Crowded commuter trains have become a hotbed of inappropriate behaviour. When you crush people into tight space, and they are deprived of an armory of normal body language signals, it causes all sorts of difficulties. Scan the newspapers and you will find multiple reports of subway fiends armed with smart phones sneakily upskirting girls.
Upskirting is a word that is newly invented. Goosing is another, where passengers (mostly men) press their groin up against another passenger, facilitated by the crowding. Women are regularly groped and felt up on public transport. It has become so bad that the Japanese have introduced women only carriages. Expect the trend to spread.
According the the British Transport Police 70% of their reported offences are sexual assaults on women. About another 25% of reported offences involve exposure and masturbation. Those are only the reported ones. Most incidents go unreported.
Much of this behaviour is coming from men who see an opportunity, take what they want and don’t think about the consequences. Lock them up I say.
BUT (big but) a small number of these situations are caused by that crowding confusing the normal signals of body language. In a relatively open space, such as at a bar, if a girl physically turns away from a man it is a clear sign of rejection. In the confused world of the commuter train the signal can be misread by a man as an invitation to spoon up. If he does and the woman does not immediately, and loudly, reject the contact, he may think there is permission or even an attraction.
Cultural pressures on women “not to cause a fuss” play into this confusion. Women find themselves on hellish journeys, pinned by a man and not confident enough to identify this as a sexual assault and to call him out.
An even smaller number of cases involve a mutual affirmation of presence. A recognition of the situation and a moment of stolen pleasure. Exactly as decribed in “On the Metro” the poem by Williams below. C.K. Willams was born on November 4th, 1936 in Newark, New Jersey. A multi-award winning poet he writes of single, extended moments, intimately observed, with a short-story like quality to his poetry. He presents people who are exposed and vulnerable which makes him such a good commentator to understand a crowded subway train.
Note: Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) was a Polish writer whose works were strongly rooted in psychological analysis. The interesting part for me is how he analyses the creation of identity through interactions with others. This flows from the works of neo-freudians like Lacan and Sartre and became encoded as transactional analysis with the publication in 1964 of Games People Play by Eric Berne.
On the Metro; by C.K. Williams
On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me;
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptation to Exist—and notice her glancing up from hers
to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms herself physically,” that is,
becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before: though she hasn’t moved, she’s allowed herself
to come more sharply into focus, be more accessible to my sensual perception, so I can’t help but remark
her strong figure and very tan skin—(how literally golden young women can look at the end of summer.)
She leans back now, and as the train rocks and her arm brushes mine she doesn’t pull it away;
she seems to be allowing our surfaces to unite: the fine hairs on both our forearms, sensitive, alive,
achingly alive, bring news of someone touched, someone sensed, and thus acknowledged, known.
I understand that in no way is she offering more than this, and in truth I have no desire for more,
but it’s still enough for me to be taken by a surge, first of warmth then of something like its opposite:
a memory—a girl I’d mooned for from afar, across the table from me in the library in school now,
our feet I thought touching, touching even again, and then, with all I craved that touch to mean,
my having to realize it wasn’t her flesh my flesh for that gleaming time had pressed, but a table leg.
The young woman today removes her arm now, stands, swaying against the lurch of the slowing train,
and crossing before me brushes my knee and does that thing again, asserts her bodily being again,
(Gombrowicz again), then quickly moves to the door of the car and descends, not once looking back,
(to my relief not looking back), and I allow myself the thought that though I must be to her again
as senseless as that table of my youth, as wooden, as unfeeling, perhaps there was a moment I was not.