In all my dreams of swashbuckling overseas adventures, I never imagined a day when I’d have to invoke my newly acquired language skills to describe a hideously uncomfortable close encounter with a public masturbator on a tram. And that’s a sentence that I never thought I’d write. What a lovely day of firsts.
The tone of this post is an odd one for me to balance well. The point I want to make is threefold:
1) Somebody exposing their genitalia to you and masturbating on public transport is not ok. It is illegal and disgusting and fucked up.
2) This, however, does not mean that there are not parts of this story that were extremely funny and full of suppressed giggles because taking your mickey out and having a tug on a tram is also so preposterous that it just creates an air of surreal comedy.
3) No assault of any kind is every too small to be reported. People cannot get away with shit like that. Even if it’s only you shouting it at the universe and your pals after 5 wines, then shout away. But preferably tell a cop or a responsible adult.
I think that people who know me, know me as a strong woman, possibly falling slightly on the side of overbearing asshole when I think i’m correct and also as being outspoken on rights issues. I would be the first person (in my imagination) to tear someone to shreds for attempting to make me feel small or scared, and I imagine a lot of others would think that of me too, so I wanted to write this as some very small attempt to show that assault, no matter how minor, is a mind-twisting event. When people question why women don’t shout or fight or create a scene when something happens, even in a very public place, it’s because it’s shocking to the core. Your mind doesn’t normalize it quickly, sometimes not at all, and the first port of call is often self-protection. If I, a loud Leo of a woman, got silenced, freaked out and very fucking grossed out from having a mickey swirled in my face on public transport, imagine how hard it is to speak out in worse circumstances?
I won’t go into the details too much, because they are unnecessary and not of interest to anyone except the police, but I was coming home on a weeknight recently at around 7.30 in the evening and was plopped on my little tram seat in a half empty carriage glued to my phone. Note I say half empty, there were other people around, but sitting up ahead of me. As I was carefully studying a newly changed profile picture or some equally momentous content update, I noticed a movement to my right. I thought it was the man trying to steady himself. I am truly my mother’s daughter; we had a spate of dirty phone calls to the house one year and we realised that they kept happening because my mother thought the shallow breathing and groans were signs of distress and kept asking the fella on the other end of the phone if he needed some help.
Anyway, I glanced to my right to check on the poor lad who was having difficulty with his balance and as quick as a flash, (pun entirely intended), noticed that he was leaning comfortably, dick in hand, hips angled toward me. My first reaction was to squint to make sure it was, in fact, a mickey. I am not sure what else on God’s green earth it could have been but I wasn’t thinking straight. I then stood up like someone had lit a bonfire under me, walked firmly away from him and waited at the doors as he stared me down and continued having the time of his life. How depressing, having a wank on a tram.
That night I walked home, told a pal about it, slept, woke up the next day and increasingly felt like I should tell someone even though part of me felt stupid and childish and like it would be badly received as an overreaction. I grew up with the sense that a flasher or a public masturbator was more of a nuisance, an attention seeker and you’d do well to ignore them because it’s not “real” assault.
But what do these fuckers do when the kick wears off that? When they’ve relieved themselves into the faces of 100 women and girls who have been silenced and forced to move away while they continue to hold power? Do they get bolder and braver and move on to other things? Are they abusers? Would they do that in front of a child?
It sounds apologetic and awful to admit it, but when I finally got the courage up to call the Amsterdam Transport Authority the next day and make a report, I had a list of reasons ready about why I was calling to report it: “I’m concerned he might go on to bigger offenses, I’m afraid he might do it to children.” But the truth is, it was enough for him to do that to me, to take away my feeling of safety and autonomy. And thankfully, the Transport Authority agreed with me and could not have been more helpful.
The most difficult thing about explaining the incident to a non-native English speaker is that I couldn’t resort to any euphemisms or slang words. It was wall-to-wall penis and other straightforwardness. The customer service person and I had a lovely awkward giggle about our agreed terminology before she talked me through the whole incident, reassured me they were fully supportive and were very concerned about similar reported incidents and urged me to contact the police. This also felt difficult at first, but it was a 20-minute interview with a very lovely policeman who then had his female colleague call me first thing the next morning to assure me that they were making sure that they were finding out everything they could about the incident and the man involved.
And even if nothing comes of the investigations? What happened as a reaction is enough for me. Having people listen and be kind and take note and not question why you didn’t just laugh it off and move on is a good feeling after I’d been made to feel so unsteady on my feet for a bit. If it was your sister or daughter or Mum or friend, you’d want them to be able to say it out loud too. That man took advantage of a woman alone, and I’m sure has done it to many other women and girls and I did the only thing I could do with it, which was to put it out into the universe to make sure that it’s recorded somewhere, no matter how hidden away that record is.
If something makes you feel uncomfortable and gross and it’s also actually illegal, no matter how much people try and say it’s only a “minor” thing, follow your gut and report it. Speak up. Speak up for women who can’t. Talking about it lessens the stigma and turns it into a less acceptable behaviour, even if those talks are just with your pals or family or partner.
I’m back braving the tram again, albeit making sure that I sit in slightly busier compartments, and I might add “Learning the Dutch word for ‘mickey'” to my 2015 to-do-list, but I’m very much ok. I just wasn’t for a few hours, and when I reached out, even though it felt weird and tough and silly for what felt like a relatively small issue, there was a support network that I never knew was there, and that’s a very lovely thing to learn. #keepyourmickeyinyourpants