Hands To Yourself: When Crowded Subways Get Creepy

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I felt something gently brushing up against the left side of my behind each time the train lurked forward or swayed from side to side. It was a normal, busy and chaotic Thursday morning commute in Manhattan, and, as usual, New Yorkers were shoving themselves into any open space possible on the train cars to make it to work on time. This typical routine is especially unbearable on a muggy 85-degree summer day. I was wearing a high-neck lightweight linen shift dress with flat gladiator sandals. My hair was straight, and my makeup fresh and minimal.

As is my routine, I stood with one hand holding the pole and the other holding my phone as I read the morning news - barely paying attention to the crowd around me, the feet that stepped on mine or the bags that bumped into me. It was normal, and I am used to it. I’ve lived in NYC for almost two years. Adding up my work commute alone that’s roughly 800 rush hour subway rides. I’ve seen people fight, throw up, piss themselves, sleep, litter, breakdance, play an instrument, beg for money - you name it. But never have I experienced what I did that morning.

Even as I tried to lean forward, what I thought was someone’s bag grazing my backside remained pressed up against me. I took a moment from reading and noticed the feeling was actually the sensation of fingertips, and I began to understand what was happening - what had been happening for the duration of three subway stops. In my utter disbelief, I tried to hyper focus on the feeling just to be sure, and with an unwavering sense of realization, I knew it wasn’t a bag.

When I got up the courage to turn around and look down to face what I still hoped was just someone’s belongings, my stomach dropped at my obvious realization. There behind me stood a perfectly normal looking middle-aged man in a button down with no bag, his arm extended to the side and his palm up, fingertips out.

I repositioned myself so that I was half a foot away from him - the most space I could get - and I no longer had the convenience of a pole to hang on to. I was subway surfing and broke into a nervous sweat. I wish I could tell you that I turned around and yelled at him, caused a scene and embarrassed him, making sure everyone knew what he did. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I just wanted to run.

I got off at the next stop and didn’t look back. On my way to the office I could still feel the sensation of his unwelcome hand on my body, with only a thin layer of fabric between him and my skin. I couldn’t help but think about the number of women that that must happen to every single day, in more cities than just NYC, and in even worse ways than my brief run in with sexual violation. It made me sick to think that there are men out there who prey on opportunities like vulnerable women on crowded trains just to get the cheap thrill of feeling a woman’s body without her consent.

I spent the better part of that morning feeling disrespected, violated and angry with myself for not calling him out. And unfortunately I know I wasn’t the first and won’t be the last woman that this man violates.

The reports from women who experience some kind of unnecessary forcible touching on packed NYC subways have increased over the last few years. The climbing numbers don’t necessarily mean there are more cases - it could just be a result of more women stepping forward. I may not be as brave as those women, but I am grateful for their courage. Hopefully in at least sharing my story it will encourage others to be more vigil and to trust their instincts when something just doesn’t feel right.

It’s a tough world out there, but we are tougher.

For a list of resources and safety tips visit web.mta.info/sexual_misconduct.

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