- (Photo: flickr/daquellamanera)
Two and a half hours after they expected to testify, several individuals finally had the chance to tell the D.C. Council yesterday that sexual harassment is a problem on the Metro and allege that WMATA is not doing nearly enough to manage the way riders travel through their space.
"At the Takoma Metro station, a man walked in," said Chai Shenoy, Collective Action for Safe Spaces executive director, about the 2008 incident that caused her to found the grassroots organization. "He kept looking at me while figuring out where to sit .... Slowly he spread his legs and exposed himself to me."
Shenoy said she felt frustrated and ashamed later but most of all, guilty she hadn't known how to stop the man from harassing others. The Collective Action for Safe Spaces (also known as Holla Back D.C.) says that 30% of the sexual harassment incidents that it has tracked over the past three years take place near or within transit centers. Shenoy and others demanded this week that Metro step up its actions against sexual harassment — the transit agency should launch on a PR campaign, implement a better tracking system for these myriad forms of harassment, and begin better employee training.
WMATA does track sexual assaults and physical confrontations. Out of more than 300 million trips last year, Metro reported one rape, 41 sexual assaults, and 40 incidents of indecent exposure ... but who knows about verbal harassment. WMATA doesn't track those.
- (Photo: D.C. Council)
The dialogue surrounding harassment is extraordinarily sensitive and for good reason. In the last week, we've already seen members of the media as well as WMATA called out for how they talk about the behavior. Metro's chief spokesperson, Dan Stessel, faced heat for how he described the transit system's sexual harassment in a WUSA report:
Two of Stessel's remarks attracted Internet attention and condemnation: "It really isn't a big issue" and "One person's harassment is another person's flirting." Some individuals called out these quotes, decontextualized, as "disgusting" and demanded the spokesperson apologize for what seemed like startling insensitivity. Stessel clarified on his personal Twitter account Wednesday morning: "The context of my quote was a reflection of the low rate of reported incidents (less than 1 in 4M trips) and as compared to other crimes," he wrote. "I also said one incident is one too many."
But Stessel wasn't the only one to face scrutiny. At the City Paper, Shani Hilton criticized the Post coverage of the Collective Action's concerns. The Post piece opened with an imagined Metro interaction that blurred the line between harassment and flirtation ("A man walks up to a woman on a Metro train and tells her she looks good in that skirt."). The problem behavior is deeper, she writes:
It's when the person who thinks your skirt is "nice" or wants your phone number immediately starts berating you if you don't give it to them. Sometimes they insist on telling you what sex acts they'd perform on you (or make you perform). Sometimes they follow you, or block your path, or invade your personal space even though you're clearly uncomfortable (these things have happened to me, and to just about every woman I know). There should be an easy way for women (or anyone!) to report intimidating behavior to Metro police and be taken seriously, not just told that they may be interpreting it the wrong way.
Hilton is right. With sexual harassment, the choice of vocabulary and framing matters. The Post and Stessel both gave the appearance of minimizing the underlying threat of sexual harassment, and to reduce that experience translates as a tremendous insult for many. Shenoy herself called the Post's lead a "glaring issue" in the coverage. Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment reiterated the definition of harassment in her testimony in response.
Yesterday several women described troubling incidents that happened on WMATA trains and buses, from lewd remarks to groping to masturbation to the exposure that Shenoy herself experienced. One woman named Ami Lynch described how a bus operator on the 10B offered graphically sexual as well as homophobic comments. When Lynch followed up by phone with WMATA's Lendy Castillo, she was given the impression that it was a matter of "he said, she said" and that the driver's supervisor didn't apparently give the story credence. Her tale went nowhere, and she avoided the 10B in favor of taxicabs afterward.
"WMATA did what they did to shut me up," Lynch testified before the D.C. Council. "But clearly it's not working."
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles and D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser listened closely. "I'm glad to know you're bringing the issue to the fore," Bowser told Shenoy. In his testimony, Sarles began by noting how WMATA had increased safety staff by 60% in the last year and sought to change Metro's "safety culture," but in a tonally dissonant moment, began emphasizing the rail and infrastructural improvements as part of his agency's review. How are better escalators going to address the lurker trying to take photos up a female rider's skirt? His Metro Forward elevator pitch — emphasizing all the technical advances — didn't seem to fit with the troubled stories of the women who testified moments earlier. But Sarles extemporaneously addressed the complaints after his initial testimony, apologized for the actions of certain WMATA employees cited, and called the stories "very disturbing." He advised any crime victim to call the Metro Transit Police "immediately" and added that the phone number is available in every Metro car. Sarles emphasized that Metro is exploring ways to better train workers, handle reporting, and run a PR campaign. The agency has reached out to Boston's transit officials for advice . But Sarles also suggested the problem of sexual harassment runs deeper than his rail tracks.
"It's a societal issue, as has been pointed out," Sarles told Councilmember Muriel Bowser. The answer, he noted, needs to come in a more "holistic" way than in transit alone.