When my friend Adrienne entered the subway after work recently, she had already surrendered all expectations of personal space, as does every other rider during New York City’s rush hour.
Soon though, a male passenger—who looked “like a typical wealthy NYC man, not some weirdo”—had done enough to propel her to move.
“He kept swaying into me, uneven with the course of the subway," she said. "Something just didn't feel right and he kept bumping into me in areas he should’t have been.”
She then watched him get off and surreptitiously, yet purposefully, graze the back side of another female passenger with his hand.
“About five other women and I looked at each other and [began] talking about how he had been bumping into all of us," she said. "It felt so degrading.”
Last month, the prevalence of cases like this prompted New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to propose new legislation that would upgrade the punishment for initiating unwanted sexual contact to a class B felony with jail time. While specifically intended to address incidents of “subway grinding,” the law applies to any form of unwanted sexual contact in public places.
Some have criticized the proposed law for not addressing the root causes of sexual harassment on public transit, such as too few staff members to serve as watchdogs. Furthermore, a 2007 Manhattan-based study found that only 4 percent of sexual harassment incidents on the subway are reported, putting the efficacy of using harsher punishment as a deterrent into question. Meanwhile, some cities in South Korea, Japan, and Egypt have taken the more decisive step of offering female-only subway cars.
Feminist activist and author Jaclyn Friedman believes that a culture of impunity has allowed this problem to become so rampant. She says we must address the cultural problems underneath the issue simultaneously.
“Women’s bodies in public are treated as public property” Friedman said. “I’m not sure the prison system is going to cure this social problem, but if you grope someone on the subway you should be shunned. We have to create consequences somehow, and this is the way the government tends to think about creating consequences.”
While the ‘subway grinding’ law attempts to address the most visible and egregious forms of urban sexual harassment, the subtle yet relentless culture of harassment I face and nearly every other urban female I know would be nearly impossible to litigate.
To be sure, a huge portion of the male population does not initiate these demeaning exchanges (for proof of that, check out this heartening male tirade against men who do). But many of the urban females I know—who often rely on walking and public transportation exclusively—endure the extended up-and-down stare, the archaic wolf whistle, the ‘you alright, sweetheart?,’ so incessantly it can feel like we’re on guard from the very moment we open the front door.
“The harassment and discomfort I feel when being out in public has become such a norm, I'm a bit desensitized to it,” said another friend, who’s lived in cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Istanbul. “Harassment happens so often we tend to roll our eyes, pick up our pace, and throw out tried-and-true methods for exiting the situation. But I wonder if we're too flippant about it, if we've become so used to unwanted advances that if a serious situation were to arise, we may not really know how to assess it.”
It’s a paradoxical feeling for many females I know. Our privileged place as educated women living in the Western world means—in the most broad sense—we feel few restrictions on the jobs we can hold, career paths we can pursue, and the personal or financial choices we can make. But, as soon as we leave the office, the underground station, or the after-work cocktail hour, and hit the streets of our cities, we can literally feel put into place by any number of variations of sexual objectification.
To many, this feeling of constantly being on guard—whether you’re dressed up and heading to a bar or walking in sweatpants to the corner shop—seems hyper-sensitive, an over-reaction even. Women who voice their grievances about routine objectification and the discomfort they feel throughout their daily routine often get the “relax babe, it’s a compliment” dismissal.
Friedman says that this justification, put forth by both men and some women, is a symptom of the troublesome status quo.
“Women are taught that the fact that any man pays attention to them is an indication of having value—that’s part of why they don’t speak up,” Friedman says. “[All men] who do this know it’s wrong on some level. It’s about feeling dominant in that moment and is often performative for other guys.”
The recent phenomenon of Reddit’s repulsive ‘creepshot’ forum—which encourages Redditors to “use stealth, cunning and deviousness to capture the beauty of your unsuspecting, chosen target”—is a disturbing reminder of just how flagrant the objectification of women has become in our culture.
While taking a iPhone shot up a woman’s skirt on the subway may seem more egregious than a group of men commenting on a woman’s body as she crosses the street, they ultimately stem from the same idea: women are here for the visual entertainment of men, and that it’s every man’s right to look—at the very least—regardless of how that makes a woman feel.
Campaigns to literally take back the streets, such as Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment, are encouraging men and women to speak out against this behavior and turn the emphasis on the attacker using social media. In addition, several apps are available to map and categorize sexual harassment to serve as a visual representation of its prevalence.
The key, Friedman says, is making this behavior socially unacceptable and completely discrediting the all-to-common retort that 'guys can’t help it—it’s just biology.'
“Boys continue to be boys because no one expects them to be men," says Friedman. "No one expects them to behave better. Men are perfectly capable of controlling their biological impulses just like everyone else. On a practical level, guys who are not participating in these behaviors—and that’s most guys—should say to others: ‘You’re making women afraid of men. Stop it."