Groped on a plane – that time I didn’t react

As readers express their dismay about the woman on a plane who was groped by another passenger while she slept, lamenting the fact that no-one reported the incident for up to 5 minutes, it immediately takes me back to my flight home from Majorca just a few days earlier. A pretty girl with long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail – around age 9 or 10, sat across the aisle from me – one seat in front. I watched her earlier in the flight as she played with a pink box filled with beads and craft items.

Towards the end of the flight, I witnessed something that enraged me. I was stuck into a good novel on my Kindle, but couldn’t help notice when a man, sitting two rows in front of her, who appeared to be either her father or step- father, came back to the girl’s seat and more or less sat on her lap to give her a sloppy kiss on the mouth. I glanced across briefly but continued to read. Then I frowned as I watched the man slide his left arm under her clothing to more or less grope her across the chest. I squirmed. If I’d been drinking tea, I’m sure I would have splurted it out on my lap.

I know many parents like to kiss their child on the lips; I get that. But this was more like an all out smooch bordering on snog.  When his hand sneaked up her sweater across bare skin and groped around, my eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets – all the while trying to contain myself from shouting ‘WHAT are you doing?!’ Alas, I chickened out; I didn’t intervene. But I glared, and when the man caught my eye, he got off her, with a smirk on his face,  and moved back to his seat, two rows ahead. The girl’s mum was sitting in the seat directly in front; she had an older sister across the aisle ahead, along with a younger brother or step brother. The family were sitting near to one another, but had obviously been split up on the seating plan.

The girl looked a bit uncomfortable, but also accepting of above said activity. This clearly wasn’t the first time. She clearly liked her dad/ step-dad and probably experienced conflicting emotions. During the last stage of the flight, she looked back at me a couple of times and I smiled at her; she smiled back – the unspoken exchange reflecting her acknowledgement that I was somehow ‘in’ on her predicament.  When I shared what had happened with my husband later on, he remarked:

“If he’s okay with doing something like that on a plane, can you imagine what he’s doing behind closed doors?’ I shuddered. Here was a pre-pubescent girl who was accustomed to a close relative putting his wandering hands under her clothes. Sickening. But I was scared. Should I confront the man and stir up a major conflict or altercation? Should I try to whisper to the girl and explain she should tell someone and get help? My three sons were sitting in the row behind her, but hadn’t seen the misdeed. I have no idea if anyone else witnessed what happened. The man would probably argue that he was just hugging his daughter. The incident had occurred in just a matter of seconds – 10-15 at most. Was I overreacting? I’d seen such scenarios before,  on a train or bus – but usually between consenting teens or inebriated twenty-something adults.

In the end, I decided to tear off a section from a page of a magazine and write the girl a note. It went something like this:

Hello,  Just to say I saw what happened and that you don’t have to let anyone touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Your body belongs to you – not anyone else – even anyone in your family.  Contact Childline. Hope that helps. Take care.

I wanted to add the phone number at the end, but my phone was in flight mode, and I wouldn’t be able to look it up online. And then I struggled with deciding on the appropriate moment to pass her the note. Should I give it her straightaway or wait until the end of the flight? What if someone in her family noticed and thought that I was a dodgy person? Dilemmas! In the end, I popped the note in my pocket and thought I’d wait ‘til we were all at baggage claim, where I could disappear into the crowds and make a hasty exit.

But by the time the plane landed and we went through passport control, popped to the loos and tried to organise ourselves, I lost sight of the girl and her family and completely forgot. It wasn’t until we went to collect our car, that my fingers felt the folded note in my jacket pocket and I felt a major twinge of regret. I had done nothing. I’d observed, I’d reacted and I’d told my husband. But I did nothing to protect this girl from something tantamount to child abuse.  But I didn’t think I had enough to nail the guy. It would just be my word against his, as he’d brush off his actions as merely an affectionate cuddle. At the same time, I realised that this guy was probably a good father 90% of the time. The children looked happy and well looked after. Should I really stir up a hornet’s nest, potentially leading to this girl being removed from her family?

It’s been bugging me for several days, as I rethink how I should have responded differently. I’m now convinced that I should have confronted the man then and there about the inappropriateness of his actions. At least then, the girl would have seen that others did not consider their activities normal and acceptable. At least then, he would have realised that others might be prepared to challenge him. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Instead, the man probably went home feeling invincible. He could do what he liked with the young girl in his charge.  It made me realize how many others must be going through similar scenarios across the country every day.  And it’s up to us to stand up and defend the helpless and confront the perpetrators of such abhorrent behaviour.  What would you have done?