Sexual Assault and Public Apathy on London Public Transport

by Ruth Ehrlich

3 January 2016

Content warning.

When I reported my most recent sexual assault, I didn’t do it because of instinct. I didn’t report my recent sexual assault because I knew that sexual assault is always wrong. I reported it because of Transport for London’s new advert, which told me that London cared about the people who are groped, cat called and threatened on public transport every day.

Prior to that Friday night, when taking the bus home alone at half past midnight I was groped by a man masturbating, I had been assaulted five times. Once when I was a child on my way home from school, once as an underage teenager in a club, once by a friend after a night out and twice on the street as a student in Manchester. These were normal occurrences. They were anecdotes that I shared with my friends in late-night, passionate discussions about feminism and rape culture. We never discussed why I hadn’t reported those incidents, and why my friends who had had similar experiences, hadn’t reported theirs. It was understood that you cannot go to the police with little evidence, that you cannot incriminate yourself with underage drinking, and that a drunk man on the street is not necessarily a sex offender.

The TfL advert encouraged me otherwise. The advert is hard to watch. It depicts a sexual assault that I found triggering; it made me think of the dozens of times where I’ve not been quite sure if the man pressing up behind me couldn’t balance, or if he was intentionally pushing his body weight, and often his erection, into my back. But I also found it empowering. It made me think: that is not OK. If I feel uncomfortable, or I am anxiously shifting to get away from this person, there is probably something wrong, and someone will take it seriously.

So, on that Friday night, when the masturbating man groped me, I decided to test TfL’s promise. I marched downstairs and demanded that the bus driver call the police. When he asked me to repeat what I’d said, I burst into tears. Despite the anger and the boldness that pushed me to report it, I was shaken and in shock.

What happened next bowled me over. The bus driver (whom I could never thank enough), terminated the bus, which is no easy task on a Friday night when most passengers are relatively boozed and looking forward to arriving at their next party destination. Nor can I fault the two officers from the Met who arrived within 15 minutes, took an initial report, and then asked me to accompany them to the station to make a statement. I was in shock because of the assault, but I was more shocked by how seriously it was taken. I kept on repeating: I feel like I’m wasting your time, it wasn’t that bad, it could have been so much worse. Never for a second did they make me feel like I shouldn’t have told them.

Which is why, when I received a call from the lovely detective inspector who had taken on the case telling me that they had finally received the bus CCTV and that there had been an administrative error and the whole incident had been deleted, I felt more despair than I had at any other sexual assault. I had finally reported it. I had been taken seriously. Every obstacle and every fear had been overcome, and yet a simple human error on the part of the bus company meant the greatest chance of catching that man had disappeared.

I watched that assault happen. The screen showing the CCTV was playing in front of my eyes. As TfL had promised me, there would be video evidence of what had happened. A human error wiped that away.

I didn’t report that assault for me, as a 23 year old young professional. I reported it for my ten year old self, who didn’t have CCTV to record the man who put his hand up my school skirt as I clutched a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Anne Boleyn. I reported it for my drunken 15 year old self, who didn’t tell anyone when the man who had plied me with drinks slipped his hand into my underwear on the dance floor. I reported it for my friend, whose rapist went unpunished because he seemed like a ‘family man’. I reported it for another friend who felt too ashamed of her rape to report it, or even to tell her friends until 18 months after the fact.

A recent video, which went viral, showed a group of men intervening when a woman was assaulted on the tube. Both the victim and the perpetrator were actors. It was a heartwarming display of Londoners showing solidarity with women who experience this abuse everyday, and was heralded on social media as an indication that people care, and that people will help.

That didn’t happen to me. When I turned to confront the man groping me, I desperately sought the eyes of a man sitting nearby. He was gazing out of the window, avoiding eye contact in the way that people do when they want to get from A to B without any grief. When the bus driver was evacuating the bus, the same man approached me. He said, “I’m sorry, I thought there was something weird going on, I should have said something.” Of course he should have. But he didn’t. Whether it was fear, apathy or discomfort, something stopped him from involving himself in that incident. The viral video is heartwarming, yes. But it is no reflection of what my peers and I have experienced of assault on public transport.

I don’t know if the man who groped me on that bus is a rapist. I don’t know if he is violent, or if he is just a sad, lonely man who gets off on scaring young women. But what I do know is this: I want to feel safe. I want to travel home on public transport without fear of being touched, hurt or frightened. And most of all, I want to know that if the worst happens, the technology that is meant to protect me works, and that the people in charge of this technology will ensure that it is used for this purpose.

Human error happens, but so does sexual assault. The TfL advert empowered me to report my assault, and in the same breath it took that away from me. What are adverts without the action plan in place behind them to actually protect victims of sexual assault? How can TfL promise to take sexual assault seriously when the communication between private bus companies, TfL and the police seems minimal? And how are victims supposed to find the courage to stand up to attackers when members of the public will determinedly stare out of a window, adamantly ignoring the desperate pair of eyes imploring them to show solidarity? There clearly needs to be better systems of accountability, to ensure that when someone is brave enough to speak up, their bravery is not rewarded with incompetence or cowardice that makes conviction impossible.

I hope that the next time I’m assaulted on public transport (and, terrifyingly, I’m sure there will be a next time) I will report it. I would encourage my friends to do the same. But it takes time, energy, mental strength and courage to do that. Many of us have been failed by justice systems, and we have all been brought up in a society that encourages us to accept sexual assault. The TfL advert inspired me, but it then showed me that the systems are not in place to carry those promises through. It showed me once again that speaking up is a battle, and that you must fight against all barriers to be heard and believed, and that even then it will probably not be enough. Please, TfL, put your money where your mouth is. And please, fellow Londoners, next time you see something you know isn’t quite right, don’t stare out the window.

Photo: Eric Huang/Flickr

If you want to support media for a different politics, you can donate or subscribe to Novara Media at

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.