Bus boyfriends
May 25, 2007 12:53 PM   Subscribe

Sexual harassment on the bus: how to deal with it now and how to avoid it in the future? Particularly, I need advice on how to deal tactfully and sensitively with harassers who are mentally disabled.

(I know that disability is a sensitive topic and I have tried my very hardest to speak carefully. If I have misstated anything, please try to understand my intent.)

My partner has recently returned to riding the bus to work for various reasons, unfortunately she has quickly realized why she gave it up in the first place. She tries to make herself look unaccessible (headphones, book) but invariably she gets accosted by unwanted attention. Normally a polite "Yes it is nice weather, but I really need to get back to my homework" will do the trick, but she is at a loss as to what to do when the harassers are not able to understand social niceties or subtleties.

I want to be very clear that this is not just a matter of "Ew! Keep the (perjorative term for people with disabilities) away from me!" My partner has been stalked by a "bus boyfriend" before, he followed her to her home and wouldn't leave, he came back day after day and frightened her very much. My partner is very small (under five feet tall) and has had previous experiences where her size has rendered her helpless to unwanted attention, so she is understandably nervous.

The current situation is this: last week my partner and I saw a couple have sex on the bus, hands down pants, the female partner saying loudly "put it in!" and so on. My partner hates confrontation, so we waited until the bus stopped, and I went and spoke to the bus driver. The driver left, spoke to the male (let's call him Bill) and explained proper bus behavior. Since then I haven't bee riding the bus with my partner, she's been alone, and Bill, who has a similar schedule as her, has taken to her. The first day when he sat down with her she was friendly (of course), but since then he has tried to set up a date with her, tried to give her his phone number, and tried to establish her routine, over her constant "No, I am not interested. I don't think this is appropriate." Today, on top of dealing with Bill, another man sat down near my partner and proceeded to masturbate while staring at her. She is upset and (inexplicably) ashamed.

What to do? Being rude is not an option - maybe it would be if the men really understood what they are doing, but they don't see her discomfort, and they don't understand that a line has been crossed. She feels like she can't legitimately get angry or upset at them because of this. Besides which, my partner is incapable of being rude or mean - she would rather walk to work (~2 hours) than be rude. Changing her work schedule is out of the question. My partner seems to come across as approachable, she is always asked for directions and she is always the one who gets hit on by creepy old men/drunks/what have you. She isn't sure why but has a hunch her diminutive size might be a factor.

Should she confront Bill directly? How? What could she say? Is there any value in speaking to the bus driver? What more can she do to avoid bus boyfriends in the future? How do other women avoid unwanted sexual attention? How does this change when the attentees are disabled?
posted by arcticwoman to Human Relations (60 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Check this out.
posted by dead_ at 12:59 PM on May 25, 2007

Seems to me that the behavior you're describing is either illegal or should be. If it is, she should bring a camera and a cell phone. Document the behavior and call the popo. Get the bums thrown in jail and banned from the bus.
posted by valentinepig at 12:59 PM on May 25, 2007

Not exactly the same question, but there's some insight.
posted by dead_ at 12:59 PM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Being mentally disabled or ill should excuse someone from observance of sublte niceties, sure. Constant attention-seeking? Masturbation? Fuck that. Your partner needs to make some noise; she needs to make Bill uncomfortable with doing what he's doing, period.

Tell Bill and all comers to go away, simply and unkindly and increasingly firmly as necessary. She should make damn sure to talk to the bus driver in real time about any of that shit. Being kind to the disabled isn't the same thing as taking unacceptable shit from them.
posted by cortex at 1:06 PM on May 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

Related question: I am a male (19 yrs old), and I have seen women get unwanted attention from men quite frequently when I take the bus (in the SF Bay Area). When this happens, when appropriate, I make eye contact with the man to let him know somebody is aware of what is going on. In one egregious case, I even got up and remained standing near where the harassment was occurring. What can/should I do to help people who are being harassed on the bus?
posted by jbb7 at 1:06 PM on May 25, 2007

This may be a bit too harsh for Bill, but I think she'd be perfectly justified in giving the masturbator a faceful of pepper spray.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:13 PM on May 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

As disheartening as this is for me to type, the best thing she could do to head this off in the future is to not be polite at all. Being nice, making small talk, responding to small talk, can all be seen as encouragement, even when it's absolutely 100% not meant that way.

In situations similar to this, I do the headphones book thing too but I also go a step further, if the bus is not full, your partner should sit in the aisle seat to discourage anyone from sitting next to her. If someone asks her whether they can sit down and she feels uncomfortable about letting them, she needs to learn to say no (if there are other seats still open.) If she's getting creepy looks from someone she needs to learn to say "stop looking at me." Being blunt is the best option here. Moving seats, or talking to the bus driver is the next step. She should also try to sit as close to the front of the bus as possible, people are less likely to be overtly creepy when in full view of the driver.

As for this: Being rude is not an option - maybe it would be if the men really understood what they are doing, but they don't see her discomfort, and they don't understand that a line has been crossed.

You guys need to understand that this is exactly why she needs to say something to them. If these guys are mentally disabled or ill, chances are that you're right, they don't know that their behaviour is affecting her this way. She needs to make sure that she communicates that to them as bluntly as possible. That doesn't mean yelling, getting mad, or being rude. It means saying point blank, "it is not okay for you to be acting this way towards me. If you do not stop I will get the police involved (she should be telling the driver either way, what is happening to her is sexual harassment.)" They will never get it if she doesn't tell them. They might not get it afterwards either, but at least she will have tried her best.

And finally, it kills me that we not only live in a world where this happens, but that as women, this is our most viable response.
posted by nerdcore at 1:15 PM on May 25, 2007 [5 favorites]

Your partner needs to reassess what she considers rude. For whatever reason, she has the impression that telling someone bluntly to go away is rude. She can say "please step away from me, or I will call for help," or "I am not interested in talking, please leave me alone" in a perfectly polite tone. (No need to be angry, especially if, as you say, some of these people are not 100% aware of what they are doing.)

Remember: politeness does not require women to engage with every man who attempts to engage her. Quite the opposite.
posted by miss tea at 1:16 PM on May 25, 2007

Here is my advice, again, to city-dwelling women: Never be friendly to a stranger on the bus.

When unwanted behavior such as public masturbating and ejaculating occurs, hit the offender as hard as possible in the face, ideally with something hard and heavy like a metal pipe. Then kick hard at the exposed genitalia. Meanwhile, scream loudly. Include "HELP!" and "CALL THE POLICE! CALL 911" in these screams.

Women who do this will find that the inappropriate behavior ceases rapidly, an example of Pavlovian extingushing. The public masturbator community where you live is clearly tight-knit. Word will get around.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:27 PM on May 25, 2007 [16 favorites]

In addition to the excellent advice above about being DIRECT and BLUNT (she's an adult, I assume, she can do it), I recommend she sit as close to the driver as possible.
posted by tristeza at 1:31 PM on May 25, 2007

Whenever possible, she should sit or stand near the driver.

Saying "Leave me alone" is not rude. Telling a stranger to go away is not rude.
posted by rtha at 1:37 PM on May 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

Behavior that is illegal is illegal regardless of the disability and should not be tolerated. It is not helpful to the perpetrator and certainly not to the victim. Depending on your girlfriends personality she should either be unambiguously clear in her request that it be stopped ( if you continue doing XXXX I will either get up and have the bus stop, call the police on my speed dial, or scream, etc) or she should get up and immediately secure the assistance of the bus driver/police. As for assisting some one--In the past I have walked (moved) over to some one, asked if they felt uncomfortable, and if they said yes put myself between the person and the victim.
I run a mental health center and I can assure you that tolerating these behaviors are not useful to the mentally ill person. Communications to persons who maybe actively mentally ill are best done: clearly, precisely, in a matter of fact tone including the specific behavior that is bothering you, and if it persists, the specific consequences. Do not get angry, personalize the behavior or make threats against the perpetrators person or get in arguments. As other posters have indicated--ignoring is an appropriate solution but often not useful if the behavior is persistent. Mental illness is mental illness and it is not reasonable to believe the person will have sudden insight and they may not respond to rational discourse. The behavior may or may not be a manifestation of their illness but you are not their therapist or their judge. Behave calmly, decisively, respectfully and do what you say you are going to do. Also, if they attempt to engage you in conversation either ignore it or, if that is very difficult, look directly at the person and be matter of fact. This is hard to convey in a post--but it is also important to not lie--if the person say "Am I bothering you--say YES" or if the question might lead to a confrontation and ignoring is not working tell the person that you will not discuss or answer that question. Their BS meter is well honed as part of their survival in treatment, on the street and with family.
posted by rmhsinc at 1:38 PM on May 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

The other day I had a phone call from a nurse at the nursing home where my father lives. He has Alzheimers, and lives in a secure facility where he is kept safe and cannot wander off. She was calling to tell me about some minor developments in his health.

In the middle of the phone call, she had to stop talking to me and start dealing with a resident of the place -- call him Pablo -- who had started to walk down the hall or into someone else's room or do something or other he wasn't supposed to do. Pretty much what I overheard was her talking loudly and firmly: "Pablo, stop that! Pablo, sit down, here! Pablo, come back!" And so on...

My point is that there is an appropriate form of address that may be needed, that isn't "rude" in the circumstances. You say what you have to say, in the way you have to say it, to get your point across. Let's call it a learning opportunity for both your partner and the disabled person in question. If you partner is uncomfortable or unable to assume this level of assertiveness, it's best to sit near the driver and -- when the bad behavior starts -- ask the driver to intervene.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:45 PM on May 25, 2007

what's happening here is that they want her reaction. they want to see fear in the eyes of the pretty lady.
so she has two choices: either show no fear, or show no eyes.

if that were me, i'd go strong alpha on these men, and act like i'm their teacher or caseworker- show no surprise, no emotion (it's hard, but it works). as you'd speak to a bad puppy or disobedient child, you make firm eye contact, widen your eyes like you mean business, maybe point a finger, and loudly say, "STOP THAT." that's all you say. just once. deep voice, aggressive eye contact- channel "the super-nanny". sounds like your partner will probably not like this tack, though, so i suggest...

no more eye contact. no more talking.
she should sit so they can't sit beside her (ideally in the seat closest to the driver, so the driver can see her).
ignore, completely. do not engage any small talk. do not look in their direction at all. if they start stuff, ignore them, turn to the driver, and say mildly, "excuse me, i think this man needs your attention immediately." don't look at the bad guy, though, just mildly go back to the book.

a few occurrences of being denied your partner's attention AND getting yelled at or kicked off a bus by the driver will likely end this appalling behaviour.

if possible, as a secondary measure, find out where these guys are going (a school or community centre?) and call or email with a clear description of the perps and their behaviour, and ask for suggestions to handle them / gently insinuate that you may have to involve the police, but you wanted to try this route first.
maybe their actual caseworker can help.

good luck to your partner. i'm a bit of a target for the crazy myself, so i feel her pain.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:46 PM on May 25, 2007

...and everything rmhsinc just said, too
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:46 PM on May 25, 2007

"Get away from me right now and don't talk to me anymore." She should say this firmly and loudly and without a hint of niceness in her voice and repeat that and only that as many times as it takes. It isn't rude, it is just exactly the message that she wishes to convey in the most easily understandable manner.
posted by ND¢ at 2:05 PM on May 25, 2007

She's taking on too much responsibility. The drivers are supposed to be keeping stuff like this from happening.

You know that sign on the back of trucks that says "if you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you"? She needs to sit in one of the seats upfront that gives her a direct view of the driver's mirror. Ideally she should be able to see his face in it. When she can sees him like that, he's seeing her everytime he glances up. When there's a problem, she should speak up in a loud clear voice (LOUD enough for the driver to hear it over all that gawdawful engine noise). Something like "[X] is unacceptable. Knock it off." Be explicit in "X" about what the behavior is, as an alert to the driver and an unambigous directive to the offender.

Crank up the stereo (to simulate environment noise) and roleplay this at home together, so she can get comfortable saying it and you can give her feedback about how much volume and firmness she really needs to use. It might help if she can kind of develop a "bus character" for herself, so she can temporarily set aside her own personal standards of decorum. For instance, imagining that no matter who the other person is, she's their kindergarten teacher who's sternly telling them for The. Last. Time. to quit eating their boogers.

I've seen many an elderly lady use this set of tactics and it's remarkably effective, both at publicly shaming the perps into behaving and getting the driver to keep an eye out for relapses. More than once I've seen a driver yell at someone for a second offense after a sweet little old lady did did her thing.

If this is happening routinely, though, the bus line also could use a formal complaint. The drivers should be doing a better jobs of making their buses hospitable to all riders. I'm so sorry that she's facing such harassment. How awful.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:14 PM on May 25, 2007

By characterizing any kind of public confrontation as "being rude" and therefore completely off limits, your girlfriend is giving any random stranger the power to harass her.

This pattern -- including her "inexplicable" shame -- is a classic example of how women are socialized to behave as victims.

Why is her safety and comfort worth nothing against her fear of "being rude"? Who decided that speaking up and setting a boundary equals rudeness? Whose needs are being served by her smiling weakly and keeping her mouth shut?

I recommend assertiveness coaching and a self-defence course.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:17 PM on May 25, 2007

I'm curious: does no one else on the bus notice that this harrassment is happening, or that people are masturbating or having sex in public? This sounds really horrible, but it's a very different reality from what I've experienced on public transportation (in Boston, Washington DC, NYC, San Francisco, etc) that I'm having trouble relating. I'd think that the presence of other people would help your partner put some distance between herself and the unwanted attention, or that other people might be disturbed enough by some of the activity to take action.
posted by alms at 2:21 PM on May 25, 2007

Good grief! Notify the transit company and complain about the driver. If your partner has complained to him repeatedly, then she needs to get his bosses involved. Get his ID number, the bus number, the time, etc. But she does need to alert the driver at the time the behavior is happening. The bus company surely owes a certain duty of care to its customers. Do the other passengers sit there and do nothing? Shame on them.

I agree with what twistofrhyme suggests. Try to figure out where these guys board the bus and see if there is some sort of home near the stop where they probably live.

I feel so badly for your partner. I hope you are able to resolve this issue once and for all. Good luck to you!
posted by MrFongGoesToLunch at 2:24 PM on May 25, 2007

First of all, is there some kind of script I can use to auto-favorite everything ikkyu2 posts? I'm tired of actually having to read threads to find her stuff.

Second, all the advice here sounds nice and all, but this is a very small woman, under five feet tall -- is there no chance that confrontational behavior will result in a physical response? Here in New York we have a community policing system called Auxiliary Police Officers (sort of an "eyes and ears" thing -- a uniformed, but unarmed citizens patrol) and one of the first rules of the APO handbook is: if you see an EDP ("Emotionally Disturbed Person") causing a stir, DO NOT APPROACH. Call a real cop (tm) and let him deal with it. Is this not a better idea once things have gotten to the cock-in-hand stage?
posted by The Bellman at 2:27 PM on May 25, 2007

FWIW, I am constantly on the subway and walking around here in Brooklyn and I became irrationally frustrated with strangers making pushy small talk at me. I exchanged my Apple earbuds for giant, very obvious studio headphones, and when people try to talk to me I smile dumbly, point at the headphones and shrug - sort of a "sorry can't hear you" thing. Frequently, I am not even listening to music rather using the headphones to ward off chatters. Sometimes, people will poke me on the shoulder or get otherwise more assertive than the normal. In that case I'll just firmly say "Pardon me, I'm busy" and return to my book. It helps to put on a nice thick skin that can ignore the people around you, since you can't control who they're going to be and what they're going to do. I admit sometimes, when I see people talking at me, I consider whether they need help or are lost or have a legitimate purpose, but in my experience that's not been the case.

Of course, since I think most NY'ers have a tacit agreement to leave each other alone, the vibe might be incredibly different in your town. And, of course, I am not suggesting "thick skin" is the way to handle overtly dangerous situations - rather to hopefully prevent the sort of banal attempted-friendships from bored bus-riders that seem to be part of (if not the whole) issue.
posted by bunnycup at 2:28 PM on May 25, 2007

You need to teach your girlfriend to be more assertive or she will end up in serious trouble. Protecting yourself is NEVER EVER rude, no matter if the person can control themselves or not.

If that were me, I'd take my cell phone and yell, "STOP BOTHERING ME OR I'M GOING TO CALL THE POLICE." Make as many people aware of the situation as possible, especially the driver. If the driver does not do anything, REPORT him/her to the bus company. Also, file police reports after each incident so if/when one of these "boyfriends" turns into a stalker, you've got something on record showing that it's been a pattern.

But all this is just a band-aid. Your girlfriend has serious problems if she doesn't possess the self-esteem to stand up for herself in what is really a clear-cut situation. This passiveness is going to ruin her life in many different ways.
posted by desjardins at 2:29 PM on May 25, 2007

desjardins speaks my mind -- except I would add that it's your girlfriend's job to learn how to be more assertive, not yours to teach her.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:34 PM on May 25, 2007

If the bus is a double decker - she should try to find a seat on the lower deck as close to the front as possible. I've rarely seen this kind of behaviour on the bottom deck and/or in clear view of the driver.
If at all possible she should try to sit next to another woman or an older gentleman on the bus. If she cant find someone else to sit with she should get a bag, preferably a largish one that she can put on the seat next to her. If he cant sit next to her she has more chance of being able to ignore him with her book and headphones.

If she really cant find a 'safe place' on the bus, could she stay an extra 5-10 minutes at work and get a later bus?

Giving them any attention at all will only encourage them, even if she is being rude. Just ignore them, completely, don't speak, don't make eye-contact. Put her headphones on, eyes on the book.

I doubt her height has anything to do with getting all the nutters, I'm 5ft 8 and well built and in my youth I got them all, I couldn't get on public transport alone without being propositioned. Thankfully for me, I wasn't on a regular schedule so I just ignored them the best I could, took their number if they insisted and never called them and hoped not to bump into them again. (My mum said it was because I dressed like a prostitute - thanks mum!)
posted by missmagenta at 2:38 PM on May 25, 2007

Your partner could try what this woman did. Even if her cellphone isn't equipped with a camera, she could pretend that it is, and she should then smile and tell the perp that he is on Candid Camera and that she is emailing his photo to the police. He should be hearing from them soon.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:38 PM on May 25, 2007

With this many disabled on a bus I suppose there must be some kind of home or workshop or day center involved

I think you should go to whoever has the greatest degree of custodial responsibility for these guys, including their families if necessary, and tell them what's gone on.

You might feel that you're hurting them by tattling, but you would actually be doing them the biggest possible favor anyone could do. One or two more steps down the road they're on with your partner, and they will end up being involuntarily confined, and the circumstances of that confinement are likely to be truly appalling.
posted by jamjam at 2:40 PM on May 25, 2007

ikkyu2's advice might be good for arcticwoman's partner, but it would take half the fun out of riding the bus for me. I learn a lot from bus conversations.

(Sure, I could have guessed Florida was a Pisces state, but did you know California was a Virgo state? It was a surprise to me.)

Also, though, I have been around enough people with zero social skills to not feel it's rude to tell people "It's not okay for you to do that. Stop it." You can follow it up with "People don't like it when you do that, and if you keep doing it, the police will come, and they might arrest you." As often as not it's news to them, and they don't mind you saying it. You'd be surprised how often the response is, "Oh. Okay."
posted by small_ruminant at 3:14 PM on May 25, 2007

I didn't notice this in your question but what makes her think that these men are mentally disabled? Just because someone behaves inappropriately doesn't mean they're incapable of understanding that their behaviour isn't socially acceptable. She shouldn't feel obliged to be nice to them because of their 'illness' - fwiw, if they truly are incapable of understanding what is and isn't socially acceptable behaviour, it works both ways, if they cant see their own actions as rude they likely wont perceive her behaviour as rude either.
And if there is genuinely nothing wrong with them then she shouldn't care what they think of her behaviour, they don't care what she thinks of them
posted by missmagenta at 3:22 PM on May 25, 2007

The Bellman: it's always possible that ignoring someone/turning down their advances/any/no interaction at all could escalate the situation, but I'm 5'2" and I've always found that being assertive in a calm rational manner, especially when dealing with mentally ill, in expressing your discomfort is much more effective than doing nothing and continuing to feel uncomfortable/harrassed. Honestly, telling someone to stop their inappropriate behaviour is usually enough of a shock (because it so rarely happens) that the person will be too intimidated to continue.
posted by nerdcore at 3:42 PM on May 25, 2007

There is every chance that one phone call to the bus company will stop this problem. They may well already be aware of the problem and just be waiting for someone to complain through the right channels.

I would be amazed if they aren't legally required to take reasonable steps to prevent this kind of incident.
posted by teleskiving at 4:02 PM on May 25, 2007

Definitely report it to the transit authority, and press them on what they're going to do to stop it. If they're uncooperative, a letter or two to the local paper (the Herald?) would be in order. Maybe contact the invesitigative or consumer-affairs reporters from one or more of the TV stations. Your partner is probably not the only person who's being targetted by these creeps, and if Transit is unwilling to act on their own they should be shamed into it. On preview: or, what teleskiving just said.

(Up in Edmonton we've had a couple [1, 2] of recent high-profile violent incidents related to the transit system, and they've been stepping up their efforts to maintain or increase safety levels. Maybe throw that into the mix - a course of action they could follow based on what's being done in a city not so far away. Or even nearer - here's Calgary's transit safety info.)
posted by hangashore at 4:12 PM on May 25, 2007

Seconding much of what is above. I am a young woman who has used city buses pretty much daily since I was seventeen. I have often experienced the situation you describe. When I was young I used to try to be polite to these men because I was constantly worried about being rude. But I eventually found that politeness only led to an escalation of the situation. I have developed a number of strategies to deal with unwanted and often frightening attention.
1. I always make sure to be very friendly to the bus driver so that he/she will be more interested in watching out for me (this is especially effective when riding the same routes daily). 2. I sit as close to the bus driver as possible. If the ride is short and there are no seats open in the front I will stand close to the front of the bus rather than sit way in back.
3. I immediately try to find a number of people around me to be sort of an 'ally'. I try to pick out people who look like students or professional looking women. If I can sit by one of these people I do. Otherwise, I try to make eye contact with them, so they are aware of me and where I am.
4. If someone does start to give me unwanted attention. I am very blunt and very loud. "Please Stop!" "No!". I say this and make eye contact with my chosen ally or allies. Some people will find the fact that other people are aware that they are bothering me an impetus to stop and retreat. For others, it is important that other people are aware that something unacceptable is occurring.
5. If the attention continues or becomes increasingly inappropriate/frightening, I increase the amount of noise I am making and the seriousness of my words. "Get away now!" "Help!" Its also helpful to know your bus driver's name here to get their direct help. Or make eye contact with other passengers while you say these things in order to solicit their help.

Seriously, being polite does not make the situation better. It really does make it worse. Please encourage your partner to be forceful about stopping this behavior, before it escalates to a more serious situation.
posted by honeyx at 4:13 PM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Aren't situations like this the reason why tazers and stun guns are manufactured? I mean, you don't need to shoot somebody who's waving their wang in your face, but just to make sure that the next step isn't attempted rape, I'd be dropping them to the floor with 50,000 volts of behavior modification juice.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:19 PM on May 25, 2007

jbb7 - This is an interesting question. It's good to stand up for others. The only tricky part is to know when your help is wanted, or whether the woman can deal with it herself. For all you know, the people could have some type of relation (siblings? a broken up or fighting couple), or situation in which your actions will only hinder - does he have a group of friends, does he have a knife or other weapon or is he highly intoxicated or on drugs (in which case you GO to the bus driver in one-point-five seconds, as he will know what to do and their dispatch can call police if needed.)
If in a situation where you see a woman is being intimidated, looks obviously distressed and uncomfortable with the bold actions of another, or you outright see grabbing or hear unprovoked abusive dialog, one way to do this is to make eye contact with the woman. Give her a look that says, "are you uncomfortable?", basically a "can I help you" look. Her reaction should tell you. If I were in this position, a "yes, please help" reaction could be any of the following: continuing eye contact and nodding - either small nods or big ones -, outright saying "yes" if I really felt threatened. My "no" reaction would be me looking away, shaking my head, mouthing "no", or resolving the situation myself either by moving (perhaps closer to you) or telling the person off.
If her answer seems to be yes, proceed with what you think is right to do. Your previous methods are quite suitable. Some people just need to be told off. Others can take the hint through the almighty eye contact. Moving closer can be adventageous - buses can be crouded, so the close proximity is beneficial if you're tall or have an angry/POed look - but if he's drunk/psycho you could be putting yourself at risk. Use your smarts. Don't go barging into every situation you see, you may be thinking it up. Don't be a hero. Keeping the status quo is a good deed in and of itself.
posted by Meagan at 4:28 PM on May 25, 2007

Another possible solution: she can ride a bike. If it's too far to comfortably pedal, she can look at something like this.
posted by mjklin at 4:33 PM on May 25, 2007

Even Miss Manners herself would agree that there's no need for a woman to be polite to strange men who make unwanted advances .

And the disabled thing: do you really think their caretakers want people letting them think stuff like that is all right? Presumably they are riding a bus because they have been deemed capable of riding a bus in acceptable manner. Except they're not conducting themselves in an acceptable manner now. It's okay to make that clear to them.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:01 PM on May 25, 2007

I am also a freak magnet. For public transportation, I have perfected the bored, detattached facial expression. If I don't feel like interacting with someone, I flat out ignore them, like they are invisible.
posted by pluckysparrow at 5:27 PM on May 25, 2007

Wow. In 10 years in Montreal and Toronto I've taken transit almost daily to commute and I've had fewer bad encounters than fingers on my hands. I've never heard of anything like this before.

Anyway, when something weird happens, I sit or stand by the driver and tell them what's going on. (Unless it's a subway, in which case I fake out and get off at some stop at the last second.)

But to the bike suggestion: I now bike to save money and stay fit and I too recommend that!
posted by loiseau at 6:06 PM on May 25, 2007

loiseau - I agree. I'm in Ottawa, and I've never yet had a seriously unpleasant encounter.
posted by Meagan at 6:09 PM on May 25, 2007

Peter: I think that's exactly the sort of situation that doesn't merit tear gas or pepper spray. Presumably this bus is rather full (as they usually are, and the OP doesn't mention fears of being alone) and thus "attempted rape" seems unlikely, but also, I'd be concerned about permanent damage with a taser or hurting bystanders with pepper spray in a crowded bus. I think the OP would've indicated if the victim at all felt rape to be imminent.

This, also, is what makes something "hard and heavy like a metal pipe" laughable for this situation. Talk about escalation.

However, there are some excellent answers already regarding removing one's self from isolation, both physical and psychological. Project assertiveness, involve the bus driver, involve other passengers, remove yourself from the situation. These are the obvious, easiest, safest, and least damaging recourses.

(Speaking as a female who rode buses constantly late at night while only a late teen, and years later chucked the unused pepper spray when it expired)
posted by artifarce at 6:11 PM on May 25, 2007

Pepper spray! And cops.
posted by BeaverTerror at 6:49 PM on May 25, 2007

But all this is just a band-aid. Your girlfriend has serious problems if she doesn't possess the self-esteem to stand up for herself in what is really a clear-cut situation. This passiveness is going to ruin her life in many different ways.>>

Yes, absolutely. Whenever I hear someone say that they "hate confrontation", it makes my teeth hurt. Being assertive and self-protective should be givens. Women who are afraid of appearing unkind by doing so need to seriously reassess.
posted by FlyByDay at 6:52 PM on May 25, 2007

In some of the past threads on AskMe I've thought that the advice to women approached by strange men was a bit over done and too harsh by default. This seems to be a pretty serious situation that requires immediate attention.

For starters if she can't be encouraged to be louder and more assertive I think it's best that she walk. But that's not really a good way to go. Sitting close to the bus driver will help. If she is approached saying in a steady voice "Leave me alone." followed by yelling "Back off!" should get some results. But she sounds like she wouldn't be willing to do that and that's the real problem.

I really agree with desjardins' post. My suspicion is that she isn't sure she can respond appropriately to hostility. It's true that because of her size she might well be an underdog in a fight. Still, she should know that women who fight back vigorously when raped recover, emotionally at least, much quicker than those who do not physically resist. It is fairly common for those who didn't offer physical resistance to feel like they let themselves down or betrayed themselves. Perhaps pointing this out to her would motivate her to learn some new ways of responding. In a very real sense, she needs to be able to meet her responsibilities to her self.

I would encourage her to face whatever fears she might have about drawing a boundary. Some kind of self defense training that deals with adrenalin response like Model Mugging would be ideal. And it's not like just because she's the smaller party she would be guaranteed to lose in a physical altercation. After all, she would have all the righteous indignation and that counts for something.

I think when she knows, that no matter what, she'll show up for herself, she might be comfortable taking some of the other assertive actions listed above. I really like jamjam's idea about talking to the custodial party, but it sounds like your partner isn't ready to do that by a stretch.

Frankly, the whole situation is very sketchy to me and already dangerous. This isn't just about the mentally handicapped not observing social niceties. I think it can be handled verbally but your partner really needs to be 'there' and have some presence. Avoiding the situation, pretending things are OK, denying that people are acting aggressively is more likely to lead to things getting worse rather than better.

Best wishes.
posted by BigSky at 7:15 PM on May 25, 2007

Follow ikkyu2 and honeyx's advice.

First off, you gotta understand, by refusing to be rude or mean, by preferring to walk two hours than take the bus, your partner is playing right into the hands of these assholes. And they are assholes. When they masturbate in front of your partner, in general they know exactly what they are doing. And even if they don't, as a previous poster said, it is completely fucking unhelpful for them or your partner when she keeps quiet.

Months ago I was in a situation where a man begain accosting me on an empty subway car. I was immediately in-his-face, to the point where I ended up pushing him into a seat where he proceeded to masturbate in front of me. The minute I got off the car I headed straight for the exit. The guy, presumably not knowing I was heading for security, continued to accost me. Well, I started screaming. As soon as I did not see the security guard in his kiosk I yelled--YELLED--"EXCUSE ME, SECURITY? THIS MAN"--I pointed at the dude--"HAS BEEN HARASSING ME AND MASTURBATING IN FRONT OF ME. EVERYONE, THIS MAN IN THE BLACK-AND-WHITE SHIRT IS A PERVERT. RIGHT HERE. THIS IS HIM, RIGHT HERE."

This guy knew what he was doing. He was not mentally disabled. He was freaked, absolutely freaked when I started making a fuss in the subway station. In court it came out he had a hard life, but you know what? That does not excuse this behavior. Don't let you partner take that kind of responsibility on herself, it's not hers to take.

Long story short, Pervert was arrested, went to trial, and he's in jail for a year. I learned two things: Assertiveness does not necessarily work if you're alone with the guy, so keep yourself out of situations where you're alone or secluded with him. Sit in the front of the bus, sit in the first subway car, etc. Second, assertiveness sure as hell works in a crowd when there's lots of curious bystanders around wondering why the woman is so upset.

If a guy just won't stop talking to her, move to the front of the bus. And even better, strike up a conversation with the bus driver if she feels comfortable doing so. But if inappropriate touching and shit starts happening, she's gotta start making a stink. Because the pervert is only doing it because she's not doing anything. Because she's quiet and afraid. She needs to call them out on that shit.

Get your partner to take some assertiveness training. Being rude to these guys does not make you a bitch. It makes you not a victim.
posted by schroedinger at 8:46 PM on May 25, 2007 [5 favorites]

I agree with the suggestions of sitting up by the driver and practicing a "This is inappropriate!" statement. This is way past the realm of socially uncomfortable situations that your partner faces, and she shouldn't accept it. If sitting up by the driver doesn't solve the situation, I second the recommendation that she call the transit company, and, failing that, the police.

More generally, it sounds like your partner needs to work on building her self-image. It is possible to be direct without being rude; in fact, it is often even more polite to be direct. At 5'0, I used to be a target for a tamer version of this harassment: I became a volunteer firefighter, got a brown belt in Tae Kwon Dae, and am part of an aerial mountain rescue unit. I don't really get hassled anymore, even on the darkest streets in the middle of the night: I just walk with energy, purpose, and with the knowledge that I have the skills to assess and respond to any situation.

Seriously, even just starting a basic self-defense class at your local YMCA will help increase her awareness to potentially dangerous situations and her confidence in her ability to fend for herself.

Best of luck- this shouldn't be tolerated from anyone!
posted by arnicae at 8:54 PM on May 25, 2007

I've been taking the bus daily in Victoria and Vancouver for more than 25 years. In that time, I've seen two physical assaults; both were on the bus -- neither were at the bus stop (and one was an assault against me; I responded by putting my thumbs into his eyes and telling the driver to call the cops, a move that I recommend to anyone who gets into an unwanted fight). I've never seen any kind of sexual assault, including public masturbation.

My experience is only anecdotal, but it makes me think that the OP's friend's bus route is highly unusual. That she has had Bad Encounters with multiple people over a short period of time is, to me, astonishing.

She needs to contact the transit authority. Something's not right.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:58 PM on May 25, 2007

I came here to say what BigSky said -- that it might be easier for your partner to be assertive if she knows she can back it up with some sort of self-defense training. It certainly helped my confidence. Although for day-to-day, I find the dead-eyed stare that pluckysparrow mentions to be quite effective.

I know how hard it can be to overcome the instict to be nice and non-confrontational -- I swear, it's socialized doubly into smaller women -- but it can be done.
posted by AV at 9:22 PM on May 25, 2007

Oriole Adams, Thao Nguyen's experience led to the creation of the various hollabacks--one woman's recent experience proves that wearing headphones doesn't work.
Nthing yelling "Leave me alone!"or "Stop harassing me!", notifying the bus driver (and his/her supervisors if s/he refuses to do anything) and the cops.
posted by brujita at 9:40 PM on May 25, 2007

is there no chance that confrontational behavior will result in a physical response?

Sitting meekly next to men who behave this way on the bus does not offer any guarantee against physical assault.

I think your partner would benifit from a women's self defense class, or a longer term martial arts class.
posted by yohko at 11:26 PM on May 25, 2007

If you know that there is a group home or a work centre for mentally disabled folks near the bus route, your partner could contact them and let them know that people their clients are acting inappropriately on the bus. Then the group home workers can make the appropriate decision for how to deal with that. It could be reinforcement of "that's not appropriate behaviour when you're out in public", or they lose the right go on the bus unsupervised, or they lose the privilege altogether.

My sister works with mentally disabled adults at a centre where they come to do activities or work. If they act inappropriately, they are asked to leave, and can't come back for a certain length of time (if at all, depending on what happened).

My uncle who is mentally disabled, used to be able to take the train to my parent's house unsupervised (about a 3 hour trip). When an incident occurred with another one of the clients in his group home, those privileges were suspended for everyone. Now my uncle is driven to a halfway point between his home and my parent's place so he can still come and visit, but is supervised the entire way. It seems a little heavy-handed to punish everyone for one person's mistake, but the support workers have to maintain a sense of consistency for all of their clients.

I agree with everyone who says to sit near the bus driver, and to look the person in the eye and say "that's not appropriate" or something else neutral but firm. My point is that if these people are in a group home situation, or have caretakers of some sort, those people want to know if their clients/family members are acting inappropriately. That way they can help. If your partner doesn't feel comfortable complaining directly, she can complain to the transit authority, who will likely pass it on. However, I think hearing it from her directly will help them assess the severity of the situation better.

I hope your partner figures out a way to deal with this that works for her.
posted by melissa at 9:09 AM on May 26, 2007

- Cameraphone. She needs the security of a mobile phone, plus the ability to document this crap.
- Notify the bus driver immediately of any threatening or inappropriate behavior.
- Take a picture or video.
- Call the transit agency and ask for increased attention to this route. Send them the picture or video.
- Ask for help finding out if the harassers live in a sheltered home, and ask those people to help.
- Take it seriously.
- A small, meek woman is in danger, and not just on the bus. Self-defense and assertiveness classes are a great idea for personal growth & personal safety.
- It is not her responsibilty to befriend disabled people. She does them a bigger favor by not accepting bad behavior. The bad behavior contributes to discrimination against them.
- Learning to say "No", "Stop", "That's Inappropriate" loudly and forcefully will be very helpful to her in life.
posted by theora55 at 9:39 AM on May 26, 2007

Along with all of the suggestions above, I say call the media: The TV station or at least the local newspaper. Send them pictures of video.

These kind of incidents on public transit seem to be normal where you are: "unfortunately she has quickly realized why she gave it up in the first place." That's not okay.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:51 AM on May 26, 2007

seconding the pepper spray, as well as a slap hard enough to dislodge dental fillings. your solicitude to the disabled and pc fear of offending them may also be interfering with crucial boundary-building skills.
posted by bruce at 10:07 AM on May 26, 2007

Pepper spray doesn't just work on the face; it would be agonising if sprayed on the genitals, I believe. A fact worth bearing in mind.
posted by WPW at 12:30 PM on May 26, 2007

Besides which, my partner is incapable of being rude or mean - she would rather walk to work (~2 hours) than be rude.

Clearly and simply stating boundaries ("NO. That is not okay," or "No, I do not want to talk" or "Put your penis away and get away from me, or I will call the police") is not rude or mean.

If she's right and the offenders really don't understand what is and is not appropriate, setting them straight is a favor. In any case, a simple statement that such behavior is unacceptable (which it is, to her and to her society in general) isn't rude. It may be difficult to say, but that's a different story.

She might want to practice that last one, so she doesn't hesitate when the time comes. "Put your penis away and get away from me, or I will call the police." If necessary, that can be switched around to "I'm calling the police; put your penis away and get away from me."

I prefer "and get away from me" to "and leave me alone." "Leave me alone" might be taken to mean just "Stop talking directly to me (and waving your dangle)."
posted by Elsa at 2:21 PM on May 26, 2007

What yohko said. This is about being able to survive in a situation where confrontation is required because the kinds of social boundaries on which your girlfriend is relying to protect her are simply not understood by the people around her.

She's depending on the invisible to protect her. That's frighteningly passive. She needs to get over her social conditioning and be given permission to protect herself.

One of the reasons self-defense classes are so helpful to women with this issue is not because of the actual physical training, but because you learn to make firm and demanding statements like NO and STEP BACK in an environment where this is applauded - literally. It's assertiveness training as much as anything, and in this case, I think it's a particularly good idea.

Some women really do need to be taught that is is OK to say no.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:40 PM on May 26, 2007

All of the recommendations to help her recalibrate so she is more comfortable with the fact that "direct" does not equal "rude" are good. I think that you should practice and that she should be prepared to be more forceful.

But, in case can't summon up the nerve at the critical moment, she's not completely at a loss for action. Other steps that give her control over her situation:

1) Notify the driver.
2) Also notify the transit authority. Every single time.
2) Stand or sit as close to the driver as possible.

Why is no-one else on the bus saying anything? Can't imagine that everyone on the bus is shy. If anyone got their dick out on my bus, they'd get told to put it away in a hurry.
posted by desuetude at 12:32 PM on May 28, 2007

Dunno if you're still reading this, but I remembered something.

Ask your partner to (re)read Audre Lorde's essay The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action in her book Sister Outsider, wherein she will find the quote "Your silence will not protect you". Words to live by.
(You can find the essay here, as well. Though if you don't own the book, run out and get it.)

...the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.
posted by rtha at 10:00 AM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

This question is quite old, but I just wanted to add that everyone's comments were extremely helpful. My partner and I read the thread together and had a good talk about all the various options. You are right, she (and women in general, I think) have been taught that the ideal is to be accommodating and polite at all times. We talked about this and figured out various ways that she can clearly and firmly say no. Recognizing that sticking up for herself is not the same as being rude, and putting it into practice are very different exercises though, so we'll see what happens when another incident occurs. Even just talking about this stuff and running through various hypothetical scenarios is helpful, though. Kind of like dress rehearsals to get prepared for a difficult scene. Anyways, since this thread my partner has been more comfortable with her boundaries and hasn't had any problems on the bus. Again, thank you.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:44 PM on June 15, 2007

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