When Sexual Harassment Extends From The Workplace To The Street

After being inundated with the stories of the rich and/or famous being removed from their perches of prominence due to sexual harassment claims, so many of us have considered the innumerable women who have been harassed by the more quotidian members of our society. There won’t be any New York Times or New Yorker exposes that detail how a paralegal was repeatedly rubbed up against by a law partner in the break room, or how a new teacher was told by the assistant principal that if she wanted to keep her job she should consider engaging in a more physical relationship with him.

These types of horrifying and demeaning incidents have been occurring to women of all ages and backgrounds for years, and no one can claim ignorance—see the depiction of sexual harassment in films, books and other forms of cultural entertainment. We all know the reality.

The recent spate of hard-hitting reporting and swift actions in forcing resignations, suspensions and other punitive consequences on well-known offenders—from Bill O’Reilly to Mark Halperin to Leon Wieseltier—has forced so many of us to revisit our own experiences in the past. It has also allowed us to consider our present and what standards we will accept and not accept going forward, now that we feel we’ve gotten the public’s attention on this crucial matter.

It seems like a good time to extend the conversation to focus on women’s experiences, not just with co-workers who are in positions of power but in general encounters in other parts of their lives. As a long-time New York resident, I had been following with interest the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) pilot “Courtesy Campaign,” which made available free buttons to aid individuals in securing a seat on the subway. One button read “Baby on Board,” designed for pregnant woman, the other, “Please Offer Me a Seat,” could be deployed by anyone who needed to quit standing because of illness, age, or disability.

I appreciated the MTA championing the cause of these specific groups of straphangers, and thought it was a clever approach to helping them more easily communicate their need to sit down, people who don’t feel comfortable asking for a seat can get buttons to do the talking for them.

But it also made me think about the kind of courtesy that isn’t being extended on the subway or on the streets and that no campaign has taken on: the everyday harassment of women. We have seen exhortations to men to be aware of sexual harassment in the workplace and to call it out. What about standing up for women when they are the recipient of lewd comments on the street, so they don’t have to feel like they are walking a gauntlet, or on the subway so they don’t have to suffer silently as they wait for the next subway stop so they can escape the situation?

The MTA’s campaign was unusual because unlike other MTA-type public service announcements that try to create a safe and efficient ride—don’t litter because garbage can cause track fires, or remove your backpack on the subway to make room for others—the courtesy campaign focused on acting in a way that was decent, or one might even say, ethical. It also sent the message that in New York we need an intermediary in the form of a sign or a button to help us act like good people.

One explanation why people don’t intervene when women are being openly harassed is because this behavior has disturbingly become so commonplace in our society and therefore people barely register when it’s happening. On an individual level, perhaps people assume that it would be useless to get involved because anyone who would impose themselves on others wouldn’t be reasonable enough to understand why it it’s problematic. But a more likely reason is fear—fear that intervening could lead to unpleasant consequences like being yelled out, insulted or physically harmed.

A goal for residents of a city in which we exist—and travel― in such close proximity is to develop norms in public spaces, like subways and streets, that reflect how we try to live in our private lives, where people are responsive to, and respectful of each other’s needs. In a city known for its individualism, let’s develop a more collective approach to creating safe spaces for everyone. There should be an unspoken campaign to ensure that people can’t harass women with impunity. No courtesy buttons should be necessary.