Let’s Talk About Unwanted (and Illegal) Contact on Airplanes

I know this is a difficult subject, but a story just popped up on my feed that really struck a chord with me.  Warnings ahead of time for the type of content discussed in this post.

airplane seats

A woman was assaulted on a flight from Las Vegas to Pittsburgh.  A man is accused of fondling her while she was sleeping–something he admits.

From the Review Journal article:

Shi was returning from Las Vegas on a Southwest Airlines flight on Thursday when he put his hands under the sleeping woman’s dress and on her thigh and buttocks, the FBI said in a four-page criminal complaint. The woman woke up during the alleged incident and alerted a flight attendant who had police meet the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport and take Shi into custody.

Shi’s defense to this is that even though he did do this and while she was sleeping, she sent mixed signals as to whether or not she wanted him to do that.

…while she was sleeping (this part is my addition).

And don’t get me started on the creep who put lotion on the woman next to him while she was sleeping.

She also “enjoyed it,” despite being asleep.

This sort of thing makes my skin crawl.

I haven’t had a situation like this, but I’ve had situations where I wasn’t sure how to react.  In an airplane, you are in tight quarters.  It’s hard to tell if someone is being clumsy or creepy.

I had two specific situations.

In one situation, someone tripped while walking down the aisle and firmly grabbed my breast.  He apologized while smirking and kept moving.  In that moment, I had no idea whether it was on purpose or not.  And I couldn’t figure out the rest of the flight.  I had a fear that if I spoke up immediately and it had been an accident, I would have gotten a clumsy person in a lot of trouble.

I had another situation, but when taking a train.  I was sleeping on the window seat side.  When I woke up, the man next to me was sleeping with his arms folded.  But his right hand was folded under his arm and resting on my breast.  Again, in this case, I wasn’t sure whether or not something bad was happening.  I didn’t know if he was really asleep or not.  I immediately got up and switched train cars.  I questioned myself over and over after that.  I wasn’t really sure what to believe.

This is part of the reason I have some anxiety over window seats.  I feel anxious about being “trapped” in there now, and like knowing there’s a way out.

In both of these situations, I wouldn’t even know what to tell a friend to do.  And the closed quarters of travel make it difficult.  I like to believe the vast, vast, vast majority of people are good people who don’t want to do creepy things.  So it’s hard to know how to react.

Anyway, sort of a stream of consciousness, but that news story made me think of that.  And that’s something women traveling alone have to grapple with.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. The best way to avoid unwanted touch is to try to secure a first class seat. Short of that, bring a cello (or an empty cello case) and reserve a seat for it.

    When flying Southwest, you can actually occupy 2 seats if you have companion pass status and designate yourself as companion.

  2. If a person consciously touches your breast, that is not being “creepy”. That is sexual assault.
    However I do sympathise with the difficulty of knowing if a persons actions are deliberate or an accident.

  3. While this is an issue on planes it’s actually much much worse on buses and subway trains.

  4. Data point: I have never had anyone make “accidental” contact with me in a way that could be perceived as unwanted, invasive contact. My guess is that the number of ambiguously invasive contacts per passenger mile is far, far higher for women than it is for men.

  5. I once fell and grabbed a friend’s breast while playing roller hockey. You better believe I was NOT smirking as I rolled away. I blurted out an “I’m sorry”, turned bright red and stayed away from her the rest of the game. My point is this, in general men do not “accidentally” touch your breast. If I’m stumbling it’s quite likely I could aim for upper chest if I wanted to, and I certainly wouldn’t need to squeeze. Also I do not believe that guy was asleep. Fold your arms and get a hand away from you enough to make contact, it’s uncomfortable. Not a position you would actually take while genuinely asleep. If it happens again you should definitely make a fuss. At the very least you’ll spread the embarrassment around so he feels some of it too and hopefully he’ll learn his lesson. If you don’t speak up for yourself he’ll just stay a serial groper. Think of his next victim.

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