In the bike lane: First the body, now the dignity

Sexual harassment: I never wanted to cycle in Vienna again – a report and an article were my therapy at that time! Now I am again about to report to the police.

No sooner am I out the front door that the first car cuts me off, after the short bit of bike lane back on the road, the next one and another one and another one – on a few hundred metres. Is it because I am on my way to the police that I notice this especially? After a good three kilometers I am there: One Euro for every car that has fallen below the safety distance to me, and I would have earned a fine lunch during the 15 minutes of cycling – coffee and dessert included.

I lock my bike at the traffic sign in front of the police inspection: Today I really notice what is otherwise only a subliminal feeling: as a cyclist I am only tolerated but not respected and certainly not recognized as an equal road user. Goethe already stated:

“Tolerance should actually only be a temporary attitude: it must lead to recognition. To tolerate is to insult.“

What happened?

It was dark, around three-quarters to ten on a Monday evening at the end of August in Vienna: He zips his fly open, sticks out his pelvis and comes towards me around the car. He curses me in the process, and his buddies also come closer. I had stopped and said “You’re blocking the bike lane!“ I had just come from the sixth district, crossed the Danube Canal, entered Praterstraße and immediately switched to the pop up bike lane. After only 50 metres, a car was in my way: parked crossways, the rear end obstructed the structurally separate bike lane, the hood of the car protruded far onto the pop up bike lane. Intimidated, but not frozen, I pull out my cell phone and take two uncoordinated snapshots – which at least capture the open trousers of the perpetrator and the number plate of the car.

My body was in escape mode and was at loggerheads with my indignation: if there had not been so many people sitting opposite me in the beer garden and if a few people had not stopped on the sidewalk to watch the whole thing – I would have cycled away immediately without taking any pictures. So I discovered the “L“ in the windshield and said at the end: “Oh, you’re a beginner“ and laughed out loud as I cycled away: It was an attempt to preserve my dignity and stay cool on the outside – but inside I was hot and cold at the same time.

At the police station …

The police inspector of the State Office of Criminal Investigation – LKA Vienna took time for me, my questions and the recording of my statement. He was prudent and used my choice of words – except for “sexualized behaviour“ – which I had changed to sexual harassment when I read it back: Because “sexualized“ sounds to me as if I had added the sex to an everyday action afterwards.

This is a traffic offence: Blocking a main bike route with a car – which I pointed out to the group of men who the car belonged to. In response I received half exposed genitals, threatening gestures and insults. How would the reaction have been if I were a man?

The final question was “Why am I filing the complaint?“ – the last paragraph of my witness statement reads as follows: “I felt frightened, my dignity was violated and I was sexually harassed by the events described. After discussions with some acquaintances and careful consideration, I decided to file charges in order to help set limits for “such“ men and to contribute to a respectful coexistence.

In other words: What I have loved so much about Vienna so far is that I could cycle everywhere – even at night over the Danube Island or through the Prater. As a woman. Without wasting a thought on strategies. Strategies that probably almost every woman and some other person has set up for certain situations and which then appear in your head and are unwound – over and over again until you are safe at home. With this report I want to take back my carefreeness and freedom, which generations before me have fought hard for, and contribute that the streets and places remain safe for all people or will be safe again.

However, the first contact with the police was a déjà-vu with 2015

The police inspector at the LKA Vienna had offered at the beginning to change to a female colleague. But since he was respectful and empathetic, I declined with thanks. In contrast, the first contact with the police was unpleasant: When I asked how and where I could make a report, I was constantly interrupted and verbally dominated by the policeman on the phone. This awakened memories of 2015, when I wanted to get information on my charge of assault by phone: At that time, the policeman had asked me for a moment’s patience, put down the receiver, made disparaging jokes and used the P-word several times – when he turned to me again at the other end of the receiver, I explained to him: “If you are so disrespectful to me as a foreigner, at least make sure I don’t have to listen to this!“

The charge of assault was dropped at that time, I received a letter from the public prosecutor’s office. A friend of mine reported similar things to me when she filed a report for bicycle theft: When she showed her German passport, the tone of the policemen suddenly intensified and the helpfulness disappeared.

After I filed the report by email, I asked in the Facebook group “Cycling in Vienna“: “Has anyone else recently suffered sexual harassment while cycling? The feedback was shocking – I was not aware that it happens so often and that some women only wrote their story because I had published mine before. I had not expected so much encouragement and thanks for reporting it – from women as well as from men!

Is he mature enough to steer heavy vehicles in dense city traffic?

The witness recording in the LKA Vienna went on: We came to talk about the “L“ – practice drive behind the windshield. At the age of 18, I had got my car driving license when I took my old student car to start up a mountain on the highway. In the approach, in the hollow, I exceeded the maximum speed and was flashed: I had to go to a retraining course – I was still in trial period.

At the time of my retraining course in Thuringia, one participant had committed a burglary, another hit and run and a third had committed assault. And today, here in Vienna: a group of men who block a main bike route with their car, thus exposing people on bicycles to unnecessary danger, and when pointed out to them – intimidate, sexually harass and insult me: does someone like that have the personal maturity to steer a vehicle weighing several tons in dense city traffic?

Are there recommendations for such situations?

Every deed is different – nobody can do the assessment of the situation for you. Self-protection and your own intactness – physically and mentally – has the highest priority, no matter how great the attack on your dignity by the perpetrators’ dominant and oppressive behaviour is. If you want to and can escape: do it!

In any case, what helps is when people in the surroundings support: Who notices that another person is threatened, please stop and observe – that is already civil courage and supports already very much. I would never have taken these photos – without the other uninvolved people around me. Ideally, offer to testify as a witness and give contact details.

The police have no general recommendation here either. Sure, photos help. And to call the emergency call 133 right away: “I am sexually harassed and the perpetrators are still there!“ – But you have to dare to do that. I would probably only seek protection for such a call in a crowded restaurant where there are many different people or where I am myself often a guest. The direct way from the crime scene to the full and protective beer garden on the other side was blocked by three busy car lanes.

To report always makes sense!

Yes, it takes time off your life. But for me, to report this also means being able to do something and thus regain control of the situation afterwards: The feeling of helplessness disappears and the shock quickly fades away and does not grow into a trauma that might prevent me from riding my bicycle in the future.

I had to file two complaints: For making a wrong stop at a bike lane and for sexual harassment. There are two different authorities responsible for this: The complaint for sexual harassment was internally forwarded by the police to the LKA – Vienna. It is in accordance with paragraph 218 of the Criminal Code (StGB) and will – without anticipating the public prosecutor’s office – probably be dropped based on experience and previous interpretation of the law. An administrative penalty for violation of decency according to section 1 of the Vienna State and Security Law (WLSG) is more promising. The police inspector will short-circuit with the colleague and ensure that the administrative offence is punished. Without personal consultation, such a thing can go under: Both can arrange for the administrative penalty for the violation of decency – after the facts of the sexual harassment have been examined and decided.

As a victim, I do not receive information about whether and to what extent the punishment was imposed. Neither do the two police inspectors. I receive a letter from the public prosecutor’s office if the proceedings are discontinued, or a summons if they are opened. This feedback would be valuable for me! It would show me that filing a complaint had made a difference in the end. So the only thing I can be sure of is that this incident will be included in the complaint statistics.

According to the Austrian prevalence study on violence against women and men published in 2011, three-quarters of all women in Austria have experienced sexual harassment and almost a third have experienced sexual violence – this is how the compilation of facts and figures on sexual violence against women by the Women’s Counseling Center* Emergency Call Austria begins.

And now …?

I will continue to point this out to those people with cars who endanger people with bicycles. I would like to ask those who at this point again reflexively point out the violations of cyclists: Are not these mostly the symptoms of poor or even non-existent infrastructure? How many of these symptoms – of people breaking the rules when cycling – on the ailing traffic infrastructure would probably automatically disappear if road space were valued as a living space and were quickly and consistently converted from being suitable for cars to being suitable for bicycles or, better, for people?

In all traffic situations, it is important to set limits together – wherever people are dominated, suppressed, endangered or threatened! For cooperation, respectful interaction and recognition instead of tolerance!

This post was published in September 2020 in the Community Blog on the »Friday – The weekly newspaper«.

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