When 17-year-old Nina Ramírez traveled to her friend’s house in Bogotá, Colombia, she used the local public transportation. One day she was targeted by a man who rubbed his crotch against her. She broke down and cried.
“I’m afraid that I’ll get on public transport again and the same thing will happen,” Nina said.
Public transportation is the lifeblood of many cities, a daily necessity for people all over the world. For many women, it is also a source of fear as they worry about being sexually harassed or even assaulted while traveling on a bus or train. This is largely a gendered issue affecting significant numbers of women globally—however, as we will see in a recent story, men are sometimes victims too.
For #BetterTheWorld week finishing out #NoPornovember, we are looking at examples in our society where we can improve. In the case of sexual aggression on transportation, there’s no doubt people deserve to feel safe while commuting.
It is a tough issue to tackle as it is a common denominator across cultures, but at the root is an issue of sexual entitlement. We can think of one huge media industry that perpetuates this twisted and outright toxic fantasy: porn.
The girl on the train
A recent report from the UK revealed that sexual assault cases on public transportation have nearly doubled in the past four years. According to figures from the mayor of London’s office, there were 844 reported attacks on London underground trains from 2015-16. Today, that number has risen to 1,206.
Globally, we are starting to gain a better understanding of what harassment looks like, and London is one of many cities pushing education campaigns to encourage reporting. This is likely a reason for the jump in numbers. It’s unclear if this also means there are more attacks, or simply that we are more aware of how big this issue is and has been for years.
So what’s next? While reporting is important, many have said efforts should now be focused on prevention.
“It’s not enough to just encourage the reporting of sexual harassment and assaults,” said Andrea Simon of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. “Alongside this, we need to be proactively identifying offenders and stopping them. We know that those committing sexual offenses will enter the transport system purposefully in order to commit those offenses. CCTV shows that they move around the transport network looking for women to target.”
Just days after the report, a 31-year-old man was arrested for nine counts of indecent exposure on London’s underground trains and one count of sexually assaulting a sleeping man on a late-night train. The offender recorded videos of himself committing each act and then shared it with his 37K followers on Twitter. Police were able to find the man after members of the public reported the videos.
This is not just an issue in the UK. In Bogotá, a 2014 survey revealed 86 percent of female respondents felt unsafe on public transport. In Mexico City, 64 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment while using the transportation, and a shocking 90 percent of women and girls in Sri Lanka have been sexually harassed on buses or trains at least once in their life. The numbers go on and on for dozens of countries and cities all over the world, but you get the point.
To better illustrate the issue, Mandy McGregor, head of policing and community safety for Transport London, said:
“Crowded trains allow offenders to evade detection as they can claim it was accidental or a result of the movement of a vehicle. Women may not know who has assaulted them, particularly during rush hour, and may not react because they are trapped or feel embarrassed to say anything. Groping or touching is the most prevalent offense reported, but we’re also seeing relatively new offenses such as upskirting and viewing pornography while on public transport.”
Porn as a weapon and cultural influence
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of image-based sexual abuse which includes revenge porn, deepfakes, spy cam porn, and upskirting. The latter is often done in crowded public spaces such as public transportation or the escalators leading to underground trains, and as McGregor said, is increasingly being committed and reported.
Consuming porn publicly can also be used as a weapon to harass and intimidate another person, or at the very least make other commuters feel uncomfortable.
“Watching pornography on public transport can be extremely intimidating to women,” said a spokeswoman for End Violence Against Women. “We hear about it regularly from those who have found themselves next to people watching porn. But it doesn’t just happen to grown women, it also happens to girls traveling to school.”
Research shows that porn can and does influence sexual behaviors and even plant the idea that a consumer could act out in real life what they watch on a screen without consequences. When consumers are shown porn with victims appearing to accept or enjoy violent encounters, they are fed the lie that people like to be treated that way, and in fact, other studies have found that exposure to porn can increase aggressiveness.
Of course, harassment and violence greatly pre-dates our current culture of internet porn. Even so, at Fight the New Drug, we are often faced with the big question: does porn actually cause sexual harassment?
It’s difficult to determine the answer as there are many societal and cultural factors. Saying that porn is exclusively to blame for harassment on public transportation is too simplistic and narrow a view, but it’s undeniable that porn is, at the very least, influential and only serves to fuel this existing issue.
Let’s not forget that porn itself can be sexual violence. Yes, some porn mimics an aggressive encounter but was scripted and produced on a professional set with consent, but more porn than you might expect on professional sets is still nonconsensual.
More and more reports confirm this fact and reveal plenty of amateur porn that is blatant image-based sexual abuse, and that plenty of professional and popular mainstream performers have even been exploited.
What can you do?
In the case of the man sharing videos on Twitter, it was members of the public who notified the police. We definitely don’t recommend going looking for this stuff, but if you see something online that looks like a nonconsensual sexual act, you can report it. Most importantly, don’t like, reshare (even if you’re trying to warn others), or go looking for more.
Hardcore porn encourages objectification and attitudes of sexual entitlement. Instead of empathy, there is little or no thought of how the unknowing or unconsenting party in a video or on public transport feels—or worse, it’s more exciting to the consumer because of how violated the targeted person will feel. This is how a person could justify invading Nina Ramírez’s space on the train in Colombia.
In our better world, we image choosing love over videos that fetishize violence or mistreatment of other people. Whether it’s secret filming or harassment on public transportation or all of the above, you can add it to the long list of reasons to stop watching porn.