Last year a video of a New York man went viral after he intervened in the sexual harassment of a 15-year-old girl by a drunk man on the bus.
Moise Maracy began a verbal argument with the man before things eventually got physical. Police came and arrested both men but released Mr Maracy after overwhelming evidence proved that he was simply trying to prevent an assault.
Although the incident took place in the US, it is a scene that is familiar to so many of us here in Australia. Research conducted by The Australia Institute found that 87 per cent of females have been verbally or physically attacked while walking down the street. Forty per cent of women feel unsafe in their own neighbourhoods while walking home at night. In addition to verbal harassment, 65 per cent of women reported experiencing physically threatening harassment.
We all have a duty to speak up when we see harassment. We have an even bigger duty when the victim of that harassment is young.
Watching the video, I felt sick. For a brief moment you can see the girl’s look of shock as she recoils in the back of the bus. When I read that the man had caressed her hand, and hurled sexually explicit abuse at her, it felt sickeningly familiar.
If a man approached me today on an empty bus and asked to sit next to me I would say no.
But when I was 15 I didn’t realise I could say no. When a man twice my age asked if he could sit next to me I moved my bag to make space for him. I wasn’t trying to be friendly. I wasn’t trying to invite conversation. I was intimidated.
He began asking questions: what is your name? Where do you live? What stop are you getting off at? I tried to give vague answers but became terrified that he would follow me off the bus.
The questions stopped and he placed his hand on my thigh. It felt like a bad dream. The kind where you can’t move or speak. I prayed that he would stop there. I prayed he wouldn’t decide to move it up my leg or under my dress. In that horrible moment I couldn’t understand that my body belonged to me. I was completely at his mercy.
After ten minutes he finally moved his hand off my thigh. The feeling was like a spell being broken, and I found the courage to ask him to move.
His response: anger. Then came more questions: What was my problem? Why did he have to move? Eventually he did move – to the seat opposite mine. He sat on the edge of it, leering at me until his stop came and he got off the bus.
I can point to almost two dozen similarly terrifying incidents that happened to me between the ages of 12 and 16. One of my more vivid memories from high school is a man rolling down his car window, putting his face an inch from mine and telling me that he wanted to fuck me up the ass. I was in school uniform at the time.
Here’s the thing: Predators target teenage girls for a reason: their naivety. Teenage girls are vulnerable. They are only just learning about their own sexuality and bodies when they become the target of rampant sexual harassment and assault. A lot of the time they are unaware of their power to say no. Or, more commonly, they feel it is not safe to say no.
Essentially, young girls are targeted because predators think they can get away with it and, for the most part, they do. This is why the video of Moise Maracy went viral. Because it is satisfying to witness a little justice in a sea of injustice. But one man is not enough. We all have a duty to speak up when we see harassment. We have an even bigger duty when the victim of that harassment is young.
So please if you see this, confront directly: ask the girl if she is okay or if she wants to sit next to you. Tell the driver. Take a photo and promise to report him. Let’s never forget that most people who go after young girls are cowards.
Of course, sometimes it can be safer to avoid direct confrontation. If that’s the case, do what one of my friends has done in the past: pretend to recognise the girl, engage her in conversation and help her to move safely out of the situation.
In my own experiences of harassment, my immediate instinct was always to make myself as small as possible. Afterwards I would feel deep shame. What was it about me? I can only imagine how incredible it would have been to have someone step in during these incidents – to let me know that what was happening was wrong and to speak up for me, when my own voice had failed.