Friday, November 02, 2007

An Incident in the Underground

The following passage was posted in a Myspace bulletin and is an eyewitness account of sexual harassment. It may be triggering, and I found it to make for rather unsettling reading.

How can I explain this story, and why am I starting a topic regarding this? It's just bothering me. Something felt wrong.

After work tonight and meeting my father for dinner, I went to Brooklyn to check out an art gallery a friend was in via the F train. As all was said and done, I had to hop back on the F train and transfer to the J/M/Z to get to Broad St.

This is a very empty and dead stop.

So I sit down and begin reading Kevin's journal, since it is perfect for commuting and a girl around my age (early 20s) sits next to me waiting for the train.

Nothing unusual there.

However a man, late 30s, early 40s appears. And he looks dirty. He gave off this "You don't want to talk to me on the streets, let alone underground" vibe. He wore a busted up cap, and the weirdest accessory of all was a little dog. Something you'd see Hilton or Lohan walk around with. Not to be one to try and fall into stereotypes, even if it means what kind of dog a person like that would normally buy, I shrugged it off.

Until he walks straight to this young woman right next to me and asks "Do you like dogs?"

I'm a bit paranoid in general, and with him going straight up to a girl that has to be about 20 years younger than him and asking if she likes dogs... It felt like he was carrying that thing around as bait. And not like "Girls like dogs and it's a good conversation starter... When you're at Central Park for your morning jog." This was unusual. I immediately could tell she was uncomfortable because she began muttering and mumbling answers to him. "Mmm" was "Yes" after the 4th or 5th time the guy said "What?" to her.

I then get concerned when he began asking her where she lived. How long she has been in New York City, if she lives alone, how much does she pay for rent... What kind of conversation openers are that?!? This guy... Maybe he is just socially inept?

At that point I was noticing I was rereading the same paragraph over and over again, focusing more and more on this guy than our beloved director. I put the book away and tried to give off this "back the fuck off" glare at this guy, which I'm told I can do easily, being the kind of person that can't hide his emotions on his face.

This girl began biting her nails and fidgeting in her seat. I didn't know what to do. I thought in my head to whip out my cell phone and write a text message, but not send it to anyone... Then show it to her saying something like "Oh.. check out this message I just got" Which would read "Is this guy bothering you?"

The everyone's equal side of me fought this urge and I said to myself that this woman can take care of herself. If she was really uncomfortable she would get up and leave to get as far away from this guy as possible. I do not need to intervene.

The realistic side of me said "Doing anything might very likely make her think you're trying to stalk her too. Let them be."

Then when the subway came she gets up and says "Oh. I'm on the wrong side." and walks away from the guy. Immediately in my head I feel relief that she does make a move on her own.

Then the guy FOLLOWS HER. Follows her down the stairs to the other platform. If this guy wasn't going downtown like I was... What was he doing there?

My paranoid imagination kicked in again. I paused before going in the subway knowing it was too late to do anything civil and hoped to god this guy will just be creepy and not make any horrific movie-like moves. I just watched as I went into the subway car. Completely worried about a complete stranger as if she was someone I've known for years.

I feel terrible that I didn't do anything. I called my parents. My mother, a shrink, told me similar things that I was thinking and that ultimately, there was nothing I could do. My father shared other views that was in my head as in, if she was really wanting my help, she would initiate saying something like "Is that a book by Kevin Smith? Have you seen his movies too?" and she would be the one to show the guy to get the hell away.

But I just feel uncomfortable and worried and I wanted to share it to someone.

When I was speaking to the man who posted this to request permission to replicate his story, he mentioned several times how cowardly he feels, how he wishes he'd done something. Yet how many of us can honestly say that, had we been in his shoes, we'd have acted differently? I get the feeling that the women he was sitting next to was going through the same thought processes as he was, and was maybe worried that dragging him into the situation would make it worse.

What I'm wondering is this: where were the security guards? Do they have CCTV in the New York subway system? At near-deserted stops like this, anything can happen. In the Glasgow underground system there are cameras and staff are usually nearby. Why was this woman left to, essentially, fend for herself? I wouldn't want to be left hoping that a random stranger would a) have the capacity and b) not be nearly as scared as I am to help me out. It's not as if sexual harassment is unheard of on the NYC subway system, as this report documents.
(A taster of the report: On the threat of sexual harassment and assault,

· 63 percent of respondents reported having been sexually harassed in the
New York City subway system.
· 10 percent of respondents reported having been sexually assaulted in the
New York City subway system.
· 69 percent of respondents reported having felt the threat of sexual assault
or harassment in the New York City subway system.
· Of those respondents, 51 percent of respondents reported “sometimes” or
“frequently” feeling the threat of sexual harassment or assault in the New
York City subway system.
That's staggering.)

Going back to the man whose account is above, his thought processes also seem familiar. 'Maybe he'll leave her alone when the train comes.' 'She'll ask if she wants help.' 'I can't do anything.' 'What if I make things worse?' And then, hindsight - 'I should have done something.'
We should all do something. We need to combat attitudes towards women. We need to do more to educate everyone on what counts as harassment (anything unsolicited and unwelcome, essentially). It struck me, as I was reading this, that maybe the stranger with the dog thought that his actions were acceptable. Perhaps this could be that his threatening demeanor has, as in this instance, held back others from telling him otherwise.

A final thought from the onlooker - he feels that, if anything, he has learned from this experience and, should there be a next time, will do something - anything - to let the harasser know that what he is doing won't be tolerated.

I hope that woman is okay.


  1. Reading the account, I was so sympathetic to the woman being harrassed and I can imagine exactly how she felt and what her thought processes would have been. I, and I'm sure many other women, have been in very similar situations too many times.

    I also really admire the man who posted the bulletin for being so honest. The best that could come out of it is that other men will read it and start to think about their own actions and reactions, whether they be the harrasser or the one who wants to help. He should definately not feel bad for not doing anything.

  2. Hi Mwezzi,
    I found your blog by accident yesterday google searching for Glasgow + feminism for the umpteenth time.
    You don't say anywhere whereabouts you are from in Scotland. If you are from anywhere near Glasgow, please consider getting involved in the newly formed Glasgow Feminist Network! We had our first meeting on Tuesday (13th).

    If you'd like to join the mailing list, send an email to or check out our myspace on
    We have a facebook group too, which you can find by searching for Glasgow Feminist Network.

    Hope to hear from you soon, if you're anywhere near Glasgow!