On a Wednesday morning, I walked the five minutes from my apartment to the metro station and boarded San Francisco's municipal railway (it's a lot like the subway, but it also goes above ground in certain parts of the city). Work is only two stops away, so I almost never sit down. Instead, I stand near the doors, so I can hop on and off with ease.
This particular ride was one I'll never forget. I was close to the doors, as per usual, when the old man sitting in front of me chose to get up before the car had made a complete stop. He fell into me, and he dug his arm into my breast and clutched my shoulder. I had an interview later that morning, so I was doing work on my phone. I remember looking up, startled. "Sorry," he mumbled. I chalked it up to an accident — he was just an old man, after all. Right?
A minute later, he fell into me again. And just like the last time, he got a good feel of my breast. A second later, we were at my stop, so I simply walked off, stunned. The old man got off, too, and I stared at him, trying to sort it out in my mind. I felt muddled and violated. How could he have fallen into me twice? He was holding on to a pole. And he managed to touch my chest both times.
As I continued the walk to work, I turned the incident over and over in my head. I had that sick feeling in my gut, and I knew there was no way it wasn't intentional. It was incredibly hot in San Francisco that day, so I was wearing a tank that happened to show a little cleavage. Was this a motive for the man? (Obviously, any woman is at risk for assault — I'm simply detailing everything that went through my mind.) By the time I got to my building, I was irate — at the man and myself. Why the f*ck didn't I say something? Why didn't I publicly call him out? What gave him the absurd notion he had a right to touch me and pass it off as an accident? Why did I let him just walk away?
I told my co-workers about the incident as soon as I got into the office. I've been living in the city for only four months — I come from a township in the Midwest — and they've been living here for years. And guess what? It's happened to them, too (surprise, surprise). "A man slapped my ass on the subway once," one of my colleagues said to me. The way she said it was the saddest part. So casual, like it happens all the time . . . because it does.
I decided to ask all the editors at POPSUGAR if they've ever been harassed or assaulted on or around public transit, and I received several horrifying responses. Truly, their stories are downright stomach-churning. This MUST stop — women should never be made to feel unsafe on the bus, train, subway, cable car, or ferry because of a passenger who can't resist. I know one story will not eradicate the mindset these creepers carry around: that they're entitled to touch, say, or do as they please to the women they encounter; that their desires trump a person's safety and emotional or physical well-being. But hopefully, shedding a little more light on the matter will make for greater awareness among all — especially city-dwellers.
Check out the anecdotes below, and take note of these ladies' reactions. If you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance, do what I didn't do: speak up.
1. The man who masturbated next to her.
"It's disgusting how often this happens. I was actually the victim of an incident on the bus where a man was masturbating next to me. This was in San Francisco.
"It was early in the morning and I was on my way to the gym. The bus was virtually empty, but this man sat right next to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him fiddling with something in his lap and my first thought was, 'Oh my gosh, he's playing with his d*ck,' and then I was like, 'No, he's playing with his phone.' Then I looked over and saw I was right the first time: He had the whole thing out of his pants and was stroking himself. I just screamed 'EW!' really loudly and moved to another seat. I didn't want to get into a conversation with him, but I wanted him to know I saw him. Now whenever I see someone playing with a phone on the train, I worry that it might be a d*ck. The bad news is, I didn't even think to report it to the police. The good news is, it led to me being quoted in The New York Times.
"The REALLY interesting part about this is when I tell the story to women, they are all immediately like, 'Ew, gross, what a pervert,' and they understand it was a violation. Men don't immediately understand it was a violation and often say things like, 'That's weird, why would he masturbate on the bus?' Like, dudes: That is the point. Clearly exposing himself to women on this bus is his thing, not a mere convenience."
— Nancy Einhart, VP and executive editor
2. The man who got right in her face.
"You want me to pick just one occurrence? OK — so apart from every time I wear anything that reveals my legs or arms, or . . . skin, basically, in my neighborhood . . . one more recent experience that stands out to me was on my bus ride from a workout class back home (silly me, being so bold as to wear a tank top and leggings on public transportation, right?!). I take this bus every single day through San Francisco, so I am totally used to seeing some sh*t. This day, I had my headphones on when a man sidled over to me, reeking of alcohol. He started speaking to me, and I pointed to my headphones in a polite 'f*ck off' kind of way. He didn't take the hint, got incredibly close to my face and continued speaking to me with the usual 'hey babys' etc., his hot boozy breath blowing into my eyes, nose, and mouth. Finally I ripped out my headphones, looked at him with the most amount of disgust I could muster (which wasn't hard) and growled at him to get away. Seriously. I growled. He looked me up and down, and in a cold, dead voice said, 'B*TCH' — a clear indication that in his mind it was obviously me, not him, with the problem here. He got off at the next stop and held eye contact with me through the window as he walked alongside the bus, as if trying to intimidate me into looking away, but I met his gaze without blinking or changing my expression, until the bus passed him completely. The bus was packed and passengers saw everything, and no one said one damn thing to me. I've gotten puked on on an SF bus — like on my face/in my mouth puked on — and somehow, this was worse."
— Hilary White, assistant editor, Love and Sex and Smart Living
3. The man who tried to kiss her.
"I was waiting at a bus stop in the morning, and a man who was obviously drunk came up to me. He was asking for money so he could catch a bus ride home, so I gave him $2 and hoped that he would continue on his way. He didn't. He began to tell me how beautiful I was, grabbed my hand, and his eyes kept darting to my chest. I gradually started taking steps backward when he was getting too close. He started telling me that the other day a lady slapped him because he tried to kiss her, and then he asked if I would slap him if he kissed me. I told him that it wasn't right to do that and people should be treated with respect. He attempted to lean in to try it, but obviously I got scared and backed away. Thankfully, my bus came shortly after that and he left. But what shocked me the most was when I looked behind me, there was a line of probably 15 people who were standing 10 feet behind, just watching the encounter. When I looked at them, their eyes went straight back down to their phones."
— Allison Chan, marketing assistant, influencer programs
4. The man who groped her.
"I had just moved to Seattle and was on the bus going to a job interview. I was in the window seat, and the creeper behind me somehow fit his hand between the seat and the side of the bus and slid it across my side to get a grip of side boob. I immediately freaked out on him and reported him to the bus driver, but before the driver could grab him, he busted down the back doors and ran off the bus."
— Kristy Ellington, director, native content and editorial sponsorships
5. The man who verbally harassed her.
"I was lucky in a way that my experience wasn't of a physical nature, but in the end it was still humiliating, slightly scary, and very infuriating. While waiting for the train late one night after work, an older man followed me down the platform and started muttering gross things at me, such as, 'Gonna get all the ladies tonight' and 'I'm getting laid tonight,' etc. He escalated in volume as I walked away from him, and I gave him the evil-eye over my shoulder. Then he gave up on me and started yelling at another young woman a few feet away. At this point, I was furious — I should be able to wait for a train at night without being yelled at! So I walked up to him and told him flat to his face, 'F*ck off and leave us alone.' All he did was smile at me while walking away . . . and then the older woman next to us leaned over and said, 'Honey, it's better not to react. That's what they want.' But if nobody says anything, then they'll keep harassing young women in the middle of the night, and that's not OK."
— Rachel Crowley, copy editor
6. The man who felt her up and followed her.
"I was on an incredibly crowded subway train, so as you do, you put your headphones on and try to get through it like everyone else. I saw a creeper trying to get my attention, but I ignored him, and when I started moving toward the exit at my transfer stop, he did as well. He CHARGED the other passengers to get a handful of booty before I could get off the train, and to my absolute horror, he actually followed me off the train and stood next to me in line for my transfer, inching closer by the minute. I was totally freaked so I called my husband and hopped out of line (obviously I didn't want him to follow me home), but he continued to follow me around the train station. I pretended like I was getting on a different train, and when I saw him ALSO get on this train in the next car, I waited until the last second before I hopped off and the doors shut on him. Probably one of the most nerve-wracking few minutes of my life, but the kicker is that when I told the station agent what happened and asked him if there were videos so I could identify the person, he said that the cameras on the train 'didn't work like that.'"
— Kristy Ellington, director, native content and editorial sponsorships
Get more information on how to respond to sexual harassment.