Sex and the Metro: Considering a coin flip

By Tao Tao Holmes: 

Two Metros Meet:

Shanghai, meet Delhi. Delhi metro is sleek, cool, and clean, unlike the city in which it functions. Delhi Metro has a separate compartment for women, which means ladies can escape otherwise almost guaranteed sexual harassment. In this temporary safe haven, metro security throws off any men who try to trespass.

Delhi, meet Shanghai. Here, women and men are jumbled all together in the same compartments, and, on top of that, women in Shanghai have no sense of dignity and are brash enough to wear clothes that reveal their arms and legs, and possibly even more. Right, Delhi – I know. It’s hardly a surprise that Shangai has run into some issues.

Just under a month ago, I wrote about the curious case of the female metro compartment and how it negatively reflected gender relations in India. Oddly enough, another metro has found itself at the center of a debate that is shedding light on the exact same matter –– only this time, it’s over in Shanghai, China.

Signs on the Delhi metro indicate that certain cars are for women only. (

As the Economist reports, due to recent sexual harassment taking place on the Shanghai metro, the metro’s management, via their microblog, has asked women to “please be self-dignified to avoid perverts.” In response, two Chinese women dressed in full black robes resembling Muslim burkas and held signs on the metro in protest (well okay, messages on iPads). One of them pronounced, “We want to feel cool! We don’t want dirty hands.” Their movement found painfully little support, as an online poll shortly afterwards reported 70 percent of respondents saying that women should dress modestly in order to avoid sexual harassment.

In India, johns – buyers of sex – are completely immune to punishment. In fact, laws regarding prostitution are stacked in their favor, while the prostitutes are loaded with all of the blame. Technically, under the ITPA (Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act), buying sex is legal, but soliciting it is not. But even those who work in the field of sex trafficking and prostitution admit that the details of the act are ambiguous. Women and girls who have been trafficked into brothels can be shoved under this umbrella of liability, while the men who come and go (an average of ten per prostitute each evening) are completely off the hook. Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an Indian anti-trafficking NGO, is trying to spread the understanding that prostitution is a demand-driven industry, and that the buyers, not the providers, of sex should be punished. No one who has stepped foot remotely near a red light district in India could possibly argue that any of the local “sex workers” (a term that Apne Aap has carefully chosen not to use), would like to be there, willingly or unwillingly soliciting business that will enable them to feed their children.

So who do we blame –– the women providing sex for lack of any other economic alternative, or the men who buy it? The women on the Shanghai metro who choose to wear clothes in which they feel comfortable, or the men who harass them for it?

The parallels may not perfectly align, but they are grounded in the same elemental concept. I ask only – is this fair? We seem to take the behavior of certain male populations as immutable, then expect the women around them to bear the brunt of it and adapt in appropriate ways. When, if ever, will the big guns of the Indian government or Shanghai Metro Management pause to consider the other face of the coin? Chance is they’ve probably never even thought to give it a flip.

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 is in Branford College. Contact her at