According to a New York Times article from Thursday, complaints of sexual abuse in the New York City subway are up by four percent this year. The NYPD police chief, James Hall, told the City Council that sexual harassment is “No. 1 quality of life offense on the subway.” He added that this number is probably low – for a variety of reasons, people are unlikely to report sexual abuse or harassment in the subway. But New York citizens are slowly beginning to demand more accountability for the high incidence of ogling, groping, flashing, harassing and even attacking on the subway.
Darlene Mealy, a Democrat from Brooklyn and the chair of the Women’s Issues Committee, said that sexual harassment and assaults were very serious, and that society should “not take them as social behaviors that have to be condoned.” But that seems, overwhelmingly, to be the case – and officials are struggling with a solution to this widespread problem. Advocates of more serious action have started an organization to fight subway sexual harassment, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, and they support a bill that would that would require the police to collect data on sexual harassment in the subways.
“This is important because historically, harassment is overlooked by law enforcement authorities,” said Oraia Reid, a founding member of New Yorkers for Safe Transit. She also spoke to how difficult it can be to get law enforcement to take harassment more seriously – and to encourage people to speak out and report incidents of abuse. “It’s actually been very disempowering to report sexual harassment and assault,” she said. The fact that it might be hard for people to report abuse on the subway – or that they might not be taken seriously – doesn’t seem to be considered (hence the offhand explanation of the underreporting of sex offenses on Gawker, which suggested that New Yorkers don’t report abuse because they’re too busy.).
The average age of the man who commits sex offenses on the subway is 39, and the vast majority of victims are women over the age of 17. The New York Transit Authority started a public awareness campaign last year against subway sexual harassment, including ads, printed brochures and on-board announcements. But many people question their effectiveness, and say that more concrete action needs to be taken.
I wasn’t surprised to read this article; I wish I had been. But the truth is, the numbers of sexual offenses on the subway aren’t going to go down until we as a society start taking sexual assault more seriously. I was horrified, this week, to see the comments on Chloe Angyal’s Splice Today post, “Schrodinger’s Rapist,” which accused her of mental illness and needing to grow up. Chloe wrote about the daily discomfort and fear that she experiences on the subway and the streets of New York, something that I think many women can identify with. The attitudes of the commenters showed that, as a society, we are far from taking the issue of sexual assault seriously. The subway offenses are symptomatic of a widespread problem, which that women especially (although men suffer from this as well) are concerned about their personal safety on a daily basis. And the numbers prove it.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.