Mexico City metro's 'penis seat' sparks debate

By Vicky Baker
BBC News

image copyrightYouTube
image captionThe so-called "penis seat" appeared in a viral video showing commuters on Mexico City's metro

When a new style of seat suddenly appeared on Mexico City's metro system, it was labelled as inappropriate, uncomfortable, humiliating and embarrassing.

It was supposed to be.

The seat, moulded to include a protruding penis and chest, was designed to highlight sexual harassment experienced by female passengers.

The explanation next to the men-only label read: "It is uncomfortable to sit here, but that is nothing compared to the sexual violence that women suffer on their daily journeys."

The seat is not a permanent fixture, but part of a campaign launched by UN Women and the Mexico City authorities called #NoEsDeHombres, which aimed to highlight sexual harassment on public transport.

But the response has been mixed.

Underneath a video of the stunt, which has been seen more than 700,000 times in the past 10 days, some viewers praised the idea, while others called it "sexist" and unfair to men.

image copyrightYouTube
image captionThe video showed men sitting down on the seat and then jumping up again in shock

Gendes is a Mexican civil society organisation that focuses on working with men to promote equality and combat sexual harassment, which remains a major problem in the country.

Rene Lopez Perez, who heads their research programme, praised the campaign for taking an important issue and making it a talking point. But he also stressed the importance of not seeing all men as attackers.

"It's important not to stigmatise all men as violent and potential attackers of women," he said.

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Holly Kearl, who founded the US-based website Stop Street Harassment, said there was something to be said for turning the focus away from women for once.

When she attended the UN Women Safe Cities Global Leaders' Forum in Mexico City last month, she noted the onus of change was often put on women.

"Too often initiatives around women's safety focus on what women should or should not do, so it is refreshing to see a creative campaign aimed at men," she said.

image copyrightAFP
image captionMexico City's metro has women-only carriages

The Mexican capital's public transit system has long had a bad reputation for women's safety.

In 2014, UK polling company YouGov conducted a survey about harassment on public transportation worldwide. For verbal and physical harassment, Mexico City's metro was voted the worst.

Over the years, the city has tried various strategies to make women feel safer.

Trains have separate carriages for women. Women-only buses were also launched. An art collective, known as Las Hijas De Violencia (The Daughters of Violence), saw women responding to street harassment by blasting back at attackers with punk music and a confetti cannon.

Last year, the city's mayor caused controversy by announcing another new strategy: women were to be offered a small, city-branded whistle that they could toot when they felt threatened.

The plan was largely derided for not getting to the root of the problem.

"If screaming doesn't help, how will this?" wrote Mexico-based journalist Andrea Noel on Twitter.

Another Twitter user parodied the idea by suggesting the mayor's office also created a set of maracas to shake when you come across a case of corruption.

Ninde, who does not want to be known by her full name, says she has no trust in the female-only carriages after she was assaulted in one last year when a man ejaculated over her.

She tries not to use the metro now, and will only do so if accompanied.

She would like to see more done to improve the service for women, but she does not think the "penis seats" help.

"It seems to ridicule sexual harassment. A real sexual assault is nothing like this," she says. "I feel a little outraged that there are no real actions to eradicate the problem."

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