I started taking public transit by myself at the age of 14. Like many kids growing up in a big city, this meant commuting to a high school halfway across the city. I remember my mom obsessing and worrying over the thought of me taking the bus all by myself. She said I would have to be extra careful because I’m a girl, but I never really understood what she meant by that.
City transportation opened up many opportunities for me; I got to see a side of my city that I had never seen before. I fell in love with the freedom that came along with my bus pass. I was old enough that I began wanting to do things on my own, and it felt great that I no longer had to rely on my parents every time I wanted to go somewhere.
But in all its glory, there are some aspects of riding public transit that you can’t really ever be prepared for. I’m talking about that sinking feeling in your stomach when your eyes meet those of the drunk guy at the back of the bus who has been eyeing you for the past 15 minutes. Or the fear that grips you when the man across from you is mumbling profanities and making inappropriate sexual comments about your body. Is he taking it too far when he slides his hands down his pants to reveal the bulge that he is so disgustingly proud of? What about when he grabs you and tells you all of the horrible things that he wants to do to you? Why are we, as women, at risk of experiencing violence every time we step foot on public transportation, and where do we draw the line?
I was 16 the first time I encountered sexual harassment. I had slept through my alarm and missed my usual bus to school. It wasn’t a big deal, really. It just meant that I would have to catch the one that came 30 minutes later, and that I would be late for my first period painting class. So I got on the next bus and opted for a window seat near the back, leaving an empty seat beside me. The bus that ran at this time didn’t get as packed as my bus usually did, and so the seat remained empty until we reached the downtown core.
The crowd that was getting on was the type you’d typically expect to see in that area at nine in the morning. Businessmen and students flooded onto the bus until there was virtually no room left. I sensed a large figure slide down beside me. Instantly, an overwhelming wave of body heat and Axe body spray began to choke me. I felt his eyes burning a hole in the side of my face. I glanced up from my phone to give a sideways glance at this person seated next to me. He was a light-haired, blue-eyed male who appeared to be in his late teens or early twenties. He was large and extremely physically fit, but intimidatingly so. He grimaced at me in a way that was so terrifying that it gave me goose bumps, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand tall.
“I’m John,” he said menacingly, his grimace remaining intact. He held out his hand to propose a handshake.
I smiled nervously, nodded a bit, and then looked away immediately. I ignored the offer and I purposely avoided direct eye contact. He did not take to this kindly.
“I said,”—still grimacing and grabbing my wrist—“my name is John.” I swallowed and then held my breath. I still couldn’t get my eyes to meet his gaze.
“Won’t you tell me your name? You’re just so beautiful.” His grip tightened.
I scrambled for a name that wasn’t my own, but drew a blank. All I could focus on was his moist and heavy breath sticking to my neck.
“Mary,” I croaked. I began to panic even more, realizing that I had practically just told him my real name.
“Mary,” he sighed. “Mary, Mary, you’re so pretty and so delicate, Mary. Do you think I’m handsome, Mary? Would you like to go out with me?”
I felt a tear escape from my eye, and I began to tremble as I fought with myself to remain calm.
“How’s about this,” he began logically. “I’ll give you my number, Mary. I’m sure you would like that. Do you have a boyfriend, Mary?”
I nodded silently, even though it wasn’t true.
“Aw,” he said in a patronizing tone, “that’s a shame. But it doesn’t matter, sweetie. I’ll call you up, and we can talk. Just as friends, ‘kay? I promise, Mary. No funny business.” He sneered arrogantly, not loosening his grip for a second.
I only realised how loudly he’d been saying these awful things when I took the time to look around and notice that people were staring. I wondered how long they had been watching us for. I was terrified and confused. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?
I didn’t know where we were, but instinctively I pulled the cord for the next stop. Abruptly, I stood up and I felt a twinge of relief as John loosened his grip on my wrist. I attempted to wiggle my way past him. At first he laughed at me, but eventually he opened his legs, and crudely let me pass.
“Mary!” he shouted across the bus, as I got away. “You’re beautiful, Mary! I love you, Mary!”
I became hysterical as I rushed to the back door. I think a couple of people may have said something at this point, but I couldn’t really hear them. I could only hear his voice, and it resonated within my entire body. I stood there anxiously with my head down, tears streaming down my face. He was still catcalling me and roaring my poorly chosen fake name. Suddenly, I heard the doors prop open. I almost tripped as I leaped off the bus and I collapsed as soon as my feet felt the ground beneath them. I began hugging myself, whimpering with my knees at my chin. I sat there for what felt like hours until my breathing became even and I stopped hearing my heart pounding rhythmically in my chest. I wasn’t sure how it all happened. But somehow, numbly, I was able to get on a different bus and get to school just in time for second period.
The unfortunate reality is that this experience is not limited to myself, nor is it limited to the bus or subway. Public transit is simply another place that women must face harassment and assault. For some reason, we just don’t talk about it. For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my own experiences because I felt that I wouldn’t be heard. I felt that perhaps I was somehow “lucky” to walk away from this situation, and that an outsider might assume that I was overreacting. What I didn’t realise was that my silence enabled my assaulter, just as much as the silence of those who rode the bus with me on that day and didn’t try to help me. This made me think about all the women who have experienced sexual or physical assault on city transportation, and all the women who will experience it. Then, it made me think about all the women who have been afraid to speak up about these everyday encounters, and whose voices remain unheard.
Public transit is a serious issue in a society that is desensitised to violence and cruelty against women. The lack of awareness surrounding this problem is a blatant injustice to us. The truth is that public transportation is not safe for women; what will it take in order for it to become so?