Chris Williamson MP has re-ignited the debate around women-only train carriages after he suggested they could be a possible solution to the rising number of sexual assaults being reported on trains in the UK.
The idea of women-only carriages was previously put forward by Jeremy Corbyn shortly before he became Labour Party Leader back in 2015 and by Conservative MP Claire Perry back in 2014 when she was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Transport.
Politicians, commentators, and the tweeting public lined up to condemn – and occasionally mock – the suggestion. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, suggested the idea would be “essentially giving up on trying to prosecute assaults”, a view echoed by Spectator editor Isabel Hardman who said the policy would suggest “we are just accepting [sexual assault] as an inevitability”. (Isabel’s comment came as part of a longer thread I would recommend to all). Phillips also quipped "if you take your feminist cues from Saudi Arabia you've gone wrong".
It was also pointed out the encouraging women to avoid proximity to men, lest one of them attack her, was yet another way of focusing on the behaviour of the victim of a sexual assault rather than the perpetrator.
How would it even work in practice? Women travelling alone with children are still at risk of sexual assault, will their sons be allowed to sit with them if they prefer to travel in the safe space? At what age does a male child become a potential sexual predator and have to leave his mother and sisters to sit elsewhere? Presumably this carriage will have to be at an end of the train, otherwise men will still be passing through to visit the bathroom or the buffet car? Will male ticket inspectors be banned from the women-only carriage or do we trust ticket inspectors not to assault women while they’re working?
So it’s not just segregation disguised as a helpful intervention, it’s also impractical.
One defence of the suggestions is that what Williamson, Corbyn, et al were suggesting was a consultation on the idea, to see if it would be popular with travellers. The problem with that is something being popular doesn’t mean it’s right. Some women may well prefer to travel on a train without being sat near a man, it may well make them feel safer and make their journey more pleasant, but taking one section of public transport and saying to 50% of the population “you can’t sit here” isn’t a hallmark of a modern democracy. Giving women the illusion of safety while discriminating against men and doing nothing to tackle the underlying problem of sexual assault is not a solution.
The furore was prompted by figures showing 1,448 sexual offences were recorded by British Transport Police in 2016-17. So, the suggestion follows, women should be able to not sit near men on trains. What about other sexual violence? 2 women a week are killed by a current or former partner, that’s one every 3 days. Roughly 11% of recorded crime is flagged by police as being domestic abuse-related - and given the hidden nature of DV and the shame many victims feel, let’s assume that number is soft. Is the best response to this to tell women not to live with men? Of course not, that’s ludicrous.
Tackling sexual violence is complicated. It takes a sea change in the way society perceives women and what it teaches men about masculinity and sexuality, the police and judicial services need to be better informed, better trained, and more confident in dealing with sexual violence, and women need to better understand what constitutes sexual harassment and what can be done to challenge and if necessary prosecute perpetrators.
None of which will be achieved by women having their own seats on the train.