Subway Harassment: When It Happens to You

This morning, like most mornings, I took the M subway train from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to the office.

At my subway stop, a man came and sat down next to me on the bench. I thought nothing of it, since the benches often fill up with people waiting for the train. However, the man started tapping his foot uncontrollably. I was about to ask him to chill out when I got a look at him: he was glassy-eyed and twitching all over. This wasn’t just some annoying dude, I thought to myself, this guy is a junkie or in withdrawal or something, and I’d rather just go stand on the other end of the platform than engage with him. As I stood, he rubbed his leg against mine in a slow, deliberate way. When the train came, I grabbed an available seat. The man sat down on the floor of the subway, directly across from me. (Side note: if you’ve never taken the New York City subway before, let me just say that the floors are gross. If I dropped food on it, I wouldn’t even attempt the five second rule. I’d give that shit up as lost.)  As the train went over the Williamsburg Bridge, the man stared at me, spread his legs, and began swirling them around in a slow, deliberate fashion while pointing exaggeratedly at his crotch. Pinned in by people on all sides, I couldn’t move. As much as I tried to concentrate on my book, I could feel his eyes on me like a sunburn. Finally, at the next stop, I was able to take advantage of the people spilling off the train and move down to the other end of the car. Undaunted, the man followed me, and continued his actions, again on the floor of the train.

I looked around, hoping to make eye contact with a sympathetic fellow passenger. People seemed oblivious to what was happening, or perhaps grateful that his target wasn’t them. They buried their eyes behind newspapers and sunglasses. Finally, my station came up and I dashed off the train. The man didn’t follow me – or, if he did, he got swallowed into the throng. I went up to the woman at the station office and told her I wanted to make a complaint. Though she chided me a bit for not speaking to the train conductor (I would have, but his car was far from mine and all I could think about was getting the hell off the subway) or writing down the number of the train, she had me write down my name and contact information on a sheet of paper. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from an NYPD officer who had me recount my story and give him a physical description of the man.

While I’m glad that I said something, I also felt guilty. If I’d spoken to the train conductor, he might have been able to call the cops and have them pick the guy up. Now that I don’t know where he went or what happened to him, I’m terrified that he might have done the same thing to another woman who wasn’t able to sneak away from him. And because he boarded the train at the same station as me, I’m worried that he might live near me and see me again sometime. I also wish I’d taken a cell phone picture so that I could give it to the cop – or even post it online as a warning.

I’ve lived in New York for over six years now, and this is the only time I’ve ever been harassed on the subway. My mom, who lives in North Carolina and still thinks that New York is like a giant episode of Law & Order, lives in costant worry about me getting mugged or worse. Perhaps it’s luck or perhaps it’s good street sense, but I’ve – knock on wood – been OK so far. This might have to do with New York getting safer in recent years and nothing to do with me at all. Either way, I don’t want this story to be a story about how awful urban living is for women. The fact that both the subway employee and police officer I spoke to were nice and sympathetic indicates otherwise. And as for the fellow train-takers who did nothing when they saw the man’s inappropriate behavior? It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a symptom of the way that large places breed anonymity. As a woman, I’ve definitely seen incidents of potential harassment but been too scared to say anything for fear that I might become a target. I’d venture a guess that some of the other people on the train this morning felt the same way.

What happened this morning made me feel scared and uncomfortable. However, tonight when I get on the very same subway to head home from the office, I’m going to try to focus on the thousands of uneventful rides I’ve had instead of the solitary bad one. Because, otherwise, I’ll never get home.

Share This Post:
    • Hannah Rose Siegel

      Lilit, that story is SO CREEPY! I’m sorry that happened to you.

    • Aj

      As horrifying as that story is, (and I’m so sorry that you had to go through that), I think it’s wonderful and brave of you to go right to work and share your experience with all of us.

    • Marissa

      That is so disturbing! I know public transpo creeps really take advantage of the fact that most people avoid eye contact or noticing anything other than their reading material and their stops, but it’s absolutely ridiculous that no one said anything to this guy or at least gave you some sort of supportive look. It’s not like he was a creepy boner bumper on a crowded cart. He SHOULD have been the center of attention on that car. I’m so sad you feel guilty when everyone else on that car should feel guilty for not helping you.

      I love new york and miss it on a daily basis, but i do NOT miss people insisting they should mind their own business just out of convenience for themselves.

    • MNiM

      I’m so sorry that happened to you! But try not to be mad at yourself — getting away was the important thing, not remembering proper complaint procedure.

    • menis

      Well, seems like I’ve been harassed more often, then, and I’m a guy. But you should sure have called the police.

      p.s.: I’m very slender

      • Jessica Pauline Ogilvie

        Hey, menis, I’m sure you mean well, but “you should have” comments are really not appropriate in this situation. You might be a skinny guy but you clearly, lucky for you, don’t know how this feels, and never know how it can fuck with your head while it’s happening. Lilit, I think you did awesome! You have nothing to feel bad about — the only person who should feel bad in this situation is THE ASSHOLE WHO HARASSED YOU.

    • Pamela

      Similar thing happened to me when I was working in NY and commuting on trains. I got wedged in and some guy started rubbing himself on my hand. That was 1981. To this day I wish I had called him out in front of everyone.

    • Beth

      That really sucks. There are so many creepers in large cities, and they get away with it because people are way less likely to say anything or help others when there are big groups of people around. They all figure someone else will do it, and of course no one does. I personally always try to stand up for people or be the one to say something when I’m in a situation and everyone seems to be looking around, waiting for someone else to speak up, and I really wish more people would do the same. But in your case, he may have been dangerous so it might have been good to keep your mouth shut. Though since you said he was sitting on the ground, that would have made it easy to “accidentally’ kick/step on him ;)

    • Nichelle

      there’s an app for that. iHollaback is a new iPhone/Android app where you can take action and take photos of the harasser. http://www.ihollaback.org/

    • Natinat

      So sorry for what happened to you… It’s great that this bad experience didn’t traumatized you and you’re able to put things into perspective.

      However, reading your article made me even more conscious of how lucky I am to live in what must be the safest, cleanest country on earth: Switzerland.
      I’ve never ever experienced such a thing or anything close in my entire LIFE and neither have my friends. I can go home after a party in the middle of the night, by myself and don’t have to worry.

      And I don’t recommend it, but you could so it on the swiss subways’ floor.

      !Nat!

    • heavy snatch

      Now you know how women with self-respect feel when they get catcalled on the street. How long before Jennifer posts an idiotic article asking “Why is subway harassment that upsetting?”

    • Linda

      ihollaback.org

      Also, you should definitely not have felt guilty or in ANY WAY responsible. That feeling, is brought to you courtesy of society’s crappy victim-blaming fallback technique. How the hell were you supposed to reach the conductor’s car? Not to mention, it’s not your job to constantly have exit and defense strategies on your mind; it’s the job of 1.) new york, 2.) the new york subway system, and 3.) society as a whole, to provide conditions which are not hostile to women. Good for you for refusing to stay quiet- not because it should be your responsibility to police your own safety, but for exhibiting power and doing what made you feel better in the situation.

      I’m sorry that you had to go through this, and I’m sorry that we live in a place with frameworks established which allow this type of thing to happen all the fucking time.

    • Linda

      *that allow