A Young in Rome contributor would like to share the following story of sexual assault on buses in Rome. We hope you find it informative and enlightening.
As a woman, you hear many things about Italian men and their behavior towards women, especially here in Rome. Whether they’re described as sketchy or as a smooth Casanova, we’re all aware of the stereotypes. None of this, however, really prepares you with actually dealing with sexual assault in the city. I’m going to share an experience in the hopes of spreading awareness about the issue and providing some concrete things you can do if you find yourself in such a situation.
About a month ago, I was on Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II running errands and needed to make a stop at Termini train station before an afternoon appointment. A 40 bus pulled up to the bus stop. It was packed; people were pushing and shoving their way onto the bus and the doors were able to close only after several attempts by the bus driver. I considered waiting for another, less-crowded bus, but there was always the chance the next one would be just as crowded and I needed to make this stop at Termini and get to my appointment on time. I squeezed onto the bus. It was crammed, hot, and uncomfortable. I was mostly concerned about my bag—which had no zipper—and kept it close to my body so I wouldn’t be pick-pocketed. At the Piazza Venezia stop a large tour group got off the bus, creating a little more space. It was still crowded, but at least you could move around. I maneuvered away from the door further into the bus where there was a little more space. Having moved there, I felt something both against my backside and frontside—in awkward places—but attributed it to the remaining lack of space on the bus. I took a deep breath and did my best to do what everyone does in these crowded situations: not make eye-contact with anyone. However, I was still very uncomfortable with what I felt on both sides, so I moved as far away as I could, only to feel the same pressure remain. I don’t know why, but I still didn’t look down or at either of the men next to me. I suppose I didn’t want to be an obnoxious American and didn’t want to think that I was being sexually touched in ways I didn’t want. I tried to shift away again into more space, still looking awkwardly out the window. But there wasn’t really anywhere else to go: a young girl was sitting directly to my left and another man was standing in front of me. I was getting really, really uncomfortable.
I finally looked behind me and realized that the young man at my back had an erection that he was pressing against my backside and looked to my side and realized that what I had thought was a briefcase pressing against my vulva was the man’s fingers. Horrified, I instinctively jumped with an “oh my god.” For some reason I could barely look at these men in the eyes—I don’t know, I just sort of froze and couldn’t react to what was happening—and the people around me on the bus looked over at me. My face was red hot and I didn’t know what to do, so I sort of just muttered “scusa, scusa,” and the two men slinked towards the back of the bus. I was trembling and could feel my heart pounding behind my eyes and wanted to cry, but there were just so many people. I should have gotten off the bus, but I was still shocked and was wondering if somehow I had misinterpreted the situation or it had been an accident.
I was very shaken up. When I told my roommate what happened when I got home, she told of a similar experience on a bus, as well as those of some of other women she knew. I was frustrated I didn’t react or do something, and she similarly noted she had been too shocked to react in the way she had wanted.
To be honest, I’ve really had trouble sleeping since it happened. What particularly troubles me is the devious, covert way in which it was done—taking advantage of a crowded bus and a foreign woman not expecting something like that to happen.
I don’t know, maybe it was an accident—maybe the young man just got an erection from the physical contact of the bus and couldn’t move it away from my backside. But when I looked at him, he did have space on his other side. And maybe the other man didn’t realize his fingers were practically under my skirt, pressing against my vulva. But, well…really? Writing this brings back the feeling that my skin is crawling. I felt violated. I don’t like that word, but I don’t know another that properly expresses the feeling of being taken advantage of, against my will and unawares, in a sexual way.
Of course, incidents like this aren’t confined to crowded buses in Rome, or even Italy itself. I experienced something similar while walking on a very crowded Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul,Turkey and a few years ago, an even worse incident in the U.S. This experience here in Rome brought back the emotions I felt during and after those experiences. The sobering reality is that it makes me feel helpless. And I don’t want to feel helpless.
What can you do?
1) Be aware of crowded buses. I use “be aware” and not “beware” on purpose. You should never feel afraid to get on a bus, or onto a crowded bus, but just be aware that, unfortunately, things like this can happen in the situation.
2) Ask someone to move or get off the bus if you feel uncomfortable. Your well-being is much more important than the off-chance that you offend someone else on the bus. Never feel that you can’t or shouldn’t move or ask someone to move. If you feel uncomfortable, so something about it.
3) If you do find yourself in this kind of situation and are in the right frame of mind, yell something like “che schifo!” (How disgusting!).
4) Go to the front of the bus and make the bus driver aware of the situation. My roommate suggested “Ci sono due uomini che fanno cose orribili alle donne su questo bus” (there are two men doing horrible things to women on this bus) or something similar.
5) If something more serious occurs, report it to the police. They are required to press charges.
6) Talk to someone about it. Whether a friend, family member, or therapist; it usually helps to talk about what happened.