By Nicole Kalms
The nature of public transport creates spaces where perpetrators are guaranteed close proximity to women. (ABC News: Patrick Williams)
Survey results from the Australian Human Rights Commission reveal concerning statistics about the numbers of university students being sexual harassed and sexual assaulted on Australian public transport.
Of university students sexually harassed in 2015 and 2016, an average of 22 per cent were harassed on public transport while travelling to or from the university.
Some university percentages were markedly higher — ranging up to 40 per cent. For incidents of sexual assault, an average of 15 per cent were in public transport spaces.
Public transport spaces are not within the control of universities, but the AHRC acknowledges that travel to and from university were considered an important part of student experience.
There is an opportunity for universities to develop stronger partnerships with public transport authorities and to take these statistics seriously.
Existing research highlights the devastating effects of being sexual harassed or sexually assaulted while using public transport — particularly for women.
These negative experiences in public transport spaces result in entrenched behaviours’ that may shape women’s entire life access and desire to use public transport.
It is vital to understand the nuances of the survey and the gaps it reveals in the experiences of students attending university.
Why is harassment rife on public transport?
Public transport is conducive to sexual harassment and sexual assault. The confined and transitory nature of trams, trains and buses inadvertently create spaces where perpetrators are guaranteed close proximity to women.
The AHRC report reinforces what we already know about sexual harassment and sexual assault: there is little social or legal risk or accountability for this transgressive behaviour. Perpetrators are emboldened in public transport spaces.
However, it’s important to note that 57 per cent of students who told the survey they had been sexually harassed on public transport in 2015/16 stated that the perpetrator was a student from their own university and 11 per cent of perpetrators were students from another university.
This differs from recent research which suggests that most perpetrators on public transport rely on the anonymity.
A broader problem for women
Universities are a microcosm of society and clearly not immune to the systemic sexual violence perpetrated against women, trans and gender-diverse persons.
The findings highlight the importance of university engagement in the prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces and especially where the perpetrator is a university student.
Improvements to public transport spaces have historically been “gender-blind” and continue to generate generalised safety recommendations for all users.
This requires users — particularly women, trans and gender-diverse persons — to moderate their own behaviour to feel safe.
Research clearly suggests that women avoid travelling at certain times or feel it necessary to avoid public transport altogether.
The impact of this may be missing classes, having limited timetable options and not being able to participate fully in university life and networking opportunities.
In written submissions, some women said their experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault was so debilitating that they withdrew from university altogether — affecting their future access to employment and education.
Universities must look at the survey and see that they are indeed stakeholders in resolving the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces.
How can universities help change transport?
To improve safety on public transport, there is a need to understand a variety of factors that contribute to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
For example, university communities will need to examine the entrenched gender stereotypes that shape the sexual harassing behaviours and sex crimes.
Universities have a responsibility to be proactive. The survey can be used to pressure the public transport providers into developing gender-sensitive design solutions.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces is underexamined — this is an opportunity to acknowledge this gap.
Universities must facilitate the collation of more detailed data that addresses the differences and nuances of gender and sexuality.
This means working particularly with women, trans and gender-diverse communities to involve them as co-designers and collaborators, to implement and monitor the data and the actions undertaken.
The AHRC survey exposes how universities are not immune to the issues faced by the larger community around sexual harassment and the university is clearly a stakeholder in resolving this issue, improving awareness and implementing change.
This must avoid strategies that promote “victim-blaming” and victim-responsibility.
Creating a better ride for all passengers
At XYX Lab at Monash University, we are examining how design and communication can prevent sexual harassment in public transport spaces.
Communication campaigns like Project Guardian — implemented very successfully by public transport service providers in the UK — is a great example.
Sexual assault support services:
- ANU Counselling Centre: (02) 6125 2442 (9:00am – 1:00pm and 2:00pm – 4:40pm)
- Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: (02) 6247 2525 (7:00am – 11:00pm)
- National university support line: 1800 572 224 (until November 30, 2017)
- 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
- Lifeline: 131 114
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
We believe gender-sensitive space and communication design is imperative.
The XYX lab have been researching and analysing the developments in the use of activist crowd-mapping technology such as the Free to Be project by Plan International Australia. This reveals the spatial dimension of sexual harassment.
Feminist crowd-mapping can combat the issue of underreporting by allowing women, trans and gender-diverse people to report in their own time and in their own way to detail their experiences. It also collates a rich dataset where voices are heard.
Mapping the incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault can assist with tracking hotspots and areas that may require more intensive investigation.
By sensitively sharing the information, the experiences of victims/survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces can be bought into each university community.
Universities will have to commit to improving the situation of student sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces. That is clear.
Dr Nicole Kalms is a senior lecturer and founding director of the Monash University XYX Lab examining the nexus of space, gender and communication.