The Sexist

March Is Public Transit Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Picture 7

Local anti-sexual harassment resource Holla Back D.C. has declared March "Public Transit Awareness Month" in order to "focus on public sexual harassment on our public transportation in the DC metro area." I'm inclined to support this occasion for the following reasons:

(a) About half of the groping stories I've heard (and I have heard a lot of groping stories) took place within D.C.'s public transportation system.

(b) The vast majority of the victims in these cases did not report their assaults to the police.

(c) Since many commuters rely on Metro to get to work, it's really fucking hard to avoid this particular venue for public sexual assault. (Metro logs over 700,000 trips in its system every weekday).

(d) Metro police take public transit-based sexual assaults seriously—when the assaults are reported to them. Since only a small number of Metro-based sex offenses actually reach Metro officials each year (2009's count was 43 sexual assaults), police don't see Metro-based assaults as a serious problem on the whole.

It is so ordered.

Throughout the month of February, Holla Back DC is inviting comments for ways D.C. can tackle the problem of sexual assault and harassment on public transportation. I like the suggestion of one commenter: Why not stage a public awareness campaign directly inside the venue of many assaults—on Metro trains?

Last fall, New York City waged a similar campaign against subway sexual harassment. According to an MTA presser, the campaign included a series of subway banners (a colleague sent me a photo of one, above) as well as heavy distribution of bilingual brochures encouraging victims of subway sexual violence to report the crimes to the NYPD Sex Crimes Report Hotline. The full banner text reads:

Sexual Harassment is a Crime in the subway, too. A crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch. Don't stand for it or feel ashamed, or be afraid to speak up. Report it to an MTA employee or police officer.

I think that a campaign like this is a really good start, because it addresses a few the reasons why some victims of public sexual assault don't speak up: they're taken completely off-guard by this sexual assault on their regular morning commute; they feel like no one would understand their reaction to such a thing; they doubt the authorities would care if they did report it. So, when are we going to see similar ads on Metro?

Photo by Andrew Beaujon

  • michelle

    I live in NYC, and there are also overhead announcements regularly that say that unwanted physical contact is a crime. It's really awesome. I wonder if the campaign works well enough to ward off potential gropers, or if it makes those on the receiving end more likely to fight back/report it.

  • Dan

    You put it out there, people are going to read it. People read it, and they'll then be watching other people who do do it. Potential gropers meet potential witnesses.

    Personally, I think it's a great start.

  • hollykearl

    Boston and Chicago also have anti-harassment ads on their subway and buses. It is time for DC to have them.

    For background on how these came about, it was due to the work of local activists and the surveys they conducted of subway riders in NYC and Chicago. Boston paid attention to NYC's results and put up subway ads before NYC even did. NYC was hesitant about the whole thing, in fact they canceled the ads for a month even after the ads had been printed b/c they thought the ad would encourage groping (!) and activists had to rally together to pressure them to still post.

    So I think the best strategy for DC is for a group to conduct a survey of metro riders because the HollaBack DC! site only has anecdotal evidence, and then take those survey results to WMATA and demand ads and other action to curb harassment. For example, in Boston they have undercover cops who do "grope patrol" and look out for gropers.

  • Holla Back DC!

    Thanks, Amanda for supporting this cause! We are excited about this launch and would love to hear from your readers on how to address sexual harassment and assault on the Metro trains and buses.

    Like Holly stated, it is important to have some sort of "scientific" survey around this issue. With the help of politicians and media, NYC and Boston got to where they are with the anti-harassment campaigns. We hope to do just that with the help of coalition partners and government agencies. However, it is also about getting support from within the Metro administration to understand that this IS a problem. With the John Catoe online chats, we have posed questions around this issue, to be told to make a complaint to the police and/or online. That's NOT enough.

    So, let's build ground level support for this campaign and knock on the doors of the Metro PR/Communications agency that this MUST be addressed!