I started catching public transport by myself around the age of 12. Growing up in a small town meant that my commute to school and back involved mostly all my classmates who lived in the area. My mum never thought anything of it and neither did I and it wasn’t until I made my move to Melbourne at 18, my mum began stressing and worrying about me taking public transport alone. It wasn’t until I found myself spending a substantial amount of time and energy planning thinking about my routes, when to travel, how to behave, what to wear and where to sit, that I admitted I no longer felt safe on public transport.
Public transportation in Melbourne opened my eyes to many things that I was once oblivious to. You hear stories about people who have been victimised by excessive starring, unwanted attention, and conversation or people being groped or even being rubbed against, and you can’t help but feel that sinking feeling in your stomach when your eyes meet those of a person you know has been looking at you since the moment they jumped on, or the fear you feel rushing through your body when a drunk person appears to be approaching you, mumbling words under their breath.
I found myself avoiding certain bus routes, or train lines and even began to only travel with other people, not just by myself because my safety was all I could ever think about. It came to the point where I would spend hours the night before, planning to wake earlier than usual to catch a bus to work sometimes adding another form of public transport on top of my usual travels, to avoid the morning rush and the guy in the brown coat who every single day jumps on the bus from the same stop. It may sound like I’m overreacting, but I’m talking about a man who seems like he purposely chooses to sit next to females with an empty seat beside them, instead of a male who is sitting next to a free seat, who then goes out of his way to stand next to a female if none have a spare seat beside them regardless of any males on the bus having a spare seat.
I began to witness I wasn’t the only person who noticed this when I saw school girls who caught the bus planning to sit in pairs, mumbling in the double seat in front of me that the upcoming stop was his stop, making sure their fellow classmates also had a bus buddy. It just makes me wonder what could happen. When you look at figures like 350 reported sexual offenses made towards women mostly on Victoria’s public transport in the last financial year, do you start to feel a sense of relief because you feel you’re not alone, or do you start to wonder why and how this is still an issue considering the alarming numbers?
As a woman, why should I have to feel at risk of sexual harassment whenever I step foot on public transport? Why do my plans and behaviour have to alter so I can ensure I get to my desired location safely? Since when is traveling alone an open door for people to approach you?
A nationwide survey commissioned by Plan International Australia and Our Watch found that 30 percent of Australian girls aged between 15-19 avoid public places after dark, with 23 percent believing it is not safe to travel alone on public transport.
Public transport is consistently identified as one of the worse spaces for public harassment. I remember catching the bus home from work one day where I encountered sexual harassment for the first time. I was 19 and had just finished an 8-hour shift. I was wearing my usual black leggings and a t-shirt, the attire I’m made to wear working at an active store. I always made sure to arrive at the bus stop early to be the first on board. It was no different this time, I took my seat at the very front of the bus, the walkway being the only thing separating me from the driver. This seat was always my safe spot, although I found myself uneasy on the bus, this seat was designed for one person so it helped me avoid any interaction with commuters.
I was a few stops away from where I was getting off when I suddenly felt a large figure approach me from behind. I found myself inhaling what smelt like a mixture of body odor and alcohol until I felt like I was being chocked by the overwhelming smell. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Home,” I replied nervously, focusing on my phone avoiding any eye contact. It was like there was a sense of obligation to respond or to be polite to harassers who might kick off if we ignore them. We’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. Luckily for me, this man went back to his seat because I wasn’t engaging in conversation but what about the other women who have experienced sexual harassment and kept quiet? It’s making the world smaller and scarier.
There was a 40 percent rise in reports on sexual assault on public transport. It makes more sense to be afraid of using these services at night, but another Plan International Australia survey found that almost 50 percent of female participants claimed to be uncomfortable using public transport during the day.
Behaviours like this aren’t born, they are learnt through persistent harassment. It shouldn’t be normal. I shouldn’t fear catching public transport in hopes I don’t get harassed by a complete stranger, sometimes fearing for life, then going on about my day as if nothing happened.