We Need to Talk About the MTA’s Sexual Assault Problem

Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Splinter/GMG, photos via Getty Images

My first encounter with sexual assault coincided with another traumatic event. I was 12 years old when the Twin Towers fell, and two days later, I returned to Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The dust hadn’t settled, and the city scrambled to find some semblance of normalcy. Later, New Yorkers would double down in a beautiful moment of solidarity; shop owners would hang “I ❤️ NY more than ever” posters on their window storefronts—the heart wore a smudge of black on its lower edge, like a bruise.

But on September 13, they were still looking for bodies. Sections of the subway tunnel that ran beneath the World Trade Center were badly damaged. Ten stations in Lower Manhattan were closed and most wouldn’t reopen until 2002. That morning, the F train was packed.


I stood, backed against the train doors, while my classmate, who commuted with me, stood to my left. A tall, middle-aged white man wearing a grey suit and tie hovered above me. As we bobbed in unison to the train’s rhythm, I felt a hand push hard against my vagina. I tried to step backwards with nowhere to move. I looked down, searching for the hand, but only saw the man’s briefcase between us. I looked up at the man, whose gaze would not meet mine. It must be an accident, I thought, unable to reconcile his appearance—a professional, the age of my father—with what was happening.

Now the hand gripped, and I squirmed. I turned to my friend, eyes wide, and mouthed unintelligible words. “What?” she said. I laughed nervously.


I twisted and contorted myself like an animal stuck in a small place until I managed to turn sideways and gripped my bookbag in front of my body. The train stopped, the doors opened, and the tide of passengers rushed out like water rushing from a broken levee. I entered the train again; the man was gone.


In the context of 9/11, the incident felt negligible. At school, a student whose mother worked in 1 World Trade Center hung flyers with her photograph on the walls: “Have you seen my mother?” At home, I didn’t tell my mother what had happened on the train. We all sat watching the news at dinner.

Months later, when a man with a messenger bag rubbed his hard-on against me and four other students as we rode the 6 train for a school trip, I’d already grown accustomed to these kinds of advances. When we got off the train, two of the other girls were crying. I was confused. For a week after, at the behest of the school administration, I was forced to see the guidance counselor, who asked me, “How do you feel about what happened?” I remember saying, “I thought this sort of thing just happens.”


After more than 20 years living in New York, I’ve learned that this sort of thing does just happen, so much that it’s become normalized. In recent weeks, the news of Harvey Weinstein and the string of other public figures facing allegations of sexual misconduct have shed light on the volume of women affected by sexual assault. The #MeToo campaign on social media gave a sense of its dimension. In the midst of these conversations, I realized how many of my female friends had similar stories of sexual harassment on the subway, how intrinsic these encounters were to the experience of living as a woman in New York City.


These weren’t just coincidental anecdotes. Nearly 20 percent of all citywide reports of sexual misconduct were incidents that happened on the train, according to NYPD statistics. This story is as old as the subway itself. In the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that takes place in turn-of-the-century New York (and one I was required to read in school around the time of my first subway encounter), the protagonist, Francie, is groped by a man while riding the El train.

The New York City subway is the second oldest in the United States. The first subway opened in 1904, a 9.1-mile long line comprising 28 stations that ran from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. The subway’s age is a fact New Yorkers often take for granted, but have been recently forced to reckon with in the midst of what many are calling a subway crisis, and what Governor Cuomo called a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Delays and overcrowding, thanks to decades of poor maintenance, underfunding, and a signal system that is more than 80 years old, have become par for the course. In July, the MTA unveiled a 31-point plan to address the myriad service failures that have become synonymous with riding the rails.


Sexual harassment and assault, like most gender-based violence, cuts across lines of income, class, and culture, and so do the passengers on the MTA. New York is a sprawling city made up of both ugly and exquisite parts, and the subway system is its dripping underbelly.


It’s a place where commuters are forced to confront daily a convergence of its frailties and discomforts, a place where they’re forced to look: Mental illness written in the feces that cakes a woman’s calves as she walks down the aisle; ambiguous detritus that streaks the floor sticky wet; the hot cough of sewage odor carried by the sudden rush of air from an oncoming train; train cars packed like a mass but moving grave.

But sexual assault is often invisible. That’s what makes this particular crime, and the context in which they’re being committed, so insidious. On crowded trains, often the only people aware of what’s happening are the perpetrator and the victim.


The subway is the city’s most dominant form of transportation—New York City’s cardiovascular system—pumping some 5.7 million passengers to their destinations each day. In 2015, the annual ridership rose to 1.76 billion trips, the highest it had been in decades. Toss a wrench in the system, and the whole thing gets thrown out of whack.

This year, delays are up to 70,000 a month, almost triple the amount since 2012. It’s a vicious cycle that’s both caused by overcrowding and effectively creates more crowding on trains. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that reports of sexual misconduct on the subway have also risen by more than 50 percent in the past three years.

It happened at the 51st Street stop on the 6 train when I was in the 7th grade, so I was 13. On the day it happened, I remember being so cramped, I couldn’t move or see anything. I never saw who it was who did it to me, I just recall feeling someone awkwardly rubbing against me but I had chalked it up to someone just shifting around to find space. It wasn’t until I was walking up the steps out of the train station at 77th Street that I realized what had happened to me and still, I didn’t really know. I put my hands on my hip and felt a phlegmy slimy mess on the pocket of my favorite lavender capris from The Gap. A girl who stepped out of the train station right after me saw the mess and with the most disgusted face, handed over her hand sanitizer and told me to keep it. It wasn’t until years later when I thought back to this incident that I put the pieces together and figured out what happened. – Ellen


The NYPD, which polices the train system, and the MTA are both quick to attribute the rise in reports of sexual misconduct to the increased availability of resources for reporting these offenses. “The NYPD believes that more victims are coming forward to report these crimes,” the department said in a statement, declining an interview.

An MTA representative refused to concede a correlation between overcrowding on trains and the increased incidence of sexual harassment. But this is not an arbitrary claim, nor is it news. In 2007, then Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer conducted a citywide study of sexual assault on public transportation, published by the New York Times, which showed that of the 1,790 subway riders who had been surveyed—two-thirds of whom were women—63 percent responded that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment on the subway. And of respondents who had experienced sexual assault, 69 percent reported that the event took place during morning or evening rush hours.


The MTA might not admit that the correlation exists, but the message is implicit in its public service announcements: “A crowded train is no excuse for unwanted sexual contact or behavior,” reads one of the posters displayed on the subway, part of an awareness campaign that the MTA hopes will also serve as a deterrent for sexual predators.

In 2014, the MTA unveiled its new online reporting system, a form that victims of sexual misconduct could fill out with information—including the date, time, train line and train car—pertaining to the incident. It also includes a photo/video upload feature for submitting images of alleged sexual predators. Since the reporting site went live in 2014, the NYPD saw an increase from 620 reported sex crimes on the subway to 943 reported in 2016.

It is September 2002, I am 14 years old, in my first month of high school, and I am on the 2/3 during the morning rush hour. I am standing in front of a short, middle-aged East Asian man wearing a suit. My two good friends from Brooklyn are commuting with me, but we lose each other in our search for a space to stand. The train is moving, but then it unexpectedly brakes. Passengers stumble into each other, and the Asian man in front of me grabs my crotch. I think that it must be a mistake. He must have mistook my crotch for a… pole? But then he squeezes tighter. The train starts moving again and he doesn’t let go. I finally wiggle out of his grip. I don’t say anything. I’m shocked, confused, and resume thinking that it must have been a mistake. I see the small Asian man on the 2/3 in the future, and I make my way to the other end of the car, feeling humiliated. - Eleonora


Smartphones have also made it easier to catch sexual offenders in the act. There are the handful of videos that have gone viral on YouTube, in which women call out sexual predators on the subway: “You get off this train with that freaky shit,” one woman screamed as she filmed a man, who had allegedly been masturbating across from her. The stunned man stood up, holding his backpack before him, and exited at the next stop.

But for each woman who has the wherewithal to take action, there are many others, especially the young ones, who do not. Of the several women I spoke to who’d experienced sexual harassment on the train, none reported them. Even if the higher incidence of reports is connected to an increase in the number of women coming forward to report them, the actual number of sexual misconduct cases on the train is likely much higher.


“I’ve never thought about reporting it,” said Nifath Chowdhury, who was riding on the 7 train when the man sitting beside her grabbed her leg, and later touched her buttocks as she got up to exit the train. Chowdhury said she was unaware that resources like the MTA’s online reporting system existed. “I think that’s what keeps me from doing anything, is that I don’t know how to proceed,” she said.

The NYPD made 491 arrests for sexual misconduct on the train in 2016—less than half of the number of reports made that same year. And 80 percent of public lewdness arrests are made when police officers actually witness the crime or are immediately notified of the offense by either the victim or a witness to the crime. This poses a problem when so many of these crimes are unseen by most.


The problem is not unique to New York: In 2005, Japan introduced women-only cars into its train system, which has long dealt with issues of sexual harassment on its trains. Mexico City introduced “pink cars,” exclusively for female commuters, into its transit system even earlier, in 2000, in response to similar issues. But even that didn’t fix the problem. Earlier this year, Mexico City’s government unveiled a campaign to bring awareness to the issue: a handful of subway seats designed to resemble the lap of a naked man, complete with genitalia, designated for “men only.” In front of the seat, a sign on the floor reads in Spanish: “It is annoying to travel this way, but not compared to the sexual violence women suffer in their daily commutes.”

The incident happened on the A train in Crown Heights as I was heading to work in the morning. I noticed there was a guy following me; he waited for me to board the train then quickly boarded the same car. When I sat down, he sat down right next to me. I thought everything was fine until he grabbed my leg. When I looked over, he started openly masturbating right next to me with his penis coming out of the fly of his pants. I pushed his hands off me. I rushed to get up. I was in shock; I had never had anything like this happen to me in a public space and didn’t know how to react. I felt extremely trapped on this moving train. I wish at the time I had screamed or attacked him or done something but getting off that train seemed to be the most important thing because I wasn’t sure what he would do next. – Anonymous


In New York, the crime of forcible touching is classified as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison, but most offenders get away with little to no jail time. In other words, grabbing a woman’s leg and ejaculating on her is an equivalent offense to getting caught with two ounces of marijuana. In June, just a month before the MTA released its plan to revamp the subway, State Senator Diane Savino sponsored a bill to elevate forcible touching to a felony offense, which would increase the penalty to one to seven years in prison. The bill passed 57 to 5 but has been stalled in Assembly since.


There’s no way to tell whether the increase in number of reports is a direct result of more women coming forward to report these crimes, whether it’s just another consequence of the MTA’s system failures, or if it’s a combination of both. In 2017, New York City’s crime rates went down in nearly all serious offenses, except one: misdemeanor sex crimes. Reports of sex crimes have spiked to 4,947 cases citywide, a more than 12 percent increase since 2007.

I got onto a pretty crowded train and there was a man still on the platform staring at me through the window. He had watched me get onto the train. I noticed his arms and body were moving but I couldn’t see what was going on. As the train took off, he came all over the window. - Jacquelyn Gallo


You could say that these numbers reflect a broader trend of women feeling more comfortable speaking out against these offenses. Implicit power structures have silenced women in the past, and one or two women speaking out against harassment and sexual assault decades ago had few, if any, avenues for justice.

9/11 was a shared trauma felt by all New Yorkers. It’s now written in the history of the city, memorialized by a towering edifice that stands out against the glittering and congested skyline.


Sexual assault is another pain felt by many living in the city sprawl, but it’s a different kind of trauma. Though collective in its frequency, and in the sheer volume of people who have experienced it, the very personal nature of the offense often undermines the ability to share that trauma. In recent months, victims of sex crimes have come forward to add their personal stories to an expanding collective voice. We’ve witnessed an array of famous and influential men go down as a result of these allegations. But at what point will the seriousness of these sexual offenses extend into the nameless, faceless encounters that women contend with daily?

Claiming that the increase in number of reports is unrelated to an actual increase in sexual misconduct is just another form of silencing, and detracts from the significance of those reported numbers—that they exist, that they are just a fraction of the real number of cases of sexual offenses happening, that they deserve our attention and action.

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About the author

Sasha von Oldershausen

Sasha von Oldershausen is an Iranian-American journalist, based out of New York. She has reported for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, and NBC News, among others.