Why ‘women-only’ carriages really really really are not the answer.


When I heard that the idea of women-only train carriages had been proposed as a way to reduce sexual assaults and incidents of harassment on the London Underground, I actually thought that it might be a joke. You know, like some frustrated MP had said ‘oh, well why don’t we just ban all men from the tube’ and the media had taken it the wrong way just for a bit of sensationalism. It seems so glaringly obvious to me (a woman who rides the tube multiple times a day, for what that’s worth) that women-only carriages are just not the answer. I was chatting to a friend about this over coffee and she laughed out loud and said ‘that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard’. In fact, all of the women I’ve spoken to who commute to work have said pretty much the same thing.

Let’s pretend that you’re on your way home from work. You’re tired, your feet hurt, and you just want to sit down and read your book for ten minutes. Luckily for you, you’re in the women-only carriage. The lovely lovely women-only carriage where the smell of BO is considerably less overpowering. It’s filled with lovely lovely women who are statistically extremely unlikely to follow you home and rape or kill you. Nobody is man-spreading, staring at you in a way which is either ‘harmlessly’ creepy or genuinely threatening (you’re never sure which), and nobody tries to sit down next to you and start a conversation even though you clearly just want to read. (Incidentally, this has happened to me at least three times recently, and, shockingly enough, clearly stating ‘no thank you, I just want to read my book’, did not make the man in question go away. Two of the three insulted me and the other one tried to sit on my lap. Yes really.)

So, sure, I’m not denying that from this perspective a women-only carriage actually sounds pretty great. I would like to read my book in peace and get home and eat dinner and go about my day. I would especially enjoy having a morning commute where I’m packed tightly into a carriage but don’t have to have that scary heart-in-mouth is-that-his-bag-is-that-his-hand-oh-shit—is-that-his-penis? moment every time people shift around and someone gets pressed up against me. Nobody wants a penis rubbing against them on their way to work (or at almost any other time, let’s be real).

There are plenty of advantages to riding in a women-only tube carriage, but the point is that being in that carriage, or the existence of that carriage at all, won’t address the fundamental issue of men thinking it’s okay to rub their penises on women on public transport.

In fact, it might make that issue worse because a women-only tube carriage would normalise assault.

Suggesting that the only reasonable solution is to physically remove women from the carriage sends a pretty clear message, and that message says ‘we have given up trying to stop sexual assaults on the tube’, ‘it’s too hard to catch every perpetrator’, and, my personal favourite, ‘men can’t help themselves’, ‘assault is inevitable’.

Normalising assault, and making it seem like an inevitable event which men have no power over means that women-only carriages become ‘no-assault zones’, while everywhere else is… fair game?

What if I get on a train without a women only carriage? Or what if that carriage is full, or I’m with a mixed group of friends, or I just feel like getting on the tube wherever I bloody want to and end up in a normal carriage? If someone assaults me will I be told ‘well, you should have been riding in your designated safe carriage’? If I choose to ride in a normal carriage then is it open season for penis rubbing?

Anyone uncomfortable with all this talk of rubbing penises? I know I am.

I’m also really uncomfortable with the fact that the existence of a women-only carriage (where women are ‘out of harm’s way’) will make the choice to ride in a normal carriage seem like an irresponsible one, an ‘invitation to be assaulted’ (I cringe as I write that. It makes me furious that people still use the phrase ‘asking for it’ to talk about any kind of assault – but it is a phrase that gets used a lot).

The trouble here is that ‘out of harm’s way’ also unavoidably implies ‘where you can’t be a temptation to men’, and this in turn implies that somehow, just by existing, women are actively inviting men to rub their penises on them. I hope it goes without saying, but just for the record – we’re not. I also have to add at this point that I’m using the penis-rubbing thing as a catch-all for all kinds of harassment, aggressive behaviour and sexual assault which women experience and I don’t mean to be glib, or to downplay the severity and variety of these reported incidents by using it here as an example. I’m also talking exclusively about men assaulting women, because that is the specific issues which women-only carriages are designed to solve.

Just like we should be teaching rapists not to rape people instead of teaching girls how not to get raped (as if wearing a slightly longer skirt has anything to do with sexual assault), we should be teaching people not to assault women on the tube, instead of just moving the women out of harm’s way. This issue of altering women’s habits and behaviours (making them seem like the wrongdoer) instead of addressing men’s violent or criminal actions (making them seem like a passive party, who just can’t help themselves), crops up elsewhere too, like young girls at school being told to wear their clothes a certain way to avoid distracting their male classmates. It’s a very problematic kind of victim blaming, and it’s also really annoying.

Women may be much safer when they’re in the women-only carriage, but we need to consider what happens when they step out of it. I’d like to see a solution which doesn’t focus on women at all, but instead pays attention to the root of the problem – the men who assault them. I’d also like to enjoy a future where I never have to say, type or think about the words ‘penis rubbing’ ever again.

Instating a women-only carriage just isn’t a good enough solution. We should encourage people to report assaults, prosecute those who commit them, and stop segregating women because of the actions of men.

PV x