Who is harassed?
Thus far I have only discussed differences in harassment levels based on gender. Harassment, however, can be directed at people because they identify as LGBTQ+. Because some countries do not allow survey inquiries about the sexual orientation of respondents, we were only able to examine the relationship between sexual orientation and sexual harassment in 11 cities. In nine of these cities, LGBTQ+ students reported higher rates of harassment than heterosexual, cisgender students. The differences, however, were not statistically significant in about half of these cities. That lack of significance may owe to the small sample size of LGBTQ+ students in our survey, as well as the fact that sexual orientation or gender identity is often not visible to outsiders (i.e., some riders who would have been harassed if perpetrators knew they were LGBTQ+ were not harassed because their orientation or identity was not evident)
The importance of the environmental context
Students revealed that physical problems often plagued the transit settings where they had experienced harassment. These settings were dark, desolate, littered, or had vandalism and graffiti. Respondents also complained about the social environment of transit settings, such as the presence of drunk people, pickpockets, and people selling or exchanging drugs. In Los Angeles, respondents who reported the presence of drunk people and panhandlers in transit settings they frequently used were also more likely to report experiencing sexual harassment in these settings. Additionally, L.A. students who encountered vandalism or litter on the train system, or who used poorly illuminated bus stops, also reported a higher risk of sexual harassment.
How does harassment change student behavior?
Past experience with transit harassment, or just a general awareness and fear of such harassment, can prompt transit riders to adopt precautionary measures, like I did growing up in Athens. This can result in avoiding transit at certain times or places, or using it only under certain conditions, such as if accompanied by others. These behaviors were significantly more common among female than male students in all cities. One of the most common precautions among female respondents worldwide was dressing in a way they believed would avoid sexual looks and harassment; in Tokyo and Guangzhou, more than half of the female respondents reported dressing to avoid unwanted attention. In certain cities, some female students reported carrying an object they could use as a deterrent or weapon against harassers (e.g., keys, sharp objects, pepper spray). Many female students also reported seeking seats near the bus operator, or choosing to wait for buses only at well-lit bus stops, even if this meant walking further to reach them. More than half of the female students in Los Angeles felt the need to either dress a certain way, travel only during daytime, or wait for the bus only at well-lit places. In San Jose, about one-quarter of the students reported traveling only during daytime and waiting for the bus only at well-lit bus stops, while a bit over one-fifth of them reported dressing a certain way to not attract attention when riding the bus.
See something, don’t say something
While harassment is both omnipresent and consequential, in that it affects whether and how people ride transit, it is also woefully underreported. In almost every city we studied, more than half of the respondents who experienced sexual harassment did not report it. In some cities, such as Rio Claro, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Stockholm, fewer than 10% of the students reported the incidents they experienced. Most of those who did report an incident only told family and friends, not transit nor police authorities. Students across all 18 cities gave similar reasons for not reporting sexual harassment: embarrassment; perceived difficulty of reporting; not knowing where or how to report; believing that reporting was futile because nothing would be done; and, in some cities (Los Angeles among them), distrust of the police.
Another potential reason for underreporting was that, as mentioned earlier, not all students perceived catcalling as sexual harassment, despite catcalling’s clear sexual tone. This perception indicates a certain level of problematic normalization and tolerance of inappropriate sexual behavior in transit settings. Sadly, students in all cities also reported that in cases where bystanders had observed their sexual harassment, they largely chose not to act.