“One person’s harassment is another person’s flirting.”
That’s what Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said three years ago when the group Collective Action for Safe Spaces went in front of the D.C. Council to discuss the problem of harassment within the transit system and how it’s handled. At the time, Stessel’s comment was viewed as an incredibly callous. Some said he was blaming the victim.
Stessel later clarified his statement, saying WMATA would respond to any reports of harassment. And WMATA soon recognized its error and released an ad campaign that was a facsimile of one in Boston. That said, “Rub up against me and I’ll expose you.” Starting last month, a new batch of PSAs hit the system: “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.”
Metro’s system for reporting and responding to harassment has gotten high marks from users who’ve been subject to incidents while riding the buses or rails. It’s a remarkable change for an organization that seems to have a lot of trouble moving forward on passenger-based problems. And it shows that Metro seems to be taking the issue seriously, not just giving lip service to a long under-reported crime.
The new ads feature hands of both men and women, of multiple races. That was by design.
“The idea there was that it speaks to this notion that it can affect everybody and anybody. And, it’s not gender specific or race specific, and that’s what we really wanted to outline with the campaign,” Metro spokeswoman Caroline Laurin said this week. “So people would understand, this isn’t just a women’s issue and this isn’t just unique to Metro, this is something that is widespread and can happen anywhere.”
And it does.
According to a 2014 report from the group Stop Street Harassment, being harassed by a man was cited as the most common experience by 70 percent of women and 48 percent of men. It is also common to be harassed by two or more men, according to 38 percent of women and 25 percent of men.
Because let’s be honest, despite Metro’s ads pointing out that harassment can be committed by anyone of any gender, men are often the offenders. And it is the abhorrent behavior of primarily men that has made traveling around the region scary and disheartening.
On Sunday, the All Women’s Alleycat bike ride will held in the District. It is designed to encourage more women to bike as a method of exercise, but also as a way to empower them. Anastasia Kolobrodova organized the event, the first of its kind in the city since 2013.
“On a bike, I can out-bike most people, so even if somebody is yelling something at me from the side of the road, one, I probably don’t hear them, two, I’m gone,” she said. “I look at my personal biking behavior as biking is fun, makes you strong, and is the best way to get around D.C. The reduced rates of street harassment that I experience while biking is a very nice tack on.”
But even that comes with its own problems.
“Being on a bike attracts a different sort of attention,” said Nelle Pierson, outreach coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “It’s something that I’ve found and I’ve heard many, many women say that when you’re out in the middle of the street you attract more attention because you’re taking a very visible position in a public space and you’re doing something that’s athletic.
“Maybe you’re in a dress, because you wear dresses all the time, and that attracts a certain type of attention because ‘oh damn, that girl’s on a bike and she’s in a dress!’ Those are the two common themes that we found: women feel more comfortable biking to get away from harassment, but it also attracts a different form of harassment.”
WMATA does have an anti-harassment response team that, if nothing else, provides some level of comfort to riders. The Metro Transit Police are responsive and cordial, when incidents are reported. But harassment frequently goes under-reported.
Paula Cook recently decided she would do something about the problem she was having with one individual at the Takoma Metro station. She used Metro’s online form to report two unwanted advances, one of which occurred just last week, and got a swift reply from an Metro lieutenant. They didn’t haul the offender off the jail, but she felt better about the situation.
“If I can say anything, it was a quicker response to any sexual harassment incidents that I’ve had, which was surprising to me because usually I hear stories about people who are not getting responded to correctly, right away,” said Cook, 21. “And this happened within a matter of 24 hours. I just felt like I was really being watched out for by a lot of people. That made me feel good about being able to continue traveling on the Metro.”