downtownexpress.com
Volume 20 Issue 11 | July 27 - Aug. 3, 2007

Subway harassment takes a toll

By Audrey Tempelsman

This week, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer’s Office will release results from its survey of sexual harassment and assault on the New York City subway. More than 2,000 individuals participated in the survey since it first appeared online on June 22.

“We really wanted to get a better understanding of the extent of sexual harassment and assault crimes in the subway system, and to understand the factors linked to these crimes,” Stringer said of the impetus for the survey.

Stringer explained that his office was taking the initiative to compile data on sexual harassment and assault, since the New York Police Department refuses to share theirs with the public.

“We hope to figure out what we know anecdotally: That sexual harassment and assault is playing out in the subway every single day,” he said.

The survey defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual acts, including attempted rape, forced oral/anal intercourse, rape and aggravated touching” and harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including flashing, groping, fondling and public masturbation.” 

The survey began with questions regarding participants’ age, gender and area of residence, as well as typical time of travel and transit line most frequently used.

An inquiry into the participants’ personal experiences of sexual harassment or assault followed: 

Those surveyed were asked if they had frequently felt threatened by these criminal acts; personally experienced them; or witnessed them perpetrated against others. The B.P.’s office also sought information regarding the time of the incident, what transit line it occurred on and whether it was reported to the Police Department or Metropolitan Transit Authority.

“Everyone I talk to has a story,” said Nysa Pranger of the Straphangers’ Campaign, a transit riders’ organization that helped design and promote the survey. 

Pranger herself is no exception. She recalled the time a man “indecently exposed” himself to her on the subway. Frightened, she got out of her seat and switched cars at the next stop. 

She acknowledged that her decision not to report the incident is typical of subway harassment victims.

“I don’t think there’s a sense of anything coming out of it,” she said. “You can call the police, but there’s not necessarily an easy way to report things like that.”

“I was just so happy and relieved to get away from that situation,” she continued. 

It seems the Transit Bureau police rarely specifically target sexual harassment and assault. Pranger said she knew of one instance: Operation Exposure, in 2006, which resulted in the arrests of 13 men accused of groping passengers or indecently displaying themselves.

The New York Times also reported that police stings aimed at inflating productivity statistics resulted in the false arrest of dozens of black and Hispanic males for “lewd acts” in 1983 and 1984. 

Recent reports released by the Police Department indicate that subway crime is at a record low.

“You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to be the victim of a felony crime in the subway,” insisted Jeremy Soffin, an M.T.A. representative.

William Henderson of the New York City Transit Riders Council believes that the lowered felony rate has reduced less serious offenses, as well.

“The N.Y.P.D has done a good job with major, violent crime and I think that also impacts crimes that aren’t at the level of a felony,” he said. 

But Oraia Reid, co-founder and executive director of RightRides for Women’s Safety Inc., a contributor to the survey, insists that the average subway rider frequently feels — and often is — unsafe.

“The money being spent on subway safety is really going to anti-terrorism efforts,” said Reid, referring to the $212 million dollars allotted for subway surveillance cameras in 2005.

“But the truth of the matter is that most people — and especially most women — are terrorized on the subway on a daily basis by harassment on upwards to physical assault,” she said.

Reid’s organization, RightRides, offers car rides to women, homosexuals, and transgender individuals traveling to or from Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan on Saturday nights. This way, she explained, at-risk individuals can avoid the subway at its most empty and understaffed. 

Like Pranger, Reid has experienced her fair share of harassment.

“I’ve been groped. I’ve been solicited. I’ve been followed. I’ve been verbally harassed. I certainly have felt unsafe,” she said. Such incidents, she said, occur “several times a year” at varying times of day. 

But one in particular stands out: Shortly after moving to the city, Reid stepped off the train at the Canal St. J/M/Z stop and began walking along the crowded platform. Suddenly, a man heading in the opposite direction slammed into her, knocking her off balance. As she staggered from the impact, he grabbed her crotch, then quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Upset, Reid decided to report the incident. But when she explained what had happened to a police officer on duty, she said he brushed her off: “He basically told me, ‘What do you want me to do? It’s a crowded station. He’s long gone.’ ”

“I was trying to do the right thing and speak up about being physically violated,” said Reid. “But there was really no system in place [to do so]. I was just made to feel stupid because I tried to report the incident.”

The survey, she hopes, will result in a response system for victims of these crimes.

“People should be empowered to stand up against harassment and assault,” she said. “This is something that can and should be stopped.” 

Stringer’s office plans to announce the survey’s preliminary results on Thurs., July 26. According to Stringer, this is the first step of an exciting process.

“Any time you do a survey, you want to analyze, but you also want to make good recommendations,” he said. “At the conclusion of this project, we’re going to be able to lay out a realistic agenda to combat this problem.”





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