Nicola’s Got Nerve | Issue 3

As many of you may know, there is a new MTA plan in the works to change the SubTalk messages concerning sexual harassment, which will add a needed component of bystander involvement to the current message: “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.”    As a frequent rider of New York City mass transit, I’ve been aware of these signs since they were put up in 2008, and my initial reaction was “Wow, how have I managed to dodge that bullet time and again? If the MTA feels the need to create a campaign like this, there must be a serious problem.” Irony, of all ironies.

The MTA’s new public service message will reportedly expand on the pithy “If you see something, say something” campaign, by asking bystanders to get involved and report cases of harassment that they witness. This new approach will be such a refreshing change from the burden always being on the victim or potential victim to protect herself.

In my own situation, I was extremely grateful and fortunate to have the support of my fellow passengers. At one point during the incident, I had to yell ”Men, guard the doors!”, which I think made it very clear to everyone within earshot that we were dealing with a dangerous individual that needed to be contained until law enforcement could take over. Without the help of other passengers, the perpetrator would definitely have gotten away with it, just to do it again to someone else. Not only did bystanders help to detain him in that car, they also took my lead and photographed him, shaming him as they did so, which made me feel safer and not so alone in dealing with the situation.

But the unfortunate thing is that I had to make quite a scene, and demand the help I needed from others. It was not immediately forthcoming, and certainly not offered to me. My feeling is that someone else who would not feel as confident speaking up as I did would have had a serious problem seeing justice done on that day. And justice was indeed done, with conviction and deportation of the perpetrator. A definitive result like that shows the power of a compassionate and involved citizenry. However, this outcome was sadly not the norm. What if I hadn’t spoken up about it? Then it might have been business as usual that day, as in “let’s pretend that didn’t happen, and move on with our day.” I’m all for moving on with our day and our lives, but not for playing pretend, which doesn’t help anyone. In fact, this is how sex crimes become normalized.

Many times, an individual is being victimized on mass transit without their knowledge, and the MTA’s most recent initiative will, I believe, be a turning point in combating the problem. More eyes to see what is going on, and a greater sense of overall awareness of the immediate surroundings will no doubt help. If we are to put a stop to this egregious behavior once and for all, so that we may truly call ourselves a civilized society, bystanders must be willing to step up and take some measure of responsibility for the individuals surrounding them, whether they have a personal relationship to them or not.

If a person could just imagine themselves or their loved ones in a similarly terrible situation, they might think of their own need for support from others around them. Empathy is what is called for here. For too long, many have tried to turn the other way and ignore what has been going on right in front of their own eyes, and the MTA campaign now makes it clear, that this issue will not just go away if we continue to “play ostrich” with it. Bravo, MTA ~ you’ve made a step in the right direction.

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To submit a question to Nicola for next Monday’s post, please email it to her here.

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  1. Latrell Watkins says:

    Every crowded subway car is full of people who are willing to help someone in distress. I absolutely agree with you that reinforcing to bystanders that they should take action when they see something is key. As a daily subway rider, my sense is that it is not so much bystander apathy or fear that creates bystander inaction, but bystander confusion. For that reason, we must also encourage everyone to, if they are attacked, act much as you did.: call out to the surrounding public as loudly and clearly as possible what is happening and that help is needed. New Yorkers are packed together so we learn to live and let live as a rule, and we see many consensual antics that we ignore. But we are among the most helpful people in the world. I think that this website, and your courage, really makes a huge difference towards ending the “open season” on women that these awful men have been waging.

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