TV & Radio
Sara Payne, who rides the No. 1 train to work in the Bronx, says she has been flashed six times in eight years.
The New York Times
Women Have Seen It All on Subway, Unwillingly
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Published: June 24, 2006
It is a hidden reality of the New York City subway system, and perhaps mass transit systems everywhere since the first trolley car took to the tracks. It begins with a pinch or a shove, someone standing too close. But it can be much worse.
This week, as the Police Department announced the arrest of 13 men charged with groping and flashing women in the subways, women around the city nodded. Yes, they said, this had happened to them. Yesterday. Last month. Last fall. Twenty years ago.
"Every girl I know has at least one story," said Barbara Vencebi, 23, a studio photographer standing outside the No. 6 train station at 116th Street in East Harlem yesterday.
It is a crime abetted by the peculiar landscape of the underworld that is the subway system, by the anonymity of a crowded car where everybody is avoiding eye contact. And by the opportunity for a quick escape at the next stop, to disappear behind a pillar, into a tunnel, up an escalator.
An impromptu survey of riders during the morning rush yesterday found that, for many women who have experienced it, the worst part of the crime is the sense of helplessness. What is the right way to react to a humiliating, but not life-threatening, situation? Should you announce to an entire car of strangers that you have just been violated?
Most of the time, the women said, they seethe inwardly but say nothing.
"I looked back and I couldn't do anything because a lot of people were behind me," said Suany Baca, 32, a waitress who was going up the stairs at 86th Street in the No. 6 train station last November, when she was groped by a man who passed her going down.
"I pretended like it didn't happen," she said. "I don't know what they get out of it."
Those who single out women on the subways do not care about race, if yesterday's interviews were any indication — black, Asian, Hispanic and white women all had stories to tell. But they do seem to discriminate by age.
Most of the women who reported recent incidents were in their 20's and younger. But the experience, women said, is so universal, and so scarring, that they continue to feel paranoid and to put on their body armor — the big bag, the bad face — no matter how old they get.
Women know the drill. Just as some men reflexively check to see if they have their wallets on a crowded train, women check their bodies.
Pull in your backside and your front. Wedge a large bag for protection between yourself and the nearest anonymous male rider, who might, just might, be planning something. Put on your fiercest face, and brace yourself for contact that seems too deliberate to be accidental, too prolonged to be random.
And not just in New York. Mexico City and Tokyo have reacted to subway gropers by instituting all-female subway cars. But as one New York woman said yesterday, wouldn't that make a nice target?
The crackdown in New York followed a number of highly publicized cases in which women helped the police arrest flashers by snapping pictures of them with their cellphone cameras.
Some women said yesterday that they did not expect the police effort — 13 suspected gropers and flashers were arrested over 36 hours last month — to make a big dent in the problem. But, they added, it was a start.
"I feel better they caught these guys," said Juliette Fairley, 35, an actress who said that she encountered a flasher on her N train at 42nd Street not long ago. "But there will always be people out there like this."
Some crime and subway experts with long memories offered a cautionary tale yesterday. A subway police squad in 1983 and 1984 looking for lewd behavior led to the false arrest of scores of men, most of them black and Hispanic. The men were accused of "bumping," the jargon for men who rubbed up against women, and other petty crimes.
The arrests turned out to be part of a scheme by transit police officers to inflate their productivity and win promotion, and it became a major scandal. "It is extremely hard in a crowded subway station to tell right from wrong when somebody is up close to somebody else," Richard Emery, a lawyer who won a class-action suit on behalf of the falsely arrested men, said yesterday.
Any sting operation, he said, has to be carefully planned. Stan Fischler, a subway historian and author of "The Subway and the City," made a similar point. The IRT cars of the kind used on the No. 1 line, he said, are skinnier than those used on the IND and BMT lines, and it is almost impossible during the morning and evening rush not to rub up against someone. "Half the time you don't know whether it's accidental or not," he said.
Jenna Caccaro, 22, a fashion student who lives in Brooklyn, said she was first flashed on the subway when she was 15. She thought it might have been because she was wearing her Catholic school uniform. "I thought that maybe I'd done something to attract him," she said, "but my family reassured me he was just a sleaze."
Sara Payne, 25, of Manhattan, who takes the No. 1 train to work for a jewelry company in the Bronx, said she has been flashed about six times on the subway in the eight years she has lived in New York. She said it happened more when she was a freshman in college than it does now.
"Maybe I'm a little more confident now," she said, "so people are less prone to try and intimidate me."
Vivian Lynch, 68, used to take the F train home to Queens. She shivered at the memory. "It happened to me in the 70's," she said. "Men used to touch women on the train and stand close to them and ruin their clothes."
In some ways, groping seems almost an accepted part of subway culture. Stephanie Vullo, 43, said she had dealt many times with men rubbing up against her or trying to touch her on crowded No. 4 or 5 trains in the morning when she takes her daughter to school. "It's worse in the summer months when everyone is wearing less clothing," she said. "The first time I turned around and yelled at the guy, but with my daughter, I don't want to get her upset."
Many women said they were not so much frightened by the subway encounters as they were appalled that men would do something so pathetic.
Like Ms. Fairley, the actress. "All of a sudden," she said, "this man moved into my frame of reference, and I was staring at a penis. I couldn't believe it."
Ms. Fairley said she was embarrassed, but felt even worse, in a way, for the man. "They need help, bless their hearts," she said.
Sarah Garland, Kate Hammer and Emily Vasquez contributed reporting for this article.