On Tuesday, as I was commuting home on a crowded 3 train in Manhattan, I saw a man two or three times my size slumped up against the wall of the subway, his legs strewn across the seats. I was standing by the door, nursing a headache after a long day of work.
Suddenly I noticed the man glaring at me. He began to touch himself over his sweatpants.
I tried to ignore it, telling myself I'd change cars as soon as I got to the next stop. And if it escalated, surely someone would help me and intervene. But after I heard him grunting and chuckling to himself, I reflexively glanced over only to find his pants were partially pulled down. He was vigorously masturbating while staring at me intensely, a grin on his face.
Nobody did a thing — not even me. In the moment, I felt too violated, humiliated and powerless to do anything other than get out of there as soon as humanly possible.
Virtually every woman in New York has a story like this. I shared my experience on Facebook and was deeply saddened — but not surprised — to find how many women commented on my post to share a similar experience.
"It is not right that this kind of thing is not only something women have to learn to 'put up with,'" one of my friends wrote in response, "but that [it] is also so ubiquitously minimized."
She's right: One of the most problematic aspects of sexual harassment is that it's so common, it's regarded as the status quo — and rarely taken seriously. As Laura Bates writes in the Guardian, many people dismiss the problem, calling it "harmless fun" or "a compliment."
These statistics reveal a perverse system in which sexual misconduct is everywhere — but the framework for reporting it and holding perpetrators accountable is broken.
Let's call street harassment what it is: an epidemic. According to a survey of subway riders conducted by the Office of the Manhattan Borough President in 2007, roughly two-thirds of respondents, mostly women, experienced sexual harassment on the subway; 69% reported feeling sexually threatened. The most startling statistic: Ninety-six percent of those who were sexually harassed did not report it to the Metro Transit Authority or the New York Police Department. Neither did 86% of those who were sexually assaulted. The numbers are almost as high for witnesses of sexual harassment and assault.
These statistics reveal a perverse system in which sexual misconduct is everywhere — but the framework for reporting it and holding perpetrators accountable is broken. A major reason for this: New York City's trains, cars, buses and subways are, technologically speaking, behind the times. Here are seven simple measures the city could take to make its public transportation safer for women.
1. Provide universal Wi-Fi and cell service underground
Being able to contact the outside world while stranded in a subway car with an aggressive or otherwise threatening person could stop an assault before it begins. Victims should be able to immediately call the police, for example, or send a photo of the offender. Our temporary inability to reach out for help enables abuse.
2. Develop an app directly linked to the police and/or transit authority
We need an easy tool that lets us instantly send photos and videos of offenders to the transit authority or local police department. With a centralized system, authorities would have an easier time tracking perpetrators and distributing images, as they do with surveillance footage of other criminals.
3. Have a dedicated phone number for victims of sexual harassment or abuse
To show the city the extent of the problem we face, and to help make the subway safer for the next woman in my position, it's important that we report street harassment. But our current system for reporting abuse feels indifferent, passive and ineffectual.
When I attempted to report my harassment via the MTA website, I was asked to fill out an online form, which was then forwarded to law enforcement, who can decide whether or not to contact me back. My other option, once I exited the subway and the harassment was no longer ongoing, was to call a non-emergency police number or the general MTA customer service number (but only in order to make an anonymous report).
The solution: Public transport systems in major cities should have phone numbers and hotlines dedicated to reporting sexual harassment.
4. Install an alarm system to alert all conductors onboard
Some NYC subway platforms have intercom systems to let passengers speak with MTA staff. But every subway car should be fitted with alarms — a button or a lever that can be accessed covertly — which alerts conductors to a problem on a specific car. Transit authorities should be tasked with removing the offender from the train and, depending on the gravity of the crime, ensuring apprehension. They could either do so personally, contact a station manager or request the assistance of any police officers nearby.
If harassment alerts increase, responding to each one might cause train delays — but maybe the city would invest more resources into cracking down on sexual assaults. Quantifying social injustice into economic inconvenience has a way of expediting issues.
5. On subway platforms, install phones that connect directly to the police
Many cities have emergency intercoms on platforms, the subterranean equivalent of calling 911. But each station could be equipped with a phone that connects to a local precinct, possibly on a non-emergency line. If someone is sexually harassed on a train, they could get off at the next stop and file a report noting the time, the train line, the section of the train and a description of the individual. Officers could apprehend the perpetrator at a future station.
6. Place cameras in subway cars
This addition is obvious. It would expedite the process of identifying those who sexually violate others. Even if a city lacks the resources to equip all its subway carriages with CCTV, having signs that warn passengers they are being filmed would likely prevent harassing behavior. The threat of stripping individuals of their anonymity could dissuade people from misconduct.
7. Ensure that public transport employees have been properly trained and are authorized to intervene
This last one isn't technological; it's just common sense. Public transit authorities should be trained in how to handle sexual misconduct, and they should be required to intervene in sexual assault.
After a woman was repeatedly raped in front of transit workers who refused to intervene, a judge ruled in 2009 that those "who saw her being attacked had no obligation to do anything to help her other than to signal their superiors that police were needed at the station," according to Today News.
Something is wrong with a system that allows officials to refrain from assisting when someone is being sexually assaulted — but that's just the beginning of the problem. There is no excuse for letting New York's subways remain as unsafe as they are today.