Penis-Seats and Butt-Cams: Mexico City’s Solutions to Harassment on Public Transport

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Sexual harassment is almost epidemic in Mexico City, especially on public transport.

You may have seen an article being shared around on social media about Mexico City implementing a “Penis Seat” on one of its metro carriages, to highlight sexual harassment’.  Described as vulgar, uncomfortable (in more ways than one) and humiliating, many people are against this silent symbol whizzing around Mexico City’s metro system.  It was a simple idea, but is this alone enough to combat Mexico’s deep-rooted sexual harassment problem?

Of course not. From 2010 to 2015, close to three million sexual attacks –  from groping to rape – were reported in Mexico City. One plastic penis moulded to a chair was never going to change that.

Credit: RED / YouTube

These assaults can be even more threatening in the confined space of a metro carriage. As a resident of Mexico City, I’ve seen womens’ intimate areas being touched by strangers during rush hour, men shouting verbal abuse and catcalling, and one woman has even claimed that a man ejaculated over her during her daily commute. The trauma of these events is made so much worse by the fact that on the metro, you can’t run away, and you can be forced to endure the whole ordeal.

Granted, the “Penis Seat” did achieve its initial aim: to raise awareness. Being so controversial, word of the new phallic addition to the metro quickly spread, not just in Mexico, but all over the world. Some reactions were positive: Mexican women commented on Facebook how finally men could experience what they have to put up with – whereas others thought this disputed measure ridiculed the serious nature of the problem.

However, this is not the only “measure” that has been taken on the city’s metro to combat sexual harassment. Last week, the TV screens on the metro platforms cut away from the usual music videos and ‘proud to be Mexican’ propaganda, to show close ups of male commuters’ backsides, live.

As soon as the men noticed that it was their bums on display, they immediately covered their behinds with their hands and tried to turn away, while other commuters around laughed. Surely, this must be someone’s idea of a funny prank? No, after about 2 minutes of the camera chasing various men, a message appeared on the screen, informing passengers that this is how women feel every day. Stop staring at them. The women on the platform cheered and clapped, clearly agreeing with the message.

Last year, the Mexican government also decided to give out free plastic whistles to all female commuters, which they could use in case of assault. This move was heavily ridiculed by Mexican women. Many jokingly suggested that soon they would be issued burkas or chastity belts to stop harassment, maracas to shake in case of corruption, trumpets against extortion and rattles to signal discrimination.

A spoof proposal of combating Mexico’s various issues. Credit: pictoline / Twitter

It’s clear that the problem here lies with the nature of these mini-measures taken by the State, in that they are exactly that: mini. All provide short-term solutions to a long-term problem, and most importantly they fail to address the root of the problem, merely trying to manage the consequences.

A greater example of this is one of the larger scale “solutions” to sexual harassment proposed by the government:  women-only carriages on the Metro and the Metrobus. The first carriage(s) of these forms of transport are reserved exclusively for women, children, and the disabled, and are painted bright pink to show this. There are even pink buses exclusively for women.

Service for Women Only: Womens’ buses in Mexico City. Credit: Milenio.

This initiative was put in place to prevent women being harassed by men on public transport, and has received mixed reactions. The general consensus towards this, from both men and women, seems to be that it’s a good way to protect women, in fact some say it is necessary.

However, many people say that this measure shouldn’t be needed in the first place and that people should instead learn to respect each other. This segregation, once again only deals with mitigating the consequences of the machista society, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.

The use of gender segregation in public transport to combat harassment is not exclusive to Mexico. Female-only carriages have been implemented in India, Japan, Brasil and even Germany. Jeremy Corbyn even suggested they may be a viable solution to sexual assault in the UK.

However, as the woman in this Al-Jazeera video points out, it can be suggested that this segregation normalises this kind of violence, implying that ‘men cannot control their sexual impulses and are programmed to attack’. Moreover, it has been suggested that women-only carriages perpetuate the idea that women are not safe in society, that they cannot protect themselves, that women are weak, that men are dangerous and worst of all: that all of the above is an acceptable mentality.

So what will Mexico’s next “solution” to fight sexual harassment be? Teaching the population mutual respect and equality? Unlikely. A train conductor catcalling men over loudspeakers to show them how it feels? Frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising.

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