A Man Tried To Assault Me Last Night, But Strangers Intervened And Restored My Faith In Humanity


I love living in New York. For someone who tends towards high strung, neurotic, and put off by crowds, I get a surprising sense of safety from the large numbers of people. I feel like if something were to happen, at least someone would be there to step in. They have to. How could they not?

I usually think stories about street harassment are trite and futile, but that’s largely because I’ve internalized the notion that it’s a part of life, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Everything that can be eloquently said about street harassment has been said, better than I can. So I’ll just tell you about what happened to me last night.

I was coming home from a night with my friends at Lincoln Center. We splurged on nosebleed seats to an opera, and I did my hair and wore one of my favorite dresses to work. I left my friends at Columbus Circle and got on my train to head back to Brooklyn. At 10:00 at night, the train was relatively full–I easily got a seat but there were definitely people in the car. It would never occur to me that it’s unsafe for me to be on that train alone because I wasn’t alone.

After a few stops, an older man about fifteen feet away from me yelled, “Hey, you!” I looked up because any noise startles me. We made eye contact. At first, I figured he wasn’t talking to me, so I looked down. “Yeah, you! With the scarfy thing!” I rolled my eyes and grumbled to myself. Don’t start this, I thought. I put my headphones in and read the program from the show.

“You’re so pretty! You’re everything I like!” I tuned it out like I do every day, because walking down the street in a woman’s body means a man will talk to you. At you.

Women are told to just “take the compliment.” But street harassment isn’t complimentary. It’s not a compliment when a guy comments on your appearance or yells “I wanna eat your pussy,” as happened a few weeks ago. The implied second part to that is not “See? I’m a reciprocal lover,” it’s “and I could if I wanted to.”

The man on the train started talking to the people around him. “Do you see that girl over there? She’s exactly what I like. I love her dress.” He was pointing and talking loudly enough that I could hear him through my headphones. I wished I were wearing sweatpants. I wished I hadn’t put makeup on. Suddenly, I felt so ugly. Everyone on the train knew who he was talking about–I was the only girl in that area of the train. I felt humiliated. This man was thinking about doing things to me and everyone heard.

“Hey sexy! Come over here! Come sit on my lap!” He made boob-grabbing gestures. I turned and glared, then put my music on louder, hoping that would end it.

A fair question: Why didn’t you just get off the train? First of all, I didn’t feel that I was in any danger. He was a fifteen feet away from me, and didn’t look like he intended to threaten my physically. I also worried that he’d maybe follow me, and I at least felt safe in the subway car full of people, instead of a potentially empty subway station. And for me, the last answer is the most important. I didn’t get off the train because it was my goddamn train home. If women got off the train every time a man said something lewd to them, we’d never get home.

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    • Katie

      goodness gracious! this has never happened to me but I felt so many emotions for you while reading this. thank goodness you are safe and thank goodness people stepped up to protect you. its so terrible that one mans disgusting words and attitude towards women can turn such a fun special night into something so awful.

    • Emily

      I’m so glad this story had a “good” ending for you – it’s always refreshing to hear about good Samaritans.

    • Rachel

      Back in the day, when I lived outside of DC, I found it incredibly cathartic to scream obscenities at cat-callers. Does anyone else do this? I actually kind of forgot about it until I read this.

      Anyway, I am so happy that this had a “good” ending. Maybe the world is slowly changing…

      • Christina

        My standard reply is flipping them off and telling them to go home and fuck their mom, and to leave me alone. But maybe that’s just me.

      • Brooke

        The best way I’ve learned to deal with guys who do this is to just say, “Really? has that ever worked?” And they always stop and say, “What?”, all bewildered. and you just respond, “Has that ever worked? Have you ever said something like that to a woman and had her say, ‘hell YES!!!! I’m so glad you think I’m hot! Let’s go home and f*&$ RIGHT NOW!!!!’ Has that ever worked for you? I mean, seriously.” Shuts them right down, usually.

      • Julia Sonenshein

        When I feel bold, I flip them off or shout FUCK YOU. It’s the best.

    • Roxanne Marie Zoltan

      I thank you so much for sharing this, and I’m so sorry you had to go through that because it is so jarring and scary. It makes me feel a bit better about humanity that the other passengers on the train saw how fucked up this behavior is and I wish people realized that more often almost as much as I wish nobody ever felt entitled to harrass or violate another person. I was flashed in the subway once and it was just me and this guy in the stairwell. I fended off a panic attack enough to get to where I was going to meet my friends, who just laughed when I told them what happened.

      • Julia Sonenshein

        I’m so appalled that you weren’t able to get the support you deserved when that happened to you. You’re right–it’s amazing that people helped but I wish there had been nothing to help.

    • anna

      I’ve had enough close calls and amazing people stepping in I always try to give back to world. If I see a girl getting harassed I generally go up with the “There you are! You REALLY need to see this! Come this way.” line. The guys normally get flustered or if they pursue it I say firmly that we have to go now. The girls either get an easy escape or they smile and say they can handle it , but I always feel better knowing I didn’t just stand there gawking.

      • Julia Sonenshein

        I love your intervening move!

      • anna

        I’m not sure how it would work on a subway, but generally the guys drop it the second I even approach them, or when I start talking. I rarely get the whole sentence out, it’s odd and then slightly awkward but the girls generally thank me.
        But I’m so sorry that happened! I’m so glad you had awesome subway riders with you, though

    • MammaSweetpea

      Oh you poor lamb! I’ve got tears in my eyes…I have, and I’m sure most of us reading this, have been on the receiving end of the advances of some colossal adenine. Good glad that people do still care about each other.

      • Julia Sonenshein


    • Samantha_Escobar

      “Suddenly, I felt so ugly. Everyone on the train knew who he was talking about–I was the only girl in that area of the train. I felt humiliated. This man was thinking about doing things to me and everyone heard.”
      I think that’s one of the most horrifying things about street harassment; we often feel ashamed or embarrassed, rather than the (alleged) humans who deserve it. It’s fucked up and it’s not fucking fair.

      This story made me cry (no, really, I’m rereading it and sitting in the office at almost 7PM and wiping tears from my eyes and feeling sick). I am so sorry, J.

    • J

      I’m so happy to hear those people stood up and stopped that man. I unfortunately have not had such awesome commuters on my train when I needed them. I hope people read your story and realize they can make a difference in a person’s life.

    • Benita

      I am so sorry this happened to you. I know that feeling all too well. Do I get off early and possibly have him follow me? Do I get off at my stop and have him possibly follow me and find out where I live? It’s scary and it shouldn’t happen to anyone.

    • Natalie

      I’m sure they people understood you were grateful, but that you had to get out of there.

    • Anna

      Very powerful. As you said in the beginning, street harassment has become accepted. Although I have spoken out against street harassment I don’t think I ever considered how much lasting emotional harm it causes until reading this article and I started crying as I felt myself reliving that fear/shame.

      Thank you for sharing.

      It is sad so many comments are women who share this experience of intense fear/shame in a public space.

    • Ann

      i hate the subway
      i was living in nyc when i was 19, I once was in a very crowded subway and this man offered me a seat in the far end corner so i sat there and said thank you
      he ended up squashing himself next to me on that seat (it was one of those two seaters) and pulled out a portable dvd play and tried playing a disgusting porn video of these girls doing blow jobs and he put his hands in his pants and started jacking off and i couldnt get up and move because it was so crowded and i was scared to get angry at him. so i just turned my face but he was smirking
      when i got to my stop i just ran off and i cried a lot and went home early for my college winter break. i moved out of the city about 6 months later a large reason is because of harassment i became an angry guarded person and thats not me at all and i dont like being that way.

    • Violet

      This made me cry a little.

    • anna

      “I tuned it out like I do every day, because walking down the street in a woman’s body means a man will talk to you. At you.”
      Wow, spot on

    • C

      Julia, Thank you for this. As a young female who’s work requires a lot of independent travel, I can see exactly where you were coming from and why you were thinking what you were. I’ve spent solo time on buses in some rough cities worldwide and always keep a firm grasp on my surroundings, but these things can happen anywhere. The one time I was followed off a public bus (after lewd behavior directed towards me along the route where I was one of just a few passengers), it was in broad daylight, smack in the middle of tourist central in Honolulu, one of the places I thought I’d be most safe. I had been afraid to cause a scene on the bus. At the time, I didn’t know what to do other than turn and glare him in the eye, cross the street and silently stand with the strangers at the opposite stop.I thought if I said anything aloud to the folks at the bus stop, that they may think I was overreacting. Thankfully, he get got back on the next bus, and I feel lucky that things didn’t escalate further. I realize all too well that my silence made it much easier for an unfortunate outcome. It’s easy to analyze these situations in retrospect, but always so much harder to act in the moment. I’m happy there were people ready to take action on your subway. Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • C


    • PernRider

      I’ve never lived in the City, but I live Upstate, and we get it here too. This actually brings back something that happened over a decade ago, when my oldest was an infant. I was taking classes that required business casual dress, and was wearing a pencil skirt and heels. My husband had met me after my class with our daughter, but for whatever reason hadn’t brought a stroller, only her diaper bag. This was winter time, and we had to catch the bus home. We were waiting inside a store near the bus stop, along with a number of others, to keep out of the cold. I was holding the baby and my husband the diaper bag, but we were slightly separated in the small crowd. A man approached me and tried to talk to me, I don’t even remember what about. I muttered some nicety or other in response, then “oh, there’s my bus!” Juggling the baby and my own purse, I reached into my coat pocket for my dollar bus fare, and this man said “oh here, let me help you!” Even as I started objecting, he REACHED INTO MY POCKET and pulled out the dollar for me. I was aghast. I hurried out to the bus, baby on hip, and managed to get a seat near the front, but the bus was packed, standing room only, and my husband was forced to stand in the rear, away from the baby and me. I sat down, fully conscious of my skirt, and crossed my legs carefully, just taking to my daughter about the ride. Meanwhile, the man from the store ended up in the back, next to my husband. He somehow failed to connect the baby in my lap with the diaper bag on his shoulder, and began remarking to this stranger about “that chick up there with the legs.” My husband relayed it to me afterward, he was so angry. “See that chick there? Man she’s got some legs! Is she hot or what?!” My husband made some noise of agreement, glaring at him, and he continued, “Damn, I bet she knows that to do with them too! What I wouldn’t give to go home and bury my face between them! Know what I mean??” At that, my husband said “yeah, I do, and I just might myself. But if you say one more $&@#ing word about my wife, I will knock your teeth out. Am I clear?!” Those who heard it were more upset by the threat than by the implications of what this man was saying. This man who had ALREADY felt it was alright to invade my personal space and go into my pockets, ostensibly to “help” me.