I was down in New York City this weekend with a small groups of friends. Since I have family in the City, I've been there several times; for one of the girls attending though, this was her first trip. I'm happy to report we all had a blast overall. There was glorious shopping, good food and a general enjoyment of the architecture and mass trasit of New York.
One incident however did cast a shadow over our merry little adventure. It happened in the subway after we'd swiped through the turnstiles to get to the train platform. A girl on the other side was accosted by a rather inebriated stranger who was making leering comments at her and standing way too close for anyone's comfort.
Since there was no one else in the vestibule apart from them and us, we lingered; not really sure what to do or say. She was clearly uncomfortable by his advances, but she stoically ignored him while she fumbled frantically for her Metro Card. After what felt like forever, she finally found her card and swiped through.
We quickly clustered protectively around her as we all walked to the platform and asked if she was okay. She was clearly shaken by the incident, but she mumbled "Yes," and quietly tied her jacket around her waist to cover the tight, short skirt she was wearing which had (presumably) "provoked" the whole incident. (Fortunately the drunk dude didn't follow her through the turnstile and he had never touched her.)
As we moved on and got on our train I remember feeling anger towards the girl for bringing it onto herself. She was clearly a tourist like ourselves but being young and pretty as she was, surely she should have known better than to dress so provocatively to a place like NYC!
These feelings were later followed by being appalled at my own thoughts.
"My God! I'm part of the freaking problem!"
Blaming her for being harassed is exactly the reason why victims of sexual assault don't report incidents and why they end up being shamed by the very same system that's supposed to protect them. (I'm being gender neutral on this point as I know men can equally be harassed and that's a whole other post.)
I honestly don't know what we could have done different in the situation. Certainly if he had touched her, all of us would have jumped back over the turnstile to her defense; but verbal abuse is more nebulous and harder to deal with. Had we spoken up, asking him to leave her alone, it would have drawn his attention on us. Maybe that would have been better - giving her a chance to escape; but we didn't know he wasn't going to just come on through the turnstile at us either or get violent. We also didn't know it'd take her so long to get her pass. In all honesty the whole thing didn't last more than 90 seconds, but it was plenty long enough.
It was an utterly miserable situation, certainly more so for her than us.
I suppose I should cap this with some flowery advice on how we can all change the world for the better. Frankly I've got nothing here except to say that as bad as that situation was, things are getting better.
Think about it: we were three young, fairly attractive females traveling without a male escort. That would have been absurdly unsafe in the past.
Think about the workplace: male bosses no longer ask female employees to get them coffee without a second thought. That's changed since just my mother's generation (I know because it happened to her).
Women can get loans and own property by themselves without raising eyebrows (also something that's changed within just the past 50 or so years).
Men can raise children as a single parent without people looking on with pity at the poor, motherless kids.
Martial rape is now a crime (though it took till 1993 for that to be the case in all 50 states).
Things have improved, are continuing to improve, but there's still the wage gap. There's still a glass ceiling in some fields. Women are still casually harassed on the street.
The answer isn't to change how women dress or if we should or shouldn't make eye contact with strangers. The answer is knowledge, spreading the word as to what is and isn't correct and appropriate behavior; teaching men not to rape instead of instructing females how to not get raped.
Every day, every year the idea that a woman must be "owned" or "controlled" wanes and becomes more quaint. Incidents like what we witnessed this weekend will become more the exception rather than the rule. With how quickly things are changing I'm certain this will happen within my lifetime and it warms my heart to think my nieces will be able to wander the streets of a major city, wide-eyed and innocent and never once have to think, "Will that man over there harm me?"