THE BLOG
05/27/2016 06:07 pm ET Updated May 28, 2017

DC Metro Rape Highlights Why Women Are Always Aware of Rape

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Earlier this week, a man was arrested in the rape of a woman on a Washington, DC metro train. That's Washington, DC, USA, not Washington, DC, "Somewhere-over-there-where-women-have-it-much-worse-so-shut-up." He is charged with brazenly assaulting her at knifepoint, on a moving train, at 10 a.m in the morning on a weekday last month. The already beleaguered DC Metro is under fire for not having informed riders of the assault.

Last month, the same man was identified as a suspect in an episode of indecent exposure, an every day form of street harassment.

This rape has made the police and media sit up and pay attention to street harassment, which is common on DC streets and elsewhere. While the DC Metro system can be faulted for many egregious and dangerous faults, in point of fact, the system is pioneering in it efforts to understand and address the risks that users, particularly women, face in public transit.

For more than a year now the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMTA) has been working with Stop Street Harassment and Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) to raise awareness and develop responses to the problem. CASS and Stop Street Harassment worked with the WMTA to create system-wide public service announcements and to conduct the nation's first comprehensive public transit safety survey. Among the findings, released last month, were that:

  • 20% of the people surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on public transportation.
  • Women are three times more likely than men to be sexually harassed on public transportation.
  • 62% of people were harassed while on metro trains.
  • 77% never reported experiences.
  • 41% of were familiar with the coalition's anti-harassment awareness campaign.
  • Those who were aware were twice as likely to report any episodes of harassment.

The survey asked questions about leering, groping, verbal harassment, public exposure, public masturbation, homophobic abuse and more. Twenty-six percent of people harassed reported "being rubbed against in a sexual way" and 28% reported being followed.

These findings confirm other research conducted by both Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback revealing that more than three-quarters of surveyed US women (77%) under 40 have been followed during the past year (that number is 70% percent globally.) More than 50% of women report being groped, fondled or assaulted by passing men. But, hey, can't a guy tell a woman she's pretty anymore????

I have been writing and talking about street harassment and sexual assault for years and it still amazes me that most people think harassment is flattery. At any rate, inconsequential in the larger scheme of things to worry about. That's a deliberate head in the sand move, particularly from people who harass. Whether a harasser, overwhelmingly men regardless of whom is being harassed, intends to unsettle or threaten a woman is completely irrelevant because, regardless of what the man may believe, given the facts, more often than not harassment is interpreted by women as a reminder of vulnerability and, specifically, vulnerability to male-perpetrated rape.

Most men I talk to don't think the threat of rape is a real consideration on a regular basis for the women they know and many openly dismiss the idea that women think of rape when they experience street harassment. However, more than two-thirds of women say they are "very or somewhat concerned" that harassment will escalate into "something worse"; almost twice as many women (25%) as men (13%). A regular parade of tragic incidents, usually covered in media in ways that fail to make this critical connection, attests to why women are rational in their concerns.

We aren't walking around petrified, saying to ourselves, "I could get raped today," eagerly anticipating having legendary victimhood status, but by the time we are adults, at school, going to work, shopping for food, we have all been taught to adapt silently to the threat, and society's leveraging of that threat to limit our public and civic engagement. We learn early to bury the lessons deeply. It's why we are far more likely to be hypervigilant and exhibit, confusing to some doctors, higher symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fifty percent of women report that their first memory of harassment happened before they were seventeen. Most don't talk about it.

I was nine years old the first time I was openly threatened with rape in a public place - a school yard. I remember not really knowing what the word meant, but understanding it was threatening. I never told an adult, but I went to school with this boy, seeing him every day for several years. One day, six years and literally countless episodes of street harassment later, another boy came up behind me in a class and wrapped his arm around my neck. He whispered in my ear and squeezed his arm until I started to black out. Classmates did nothing because, clearly, he liked me. Sexual and gender based harassment like this is common today.

When I told my brother all of this, decades later, explaining that that his teenage daughter was undoubtedly dealing with variations of these situations, he couldn't fathom how he and I, so close in age, growing up as friends and in the same house, could possibly have had such different experiences of the world.

Additionally, many people go to bat arguing that harassment like this has nothing to do with rape, which most people think of as a moment in time, a discreet episode with a beginning, middle and end. But, for almost all women, rape is thousands of moments in a lifetime.

For a girl, the threat of rape exerts itself early in ways boys and men are frequently unaware of. It's the day that you realize you can't walk to a friend's house anymore. It's the afternoon when a stranger on the street grabs your arm to "get a good look at you." It's the day your aunt tells you to be nice because the boy was just "stealing a kiss." It's the evening you stop going to the corner store because the night before a stranger followed you in his car. It's the midnight when a father or brother or uncle climbs into your bed uninvited. It's the hour it takes you to write an email explaining that you're changing your major even though you don't really want to. It's when you're racing to catch a bus, hear a person say you you'll be prettier if you smile for him, and turn to see that it's a police officer. It's being so sure that the price of freedom is your assault that you take birth control pills when you otherwise wouldn't need to. It's the second your teacher tells you to cover your shoulders because you'll "distracting the boys and what will your male teachers do." It's the minute you decide not to travel to a place you've always dreamed about visiting and are accused of being a "girl" and "not adventurous like boys." It's the sting of knowing that exactly as the world starts expanding for most men, for women it begins to shrink. For a shockingly high number of women, rape is all of this and one, two, several, sometimes dozens of assaults and their aftermaths.

All of this is going on all day, every day without anyone really uttering the word "rape" in a way that grandfathers, fathers, brothers, uncles, teachers and friends will hear it and seriously reflect on what it means when they do. In many ways the silence is constructed to protect masculine ideals. If you are a man who has grown up hearing that you have to protect the women around you, the fact that you can't is an overwhelming one. For many men, acknowledging rape's harms means admitting, at some level, failure to do a job that rigid masculinity norms insist is yours. For many others it means acknowledging their own assaults, a shameful and feminizing victimization.

In an NPR interview, Jon Krakauer, author of the book, Missoula, a story about college town rapes, describes his own coming to terms with rape and the chagrin he felt at his ignorance after a friend told him what it was like to be a woman. His epiphany is hardly rare, but what is rare was his response. Krakauer described feeling shame and dismay and then he acted expressly to shed light on the problem and to debunk rape myths. 

Far more common, unfortunately, is a parade of articles and opeds that persistently deny rape's private and public costs, doubling down on the more comfortable notion that rape is a "he said/she said" problem between troubled individuals. Rape is almost uniformly represented in media in ways that isolate it, take it out of context and depoliticize its effects on society.

Rape is what gives pervasive and damaging harassment its power. Thirty-seven percent of girls in high school report not wanting to go to school because of harassment. A recent study found that one in three women, cutting across race, age, education, income and sexual orientation, reports being sexually harassed at work. Between 65% and 85% of women in the US report experiencing street harassment.

None of this means that boys and men aren't sexually assaulted or publicly harassed, because they clearly are, especially LGTBQ people, who often experience exceptionally high levels of violent harassment. Trans women, especially trans women of color, embody multiple challenges to social norms and are violently policed as a result. Stop Street Harassment's survey found that LGBT men are 17% more likely to experience physically aggressive harassment than men who are not gay, bisexual, queer or transgender.

What it does mean is that girls' socialization is significantly pegged to cultivated rape and rape myths, in ways that boys' are not and that that socialization has far-reaching inhibitory social effects. For example, in the wake of this DC rape chances are the the parents of girls are being far more restrictive about their using public transportation than the parents of boys, especially straight boys. Boys, even if they are not taught to restrict themselves, or subject to evergreen risks, are actually made more vulnerable as a result, one of the ways that patriarchy backfires on men.

If people abhor rape and would like to make the world a safer place in general, a good simple first step is listening to women when they say that street harassment is a problem.