Our usual social codes disappear as soon as we get on a plane. Humans behave bizarrely in a number of ways when we’re off the ground: we watch three movies in a row without a break, eat food served in tinfoil boxes, and even talk openly to strangers.
The young man I sat next to was chatty and good-looking. We were both on our way to Shanghai and would be next to one another for the ten-hour journey from Copenhagen. Our plane had a 2-4-2 layout; he sat by the window, me by the aisle. We worked in the same industry. We had once lived in the same city. He did smell quite strongly of alcohol, but that was explained away by the three days he had spent at a wedding prior to catching the flight.
So we chatted and I told him things. Like the hotel I was staying at.
“Let’s share a taxi,” he suggested. Unease settled over me.
He ordered a bottle of champagne for us to share and was disappointed when the flight attendant explained that only small bottles were served in economy class. I politely declined my share and he disappeared, not returning to his seat for an hour. The cabin crew switched off the lights and most of the passengers fell asleep, including me.
I woke with a start to find him straddling me, his legs jammed against either side of my knees, which were crammed against the back of the seat in front of me. He shouted at another passenger in a language I didn’t understand.
“What’s going on?” I asked, flailing underneath him.
“Nothing. Some guy was asking me what I was doing. I think he thought I was raping you or something.” He slid down into his seat. “But, hey, we’re both good-looking people, so that wouldn’t be a problem.”
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. I was offended by his casual rape reference, but was it grounds to complain to the flight crew?
“I’m scared of flying,” he whispered, his breath sour against my cheek as he leaned over the armrest that separated us. “Please, can we hold hands?”
I shook my head and screwed my eyes closed tighter. A situation was developing, I knew, but I had no idea how to resolve it. I was alone, the cabin lights were dimmed and his hand was reaching out for mine. When his fingers stroked my palm I leapt out of my seat and ran to the bathroom, where my reflection looked back at me, pale, ghostly, and disappointed.
I stayed in the toilet for fifteen minutes, contemplating what to do. In the mirror I saw an adult, a woman who should demand a change of seat. But inside I felt like a small girl, alone and pitted against an inebriated man. I returned to my seat. He ignored me and though I knew I wouldn’t sleep, I pulled on my eye mask to feign slumber. Fifteen minutes later his bare foot caressed my thigh.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I hissed, violently enough for him to retract the hardened skin of his heel from my leg, but quietly enough not to wake the sleeping passengers.
I retreated to the back of the plane to find a flight attendant.
“I don’t want to make a fuss,” was how I started my story. “I think he’s had a bit too much to drink,” was how I absolved him.
The flight attendant tiptoed down the aisle to locate a new seat for me. When we found one she bundled me in, our voices reduced to whispers, the shared burden of sisterhood heavy between us.
Still, I question the incident. I feel in some way culpable, as if the young man was permitted to harass me because I engaged in conversation with him. I’m not proud of my doubt and guilt — I know better, I really do — but I know I’m not the only one to feel it. Sexual harassment on planes is on the increase according to the FBI, and red-eye flights make discreet attacks possible. Airline crews know this well: Last year over a quarter of flight attendants reported harassment while on the job in the previous twelve months. At Cathay Pacific, female flight attendants are harassed on an estimated one out of every ten flights.
This type of unwanted attention and invasion of personal space is traumatic, all the more so on an airplane because there is no way to escape. In a bar, I might have simply walked away, told abouncer what was happening, or shouted at my harasser. But instead I gave in, letting him get away with it because of my overpowering desire not to cause a scene.
But when I reached the taxi rank at Shanghai’s Pudong airport and saw him standing to the side, smoking a cigarette and languidly watching the crowds before his eyes fixed on me, I suddenly wished that I had made a fuss. As I stuffed my suitcase into the back of the taxi and prayed for the driver to get me out of there as fast as possible, as I triple-checked the locks on my hotel room door before sleeping, as I shamefully told reception I was expecting no visitors and not to allow anyone to my room… I wished I had screamed and howled and made sure he wouldn’t do it again.
The outcome of this unpleasant experience? I won’t talk to strangers on planes anymore. I will always request a seat in the middle section of the plane. I will think twice before traveling alone. I will never tell anyone which hotel I’m staying at. Unfairly, I alone shoulder the burden of these outcomes. I wish instead the outcome was simply that the man from my flight would never again touch another woman on a plane, but why should he hold back? I only confirmed for him that in the air, normal rules don’t apply.
Clare Kane is a native Londoner; follow her on Twitter at @clare_kane.
Image via Shutterstock.
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