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Harassment on Public Transportation is No Joke (Updated)

January 21, 2010
Ladies-only car on JR West
Image via Wikipedia

For women in many countries, getting to work or school and back home again on the bus or subway isn’t just a matter of trying to pass the time with a book and hoping there aren’t any delays. It means hoping, each day, that you won’t be targeted by a man who believes that he is entitled to your time, space, and body. It means running the real risk of being trapped in an enclosed space with a harasser because you can’t just leave between stops, and even when you reach a stop, getting off might mean being late for work and losing your job. If the bus or train is crowded, or if you are sitting by the window and the man harassing or assaulting you is sitting next to the aisle, you might not even be able to move away. You can scream, but you don’t know how this man will react. If he feels entitled to touch you, just how violent might his anger be when this is denied him? Japan, South Korea, and other countries have introduced women-only subway cars in order to reduce harassment and groping.

Clearly, harassment and assault on public transportation is a serious problem. So why do some people still see it as a joke? Last week, Tumblr’s official Tuesday update, posted by an apparently male staff member, began with a story about a dream in which real life was Tumblrized, complete with like and reblog buttons. It was funny, and cute, right up until reality hit:

Fast-forward to this morning: I was tired, disheveled, and there was a really pretty girl on the subway. To show my appreciation, I went to push her like button. Didn’t work. Hit it again. Nothing. I tried and tried, but nothing was working right.

Lest you think that by pushing the like button he meant complimenting her (though his complaint that it didn’t work would still suggest a sense of entitlement), here’s how the story ends:

Long story short, now I’m in jail. I used my phone call to select today’s five picks

Whether you interpret his actions in the story as groping or literally hitting the “pretty girl”, this is a joke about assault. The problem with jokes such as this one isn’t only that they are offensive: the problem is that they do harm. They reduce attacks on a woman’s space and body to silly little misunderstanding while reinforcing the notion that men who assault women simply can’t help themselves (He just thought he was on Tumblr! He wasn’t really doing anything wrong!). They also hurt people who have been made to feel unsafe on public transportation precisely because people don’t believe that this sort of thing is a big deal.

When this sort of joke is told, we are left with much the same choices as Harriet Jacobs outlined in her post about responding to rape jokes. Make no mistake: jokes about sexual harassment and groping are part of a spectrum with rape jokes. They contribute to a culture in which men feel entitled to women’s bodies; they contribute, in other words, to rape culture.

Many Tumblr users did call out the misogyny and harmfulness of this so-called joke. We reblogged the original post with added criticism. We added critical comments in the answer box at the original post. It would, however, be impossible to track all these responses down because while the posts themselves have not been deleted, links to them have been deleted from the list of notes on the original post.

Hoping that this was due to a very odd software glitch or that only one person in the organization was involved with deleting these notes, several of us emailed the community ambassador. Over a week has passed since then with no response, which is why I’m posting about it here: to bring the issue wider attention in the online community. I would like for Tumblr to show a basic degree of respect for and responsiveness to its users in general and an intolerance for misogyny in particular. I would like to continue using a network where I have found friends and community. Right now, however, I am not sure that I can.

UPDATE: Be sure to read meloukhia’s powerful post on the Tumblr incident at this ain’t livin’.

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4 Comments
  1. January 21, 2010 12:05 pm

    I find that women-only public transport areas are somewhat of a good idea, however I think it defeats the whole purpose of why it was created. The purpose is to reduce harassment, so why not encourage men to not harass women through public ads and announcements and such?

    • January 24, 2010 11:36 am

      Actually, on a lot of the train systems in Japan they do have signs warning that harassment is unacceptable.

      That said, I definitely have mixed feelings about women-only cars.

  2. emma permalink
    January 21, 2010 12:57 pm

    Mexico also started to implement what they call “bus rosa”, public transportation for women only.

    Thank you for this article. It really reflect what I’ve been thinking and feeling for a long time but I was not able to put in words.

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