This post was originally published by me on October 22 2015 for the website Paris Year Abroad. It has been edited for length.
So if you’re a woman in Paris you’ve most likely heard about or experienced sexual harassment in the métro. According to a study done this past year, 100% of women surveyed had experienced some kind of sexual harassment while taking public transportation in Paris. Well, unfortunately I too am part of that 100%.
First, before I get into my story, I just want to say I was expecting something to happen to me at some point while living here. One of the many problems of sexual harassment in Paris is that most of the time it goes unreported. I told myself I wouldn’t be that victim. I told myself if ever some creep tried anything I wouldn’t stay silent. I’d scream. I’d kick. I had practiced nasty phrases to bite back with. I’d be prepared.
Anyway, last Tuesday I was taking the metro as I always do to get to work, sitting in one of the individual “strapotins” next to the doors, when this guy all dressed in black jumped into my car right as the doors closed. The funny thing is I had caught sight of him on the platform and something rang strange. It caught me off-guard how he had looked at me right before jumping in next to me. So the train starts and he’s just standing extremely close to me, back to the doors, staring me down as I’m seated trying to distract myself by looking out the window at the super interesting dark tunnels.
A few stations pass and I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable. We get to Bastille and a bunch of people hop on so naturally I stand up from the “strapotin” (so as not to be that person who stays seated despite the crowding). At this point, as I’m standing, the man turns and puts himself to my left, effectively trapping me, and pressing against me insistently. I’m squashed as my back is against the folded seat, to my right is the edge of the doors, to my left the creep, and in front of me another person with their back turned. I can’t move or protest, and I’m starting to freak out. I make out in my peripheral vision that this guy clearly has space behind him, like he really doesn’t need to be this close to me. I’m contemplating my options when all of a sudden I feel his penis in his pants start to rub against my thigh, his face basically in my hair. I decide that at the next station I’ll just run out and change cars. I can’t take another train as I’m running late, so I figure if I just hop out and run into the next car I’ll be rid of that weirdo.
Just when the doors open I sprint like lightning and jump into the next car when I hear “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” and the alarm breaks go off. I turn around to find this 40-year old man in a trench coat tackling my harasser. I’m scared, confused and panicked as he’s trying to tell me to get out of the train all the while wrestling with this screeching man.
It’s only when he got out some handcuffs that I understood what was going on. He was a cop “en civil” which means he wasn’t in uniform. He had seen the events that had unfolded and had pulled the alarm so that I wouldn’t get away. This other young man who was in my car at the time also got out and helped get the handcuffs on the harasser. After I got hold of what was happening, the police arrived and sat the harasser down as I was questioned. I shudderingly recounted what had happened. I couldn’t believe myself. Finally the first cop came over and asked me if I was alright. “I can’t take this kind of thing,” he said, “it really gets me angry. I don’t tolerate it at all.” Basically he had gotten on at Bastille and had seen the harasser and I, and had assumed we were together. It’s when he saw me looking around nervously and realized the guy was pretty much humping me that he got it. When he saw me run out he pulled the alarm and tackled the guy. He needed the victim in addition to the perpetrator.
After calling work I was escorted to the station in a police car with the cops and that other witness, the young man, who also saw everything and helped cuff the man. I have to tell you, I almost got a panic attack from that car ride alone. I mean, that driver was going a million miles and hour, driving in the wrong lanes, driving over sidewalks, sirens blaring, like something out of a movie. So we get to the station and I give my testimony, and so does the other two men. I could hear the harasser’s shrieks from down the hall. He was clearly mad. He didn’t even speak French. After it all, my friend came and took me back home, as I was in the middle of sketchyville in the north of Paris. I was so shaken I didn’t sleep all night and didn’t go to work the next day.
So does this story end happily? You bet. I reported the incident, my harasser was arrested, he wouldn’t bother anyone again. After that I left Paris to visit some friends in a nearby town where I attended a Mika concert which was the best night of my life, probably. When I got back I felt refreshed and invincible. I received so many phone calls from friends and family supporting me and I didn’t feel alone in the least.
But some things still bothered me and linger on my mind even now. If it hadn’t been for that cop I would have jumped out and changed cars without saying anything. That creep would have gone free, and I would have been even more scarred. I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t fought back. I hadn’t screamed or yelled any of the rehearsed insults. I had failed. I knew what I had promised myself, and yet in the moment, I couldn’t say anything. I understand why so many incidents go unreported. It’s scary to speak up, worse it’s scary to speak up in the moment. As I was glancing around in the train, I could tell others were aware of what was going on, but nobody did anything despite my panicked looks. If I had said something, what if no one would have responded? What if the man had reacted violently? I was physically trapped. It could have gotten much worse.
That night I replayed the events trying to find something I could have done, seeing where I had gone wrong. But in the end I realized what happened happened. It was not my fault. There was nothing I could have done. In the end you can toss and turn wondering what could have gone differently, but you can’t change anything. All I can do from now on is grow. I am not defined my this incident. I’m not broken. I will not remain a victim. And neither should anyone else.
I guess I want to end this by saying that if this every happens to you, it’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to not know what to do. But it’s not ok to beat yourself down about something you couldn’t control. It’s not ok to tell yourself you were defeated or that you weren’t strong enough. And so if this ever happens to you, however you react is perfectly fine. Ideally, defend yourself. Make noise. Scream and kick. Grab your harasser’s hand and hold it up high and ask “à qui est cette main??” (who’s hand is this?). Buy some pepper spray (it’s on my shopping list). But remember not to blame yourself. Tomorrow is another day. Now get out there and own the city! You’re in Paris!