In nearly 15 years of living in New York City, I've lost count of the number of times I've stood in a packed subway car and had some stranger cup my butt, or whisper something in my ear. Once, in college, I felt a man grow hard as he pressed up against the back of my thigh in between stations.
By now, I've become conditioned to wait for a less crowded train, or aggressively (some might say obnoxiously) elbow my way around to make sure I'm surrounded by women, and I'm hardly alone. As Jessica Valenti writes in her memoir Sex Object, "The two worst times for dicks on the New York subway: when the train car is empty or when it’s crowded. As a teenager, if I found myself in an empty car, I would immediately leave ... if I didn’t, I just knew the guy sitting across from me would inevitably lift his newspaper to reveal a semihard cock."
This week, the New York City Police Department announced that reports of sexual offenses in the city's subways are up by more than 50 percent over last year. That doesn't necessarily mean things are suddenly far worse for women who commute (it could simply be that crimes are being reported more often), but it does highlight an unacceptable reality: If you're a woman who relies on public transportation, at some point you will likely be leered at, touched, photographed, flashed or groped.
Here, nine women tell their stories of being harassed on public transportation. Tell us yours using #CommutingWhileFemale.
"He was masturbating. He glanced at me while he was doing it, and didn't stop."
I was once waiting on the tracks for a train to arrive and glanced over to see a man ducked off the in the corner by the steps with his dick out of his pants. He was masturbating. He glanced at me while he was doing it, and didn't stop. I was the only woman on the track at the time and I stood there shocked. I immediately looked away to, thankfully, see the train arrive. I got on. He didn't. He was preoccupied with his "task," and I was left feeling frustrated, angry and confused. -- Anonymous, 25
"The man beside me suddenly reached out and grabbed my breast."
I was 16, taking the bus in Canada, when the man beside me suddenly reached out and grabbed my breast. He said absolutely nothing. I was too shocked to say anything, but brushed him away. He grabbed over my shirt and I'm sure he intended to hold on, but I brushed him away quickly and forcefully. Fortunately, another passenger who saw it happen alerted the driver who stopped the bus, walked back to the man and told him to get out. I think I remember him swearing at the driver and the driver saying something nasty in return, but I was still too shocked to register. I still remember it sometimes, like, 'Wow, that actually happened to me' -- especially when I read stats about the harassment of women. -- Anonymous, 41
"I felt like it was my fault. What did I expect? I was alone and dressed nicely on a Saturday night."
Two weeks ago, I was on my way to midtown [New York City] to meet friends for dinner. I was commuting from Hoboken, alone, at about 6:45 p.m. on a Saturday. I got on the M train heading toward Lexington Avenue, when I noticed three men staring at me from the end of the train car. During the quick, 10-minute ride, I could hear them talking about my body, my looks, and my outfit. When my stop came, I ran up the platform steps hoping to get away from them, but they stopped me once I got to the street. I had my headphones in, which I hoped would keep them from talking to me, but one of them stood a few feet away from me just staring at me. I said, "Can I help you?" And he said, "I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are." I said thank you and began to walk away, at which point I heard them calling me "bitch," "whore" and "cunt" all for not speaking to them. They told me I wasn't that hot anyway, and that it was my loss for not stopping -- as if it was my job to take their "compliments." I walked to dinner and met my friends, but couldn't really shake what happened. I felt like it was my fault. What did I expect? I was alone and dressed nicely on a Saturday night. Fortunately, after rehashing it all with my friends, I realized it wasn't my fault. -- Janine, 31
"I can still feel that same disgust and terror."
When I was 17, I had a retail job that I got to by biking to the bus station, and from there I caught a ride to the mall. I rode a busy, overfilled bus by myself, which was terrifying, and only made worse when a man I was standing near thought it would be funny to cop a feel of my rear. I slapped his hand away and made my way to the front of the bus while he and his friends, who all looked to be in their late 40s, laughed and leered at me the rest of the way. It shocked me and scared me half to death me that this happened and no one said anything in my defense. I can still feel that same disgust and terror, almost like I want to rip my skin off and hide in a hole -- and I only got groped! I now always have pepper spray. I'll never let someone touch me like that without my permission again. -- Savannah, 22
"I thought it was a muffin at first."
During my first visit to New York City last January, a man flashed me from across the subway on a crowded train around 8 p.m. I thought it was a muffin at first as it was flaccid, but when I realized what it was, I burst out laughing. I laughed because I was so wrong about what I thought I was seeing, and because I knew that getting angry was probably what he wanted. -- Christine, 27
"It made me feel like I was doing something wrong by simply standing on the subway."
I've definitely been touched in ways that feel violating while riding on somewhat-but-not-especially-crowded subways. Men have placed their hands on the small of my back or around my waist as they walk by me and linger there for a little while. Someone also pinched my butt while exiting a train once, but it was crowded, and I couldn't see who it was. Another time, a man told me to stand further away from him because my hair might end up on his jacket, and then his girlfriend might see it later and accuse him of cheating. That was both strange and slightly upsetting, because it made me feel like I was doing something wrong by simply standing on the subway. -- Anonymous, 25
"'The rub,' when a guy standing next to you pushes their penis into your leg."
I worked in NYC for about 10 years, traveling in from New Jersey. The morning commute was always the worst. On weekly basis, if not more frequently, I experienced the leg spread, the crotch in the face (when you are sitting and a man could clearly face a different direction, but he doesn't, and I'm not talking about when it's so very crowded that they don't have a choice) or "the rub," when a guy standing next to you while you're holding the pole pushes their penis into your leg. It's not all men, of course, and some of could have been inadvertent, but I can assure you most were not. -- Connie, 46
"The whole trip back, I prayed not to get raped."
One day after work, I got on the bus. It was just me and the driver, and he started chatting with me about work and personal matters. He took a turn that isn't on the normal route, and apologized, telling me he'd turn back around at the next exit. But he was also asking me if I was single and telling me how beautiful I was. The whole trip back to the right route, I prayed not to get raped, and I was calling my fiance. Thankfully, I got off the next stop without getting harmed. -- Anonymous, 25
"I have never told anyone, because I didn't stop it."
When I was 15, taking the bus to school, I was sexually assaulted by an older boy. I was sitting back in my seat and he slid his arm through the side nearest the window, held me down and touched me wherever he pleased until he get off the bus. I was even sitting near the driver where I assumed I would be safe. I have never told anyone, because I didn't stop it, but I won't let my children on public transportation now. Commuter harassment pretty much destroyed me. -- Kelly, 22
These accounts have been edited and condensed.