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I spent years researching sexual harassment



Sian Lewis is a researcher on sexual harassment on public transport.

She has interviewed dozens of women about their experiences, which included flashing, groping, overt masturbation in quiet carriages, and being airdropped pornographic images.

She describes what happened to her when she experienced sexual harassment on a bus.

I’m a researcher on sexual harassment on public transport, so I probably know more about how it happens and what you can do about it than most people.

But when I saw a man masturbating on the bus as I travelled to meet a friend, I was as blindsided as anyone.

It was late morning, and I was sitting on the upper deck of the bus going to meet a friend.

The man was sitting on the back seat when I got on – but a short while later, I realised he had moved to sit behind me. I didn’t really think much of it at first. Then he got up to move to the seat opposite.

I was looking at my phone, but I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was touching himself.

I looked directly at him, trying to demonstrate that what he was doing was unacceptable.

He was looking at me and clearly knew that I could see – but every time I looked towards him he turned his head.

Because it was my stop, I was able to get off the bus.

But I know that people are often forced to disrupt their journey to deescalate the situation.

At first I was in shock, then annoyed at myself for acting, or not acting, in a certain way.

Because of my research, I knew it would be easy to report – I knew the number to call or text. But I didn’t.

It didn’t seem worth the effort. Instead, I minimised it, figuring that worse stuff happens, and I wasn’t in serious danger.

The fact that I was disturbed, but not surprised, at what happened, really chimed with what I had been told in my research.

I interviewed more than 30 women about their experience of sexual harassment on public transport.

Things can happen differently on public transport than the street – you’re in an enclosed space, sometimes surrounded by a big crowd.

But it’s all on the spectrum of men asserting their control over women.

All of the women I spoke to dealt with their experience in different ways: some were empowered by reporting, others just wanted to get on with their day.

What my personal experience made me see especially clearly was how jarringly normalised this is.

We worry that we didn’t react appropriately.

We spend the rest of the journey playing the incident over in our head, asking ourselves whether we reacted the way we should have to getting groped by a stranger.

These things happen and dealing with them takes up head space.

And so often when this happens, we’re shocked but not surprised. It’s accepted as something that happens on a daily basis.

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