Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

Sexual assault on the way home: ‘Am I making a fuss?’

Reports of sexual offences on trains have doubled in the last five years. Alexandra Heminsley, who was assaulted while travelling on a busy train, tells her story 

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

Yesterday’s news that reported sexual offences on public transport have doubled in the last five years would normally have left me saddened, anxious or even afraid. But this time, I saw a chink of positivity in the news, for what seems like a counterintuitive reason: mine was one of those reports.

This spring, when eight and a half months pregnant, I was sexually assaulted on a Govia ThamesLink train. It was light, a sunny Saturday afternoon after lunch in London with my siblings and collecting a bag of baby blankets from my sister. It all seemed so ludicrous, so unlikely, and … so unsexy. But, as I quickly realised – on a visceral, immediate level – sexual assault isn’t about sexiness, it’s about power.

Of course, I knew that. I had read it many times, and never disagreed. I would argue with anyone who challenged it. And I would reassure any friend who ever doubted it. But it was only when someone grabbed at me, my back stooped to pick up my baby blankets, that I truly knew, with every fibre, that it is about power not sexiness.

What shocked me most wasn’t that it happened, but the speed and thoroughness with which I crumbled when it did. I immediately moved away from the man, but instead of reporting assault, I tweeted the train company to say I wanted to sit in first class. When the man’s friends followed me into first class, I assumed it would be to apologise, not to block my way out of the carriage, telling me that “What I might have thought happened didn’t” or “If I felt like I’d been touched, I hadn’t, as he was a family man”. When I was stuck, unable to get past them, the amorphous, insidious language of doubt began to wrap itself around me. Within moments I believed them when they told me that the carriage next door was talking about what a liar I was, as they asked “Do you not think you’ve made a big mistake?”

Maybe I was making a fuss? Maybe it wasn’t illegal after all, and I had just misunderstood? Maybe even … it hadn’t happened? Was it something else had felt like a hand grabbing my arse?

In under two minutes these thoughts were flying at me fast, flicking at my sense of self and my confidence that anyone else would believe me. Every instinct was telling me to shut up and hide, not to stand up for myself. I am an articulate, confident person, who has a partner I know trusts me, and that’s how fast I crumbled. It just seemed so much the wisest option not to say anything.

What’s the point of reporting it?, I was telling myself. Who hasn’t got to 40 without getting grabbed on public transport? It’s just life, isn’t it?

But I was lucky. So lucky. I was saved by the appearance of a bold and excellent woman in the carriage who said she could hear that I needed help, and offered a seat next door with her and her boyfriend. And, once sitting there, I was lucky enough to have still had mobile reception, as the British Transport Police replied to my tweet, asking if I needed them to call me. If they had not approached me, I would have done nothing. What’s the point?, I was telling myself. Who hasn’t got to 40 without getting grabbed on public transport? It’s just life, isn’t it?

When my train arrived at Brighton, there were police waiting for me – and for him. He was arrested immediately. And an independent witness – who had been sitting behind me – came forward to say that she had seen the whole incident. “I work on the railway,” she said “and I’m sick of seeing this kind of thing happen to women who daren’t come forward”. A visitor to the city, she left police with her hotel details and gave a statement later.

I was shocked – even ashamed – by how quickly I doubted myself. For weeks afterwards I ran through what had happened in my mind, even listening to the brief recording I had managed to take again and again to reassure myself I hadn’t made it all up. (The man, of course, denied it, despite there being CCTV and the witness).

So when I look at that news report, and I think about my experience, and how quick I was to quake, I see positivity not anxiety. The number of incidents is not going up. All women know they were always ridiculously high. But what has changed is women’s confidence to help each other, to stand up for each other on an unguarded train, and to speak out when necessary. This, alongside the BTP’s immediate and kind treatment, left me heartened that while some things may change with glacial slowness, others are changing fast. Women will remind each other that a crime is a crime. Police are now responding to those crimes with empathy not doubt.

Even when there were two policemen in my home taking my statement, I carried on apologising for taking up their time on what was by then a busy Saturday night. But they were resolute: report it, because it helps us to fight it. That night, I just wanted to play with my baby blankets and get a bit of sleep, but now, months later, I am glad that I was encouraged to speak. My case had a positive outcome and I hope that it helps others. The statistics are scary, I’m still not confident at travelling alone, and men who assault women haven’t ceased to exist. But now I know that reporting it isn’t just cathartic but is also constructive and empowering. I hope it never happens to you, but I also hope you’ll report it if it does.

@Hemmo

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Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
Sexual assault
public transport
women's safety

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