me wrong, though, even though I am aware that the girls will face unwanted sexual advances, doesn’t mean I’m resigned to the fact – it means I will continue to fight to change this fact. The first step in changing something is acknowledging that it exists in the first place.