Friday, January 10, 2014

Metro street harassment

I was sitting on the metro this morning, reading my Kindle and minding my own business, when a large, drunk black man got on the train at Silver Spring. He immediately began addressing the entire train, telling us all to have a good day at work, and that if he had a job, he’d have a good day at work, too. He went on to explain that he wanted to go back to work and to school, and he wanted to cut hair. Men’s hair, women’s hair. All hair. I kept a nervous eye on him over my kindle, but like everyone else, pretty much ignored him.

Then he approached two young, probably early-college-age girls sitting across from me.

He started telling them how beautiful they were, asking if they were single, going into detail about how fresh-faced and wonderful they looked this morning. They were clearly uncomfortable, shrinking back in their seats and casting nervous glances at their two friends across the aisle.

I stared hard at him, my heart pounding in my throat, willing him to leave them alone, willing someone to say something, willing myself to say something. I made eye contact with the girls, trying to let them know they weren’t totally alone. But I was scared. What if I said something, and he attacked me? Or pulled out a knife? Or a gun? You just never know.

He took a step back from them, kissing a silver medallion around his neck and professing his love for Jesus. “No homo, man, just me and Jesus. No homo.” Then he started thrusting his hips at the girls.

I glanced around the train, but no one else would look at me, much less him. It was surreal, and we were all complicit as we sat there in silence and allowed this man to harass these two girls. It was over in just a few minutes, really, when he walked to the other end of the train, but it left me with a hollow feeling in my stomach and a horrible sense of regret. I should have done something.

Those two girls will internalize that incident, that sense of fear and shame at being a victim of street harassment in a crowded place where no one else was willing to step up. They will know, intrinsically, that being a woman means being a target. That they are never safe, and that they can’t count on the kindness or decency of strangers. They will be more cautious, more subdued in the future, because they will know that it was somehow their fault for drawing his attention. Even though they were the victims.

The guilt and impotent rage at not doing anything followed me off the train and into my office. So I posted on reddit about the experience, in the form of an open letter to the girls, apologizing for my silence in the face of their victimization. I know the likelihood that they’d end up reading it is impossibly low, but my point was more to call attention to how prevalent and insidious street harassment is, and the fact that we have a responsibility to stop it when we can.

I got downvoted to hell. Not that that’s surprising, really, in a predominantly male forum.

No offense, but if you aren't willing to say something, don't throw a pity party on reddit”

“dont post these things. keep it to yourself.”

The same message that women hear all the time. Keep it to yourself. Deal with it. Let him harass/assault you. It's your fault anyway, because you're a woman. This is normal. This is to be expected.

But it shouldn’t be. We all have a responsibility to do something when we see street harassment taking place – even if it’s something passive, like helping the girls change cars/trains. I wish I’d thought of that in the moment.

I don’t know if I did the right thing or the wrong thing by staying silent. Maybe I could have shut the guy up. Maybe it would have just escalated the situation into something dangerous. But I wish I’d done something more. So this is my something more. So long as it’s physically safe, I won’t be silent anymore. I will say something. Because those girls – and all girls/women – deserve better. 


  1. Living in a big city it's tough when you see something like that because usually the person isn't all there and you don't know if they could turn on you and do something to you. The best thing to do is to try to find someone who works for the transit system and alert them but usually by that that the person has moved on. Don't beat yourself up too much!