I wish I could unreservedly applaud New York City Transit for its new campaign to combat sexual harassment on the subway. It has recently placed ads in subway cars that read, "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 M.T.A. employee or police officer." Starting Monday, the agency will be distributing 200,000 brochures on the same theme. It's great news that authorities are talking openly about the problem, but I can't quite cheer for the way they're talking about it.
I was with them right up through "A crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch." Yeah! You hear that, creeps? But then the message does a 180: They're not actually telling perverts to knock it off, they're telling women not to "stand for it." Now, it's absolutely important that women feel empowered to report crimes -- and to recognize subway groping as a crime in the first place -- without shame. And realistically, encouraging women to report harassment is far more likely to have a measurable effect than encouraging creepy jerks to stop being creepy jerks. But there's a smaller issue with the language here that ties into a much bigger issue, which is that women are not the ones who are in a position to end sexual harassment. If we're reporting it, we've already had to live through it. So how about we start with a campaign that says, "A crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch -- don't even try it!"
Yes, I know, the kind of guy who gets off on playing grab-ass or jacking off on the subway isn't likely to be deterred by an ad. But putting the responsibility on women to protect themselves from harassment -- or report it when we've failed at that -- contributes to a cultural narrative in which, as Melissa McEwan once said, "women are the gatekeepers of prevention against sexual assault, despite the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults being committed by men." Changing the language of subway ads to put the onus on men not to commit the crimes instead of on women not to "stand for" them would likely not cause an individual would-be groper to think twice, but it might cause the rest of us to think twice about whose problem sexual assault is to solve. Even the New York Times blog plays into that damaging narrative, saying that a previous article "reported that sexual harassment was a widespread -- if not universal -- phenomenon among women riding the subways." (Emphasis mine.) But it's not just a problem "among women" because it doesn't happen outside the presence of criminal men -- and the way we talk about it too often elides that fact. I'm all for encouraging women to holla back, but we'd best not forget that by then, it's already too late.