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Public transport is consistently identified as one of the most notorious spaces for public harassment. shutterstock

Why the ‘Hands Off’ campaign targeting sexual harassment on public transport misses the mark

This week, Victoria launched a campaign, “Hands Off”, in response to a 40% increase in reports of sexual assault on public transport.

The campaign – a joint initiative between Victoria Police, Crime Stoppers and Public Transport Victoria – will, over the next two weeks, publicly share images of alleged offenders online to encourage commuters to report them. This is accompanied by a new police unit that will focus on sexual offences on public transport.

Hands Off’s launch coincides with the culmination of weeks of public debate on women’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault following the Harvey Weinstein case and subsequent #MeToo social media campaign.

Further reading: What the Harvey Weinstein case tells us about sexual assault disclosure

In light of heated discussion about whether we’ve reached a turning point for generating substantial change, Hands Off is arguably a step in the right direction. It implicitly takes women’s experiences of public sexual harassment seriously by deeming them worthy of a criminal justice response.

To some extent, Hands Off brings Melbourne up to speed with cities such as London and New York. Both introduced campaigns and reporting portals for sexual harassment and assault on their public transport systems several years ago.

Yet, despite these positive elements, Hands Off ultimately misses the mark when it comes to responding to and preventing sexual harassment and assault on public transport.

Next stop: sexual harassment

Street-based or public sexual harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of sexual violence. Almost 90% of women have experienced it at least once. LGBTIQ+ people are also routinely harassed in public spaces.

Further reading: Whistling and staring at women in the street is harassment – and it’s got to stop

Public transport is consistently identified as one of the worst spaces for public harassment. Participants in my research on street harassment in Melbourne identified the spaces in and around public transport as sites of harassment.

Just over half of the 292 survey participants indicated they commonly encountered harassment on public transport. Experiences ranged from staring, prolonged unwanted conversation, groping, and rubbing up against someone. For example:

My typical experience of street harassment in Melbourne consists of excessive staring and unwanted attention/conversation by male strangers, especially on public transport.

Waiting for public transport to go to work, or walking to public transport it is not unusual to get leered at excessively, sometimes to have comments made, or to be engaged in unwanted conversation that clearly has a purpose behind it other than friendliness.

An also typical experience would be groping or rubbing on crowded public transport.

Perpetrators were often able to take advantage of public transport to create a level of ambiguity around the intent of their actions. Is someone intentionally rubbing against you? Or is it just an unfortunate outcome of a packed train?

While these incidents range in their legality and perceived severity, they can have serious impacts on women and LGBTIQ+ people’s sense of safety and freedom of movement in public space.

Some participants in my study greatly limited how and when they used public transport, often avoiding travelling alone or at night. A smaller number stopped using public transport altogether after enduring years of harassment.

And even when women are not harassed, they spend a substantial amount of time and energy planning for the fact they might be.

Is Hands Off on point?

Experiencing sexual harassment and assault on public transport can have a profoundly negative impact, despite some of these experiences being routinely trivialised. Campaigns that respond to these experiences are needed – and, in this sense, Hands Off is a welcome development.

However, in other respects this campaign falls short, and is perhaps unlikely to generate substantive, longer-term change.

Hands Off’s strong focus on apprehending individual offenders – while important in many respects – also runs the risk of perpetuating a “monster myth” approach to sexual offending. This means it frames a small number of particularly deviant men as responsible for offending.

Doing this fails to acknowledge the broad spectrum of problematic behaviours that women and LGBTIQ+ people experience. It also individualises a problem that is deeply embedded in our broader sociocultural beliefs and power systems.

Likewise, this initiative does not directly respond to the full range of harassing behaviours encountered on public transport. Hands Off implies a focus on physical touch and assault.

While it is vitally important to respond to these, it is less clear how or whether this campaign is inclusive of the more ambiguous and arguably more pervasive forms of harassment identified earlier.

To see this campaign meet longer-term success, additional steps that could be taken include:

  • Taking a broader approach to conceptualising sexual harassment and assault, and launching public education campaigns to tackle the trivialisation of more “minor” iterations of harassment.

  • Reviewing the design and management of public transport to help “design out” sexual harassment. For example, reducing over-crowding and maximising passenger control and autonomy over their personal space.

  • Encouraging bystander intervention and reporting.

  • Training public transport staff to identify and intervene in harassment (when safe to do so), and to provide support to those impacted.

  • Developing anonymous, app-based or online reporting platforms, such as a successful UK approach.

Further reading: Gender makes a world of difference for safety on public transport

Ultimately, such campaigns must work in concert to tackle the underlying power disparities and gender-based inequalities that underpin sexual harassment and violence.

Generating change takes time, and requires a whole-of-community approach that delivers consistent anti-violence messages across multiple spheres. In this respect, a two-week campaign just won’t cut it.

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