New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down
And the people ride in a hole in the ground
New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town!
So goes the slightly cheesy musical paean to my hometown, and the people do indeed ride in a hole in the ground. At least, I do. And while grimy train cars, delays, and exorbitant Metro Card fees can be maddening, the one thing that can make me hesitant to ride the subway is the knowledge that sexual harassment and sexual assault are all too commonplace on subways. Now, I don’t have a great frame of reference for other cities’ statistics, but in 2007 a survey found that “63 percent of women [in New York City] had been sexually harassed on the subway and 10 percent were sexually assaulted — 86 percent didn’t report the crimes.” This came to mind when I saw the headline on the front page of the free paper Metro this morning: “Cop on perv trouble: We don’t handle that. Victim claims no help at precinct after being harassed on subway.”
The woman in the story was subjected to the sight of a man masturbating on the subway, and decided to snap a cell phone picture so she could turn it into the police. Except she was turned away by an officer who said that it wasn’t a police matter. Right. Not a police matter. It’s a disturbing story, not only because it points to a systematic tendency to disregard sexual harassment, but because these kinds of experiences are so widespread, something I can vouch for personally.
Having lived in Manhattan for almost my whole life, I have a great affinity for the subway and never ever felt unsafe while riding it. Wary and cautious, yes, but not uncomfortable. That changed about two years ago when I was on a packed 6 train and the man behind me grabbed my hip and started grinding against me. I froze. I was shocked by the act and I was shocked that I seemed unable to react. Then earlier this year, I was on the N train sitting near a group of boys, probably around sixteen or seventeen years old. I rolled my eyes and buried my nose in my book when they started talking loudly about the size of their penises, then stood up to get off the train. The kid sitting nearest to me also stood up, stepped forward, and grabbed my breast. Again, I was too stunned to do anything else but exit the train.
I am part of that 86% who never reported these kinds of acts to the police. I was humiliated more than anything else, and reliving it by going to the cops and being asked for the details was simply too frightening for me. As someone who was molested as a child, I’m painfully familiar with the kind of doubts that some people have about any claims of sexual assault, and I felt at the time that it was better to try to forget it happened.
I have a great deal of admiration for the woman who was quick-thinking enough to snap a picture and then went to the cops, and I am really pissed that she was summarily dismissed. “Police are required to take these complaints, and they do,” said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. “Failure to do so was the exception.” At least someone in the bureaucracy recognizes that this kind of behavior by someone who is sworn to protect the community is unacceptable. Yes, there are cops who do give a damn and track down offenders — but this is disturbing nonetheless. It doesn’t offer any reassurance to me that I’ll be taken seriously if I have to deal with that kind of shit again. Still, while I hope I never have to be placed in that situation for a third time, I also hope that I’ll be able to speak up if it happens.