SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On Tuesday a man ejaculated on a woman’s neck aboard a packed lunch-hour bus in the city’s downtown business center. Nobody realized what had happened until she started to scream. Other women on the bus surrounded her in a show of solidarity and an attempt to protect her, while the driver and ticket collector held the man until police arrived. They had to keep the doors shut, as people on the streets threatened to lynch the man. Meanwhile, a councilman happened to be walking by when the crime occurred and shot a Facebook Live video of the aftermath, including the man’s arrest. The story of the incident spread quickly online, with many commenters shocked that something like this could still happen in a metropolitan city like São Paulo.
But the truth is that we shouldn’t be surprised at all. According to Brazilian research institute Datafolha, buses, trains and subways are the most common places for women to be harassed, with 35 percent of women saying they’ve suffered physical, verbal or other types of abuse while riding public transportation. In March, local paper O Estado de S.Paulo collected data showing, on average, there are four reported cases of sexual harassment on São Paulo public transit each week. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of police reports jumped from 23 to 219. In the first seven months of 2017, São Paulo’s Secretary of Public Safety has already registered 288 reports of sexual harassment on public transportation.
And we all know that not all women report abuse. Why would we? Diego Ferreira Novais, the 27-year-old man who ejaculated on the woman on the bus, had already been accused of the exact same crime 16 times. None of those cases went to trial. When he went before a judge on Wednesday, just a day after his arrest, he was released. His only punishment was a fine, as the judge classified the assault as an “indecent act” that didn’t cause any “embarrassment” to the victim. The judge also said there was no “violence or serious threat.”
Diego Ferreira Novais, the 27-year-old man who ejaculated on the woman on the bus, had already been accused of the exact same crime 16 times. None of those cases went to trial.
While Novais was in front of a judge, singer Juliana de Deus was assaulted on another bus traveling along Avenida Paulista at lunchtime when the man sitting beside her decided it was okay to put his hands on her breasts. He was also arrested when the driver stopped the bus next to two police cruisers. His punishment? A slap on the wrist and a fine to pay for what was deemed a “minor infraction.”
As a woman living in São Paulo, I know, as all women in the city do, that I can’t count on the judicial system to protect me. If I have to be on a crowded train or subway, I do my best to keep my back to the wall. If there are seats available on the bus, I try to sit next to another woman. A friend of mine once told me that she fell asleep on the bus after a long day’s work only to wake up with a man standing next to her humping her face. Now, I always look for a window seat.
Traveling in groups would be a good option, but it’s rarely possible for women going to and from work. Most people in São Paulo work far from home and live on opposite ends of the sprawling city from their colleagues.
Even if taking a taxi or Uber was financially possible—and it rarely is—they aren’t 100 percent safe for women either. Writer Clara Averbuck posted on Facebook that she was raped by an Uber driver on Monday, but said she won’t bother filing a police report because the man who assaulted her knows where she lives. She also said she didn’t want to be “violated by the state” too. How could she trust a sexist system that always blames the victim?
São Paulo is slowly making changes to better protect women. The companies that run the city’s public transportation system launched a campaign on Tuesday—the same day of Novais’s crime—meant to fight sexual assault on buses, trains and the subway. And as of October, men accused of sexual assault on public transportation will have to complete a course on sexism and masculinity coordinated by Judge Tatiane Moreira Lima, who oversees domestic violence cases in São Paulo’s west-end neighborhood Butantã.
Many men who aren’t accused of abuse, however, should be made to take the course too. Comments written on local news reports about Averbuck’s assault ranged from ignorant to accusatory, saying it was her fault she was raped. One man, named Renato Rodrigues, asked why Averbuck would sit in the front seat of the car, saying her story didn’t make sense. He accused her of wanting media attention to sell her books, while other commenters said the assault was her fault because she had been drinking.
The words of these men, who might not ever physically abuse a woman in their lifetime, are another form of assault. We must have been asking for it. We should have done more to get away. Somehow it’s our fault that we’ve been raped, groped or ejaculated on while just trying to get to work.
When a woman is assaulted, we’re told to remember that she is someone’s daughter, sister, mother, wife, as if it’s those roles that define our dignity. But men have to remember that it’s not who we are linked to that makes us deserving of respect, it’s that we are individuals—just like they are.
If men don’t change their ways, we’ll always have our backs against the wall, looking for a window seat.