Just Embarrass Him to Death
Victimized by wandering hands on public transit? Snap the creep's picture and post it online, protest group suggests
“God bless you, shorty.”
“You sure lookin’ fine today.”
“Where you going, baby?”
Ah, the daily chorus of catcalls that follows women on New York City public transit, from bus to sidewalk to subway — sometimes accompanied by pressing, grabbing, panting and furtive stroking.
But the old idea that a girl should just grit her teeth and bear it is giving way to a movement encouraging women to speak up and fight back.
Women are forming online communities, like Holla Back NYC, where they share harassment stories and encourage victims to use their camera phones to snap the alleged harassers’ photos, or shoot video, and post them online.
One woman waited until her harasser, who was intently gazing at her breasts, fell asleep before taking a close-up of his face and posting it.
Other groups, such as the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, are campaigning to advance the idea that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
Most women never report such incidents to authorities. Though 63% of respondents to an online questionnaire commissioned by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said they’d been sexually harassed on public transport, 96 percent said they’d never told police. The July 2007 report, which drew nearly 1,800 responses, was a reminder not only of how prevalent sexual harassment is, but also of how accepted it is. Without a concerted effort to understand these issues, “sexual harassment and assault will continue to be ‘hidden’ and overlooked by authorities and the riding public,” the report concluded.
People are just starting to take this issue seriously, said Mandy Van Deven, associate director for Girls for Gender Equity.
“If you look at the issue of sexual harassment in the work place, it wasn’t even an issue until 40 years ago,” Van Deven said. “Groups are just now starting to name the problem and define the issue.”
And the old stereotypes — that women may be inviting or exacerbating attacks by their dress or reactions — still prevail, she argued.
“The question isn’t what women should do. We’re not blaming women here. It’s what men should do,” she said.
But even Jamie Mapa, a victim of subway abuse, couldn’t help but ask herself what she had done to provoke her harasser.
Mapa, a New York University graduate, was riding on the F train on a Sunday afternoon, listening to her iPod and reading a book, when she looked up and realized she was alone in the car. A man entered and sat opposite her, and she grew nervous. When the train doors closed, the man leapt across the aisle and began stroking Mapa’s flip-flop clad foot.
She politely asked him to stop.
“My bad,” he mumbled, climbing back into his seat.
“At this point, I’m really scared and a thousand things are going through my head,” Mapa said. “Do I have any mace? Do I have any money? Why is he bothering me, when I’m clearly not wearing anything revealing?”
The man started caressing her foot again. Mapa tried to escape into the next car. But the door wouldn’t open.
Then her abuser stood and asked menacingly: “Where you do you think you’re going little girl?”
She fled when the train reached the next station, but couldn’t find any authorities to tell, she said.
Men also have their subway pervert stories. Riding the 7 train to Queens at 3 a.m., Ariel Fernandez, a senior at Baruch College, was dozing off when a man entered the car and squeezed himself between Fernandez and the wall.
“I was half asleep and woke up in shock, thinking someone was shoving me,” said Fernandez. “I looked at the guy to my right and all the empty seats to my left and got really upset. I stared at him and asked, ‘Did you really have to take that seat?’ He just smiled at me in this really creepy way.”
Other cities aggressively separate women and men. In Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Cairo, for example, men and women travel on segregated train cars, meant to protect women from male mischief.
Mapa likes that idea. “I’m sure a woman could still hurt you, but I would — by nature and instinct — feel much safer riding in a car with a woman than with a man.”
But not everyone does.
“Segregated train cars are not helpful to anyone,” said Van Deven. “It’s like saying, ‘get all these women away from men, and then it won’t happen anymore.’ But you can’t live all your life in the subway car.”
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which governs public transport, says that nothing like that is under consideration in New York, anyway.
“But we are exploring the wider use of digital cameras and wiring stations for cell phone usage,” said MTA spokeswoman Deirdre Parker. “For the present, we suggest that customers traveling late at night ride in the conductor’s cars.”
Stringer’s report recommends a more visible police presence on subways.
Or maybe more subway riders will just start keeping their camera phones handy.