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Women Share Their Stories Of Sexual Harassment (And Worse) On Public Transportation

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Last week we wrote about one woman's horrifying story of sexual harassment on the Metro. We were so blown away by the stories that our readers shared in response that we decided to do a follow-up post.

Many women (and they were all women) wrote in to us to tell us their own tales of dealing with harassment or even assault while they were riding public buses and trains. We've picked out a few excerpts and highlighted some common themes from the e-mails that we received.

Obviously, sexual harassment isn't limited to public transportation or to Los Angeles (here's a recent story of sexual battery out of San Francisco). We did receive many stories from outside of Los Angeles, but we limited our post to incidents on local lines.

Kelly Ness writes about an incident that happened on her early-morning commute from Costa Mesa to Long Beach in 2004. On this particular morning, there were only a few other passengers on the bus, and she chose a seat across from another man. She pulled out a book to read until she noticed something strange:

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I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye from the man across the aisle and glanced across to him. He was staring at me, the waistline of his sweats pulled down to expose his very aroused, very large private parts to me. He was busily stroking himself while watching me - this was the movement I noticed. No one else was nearby or noticed him - his action was hidden from the driver and other passengers by the backs of the seats in front of him. Horrified, I shouted, "Put that thing away! That's disgusting!" I blushed deeply, the driver looked into his mirror to see what the problem was. No one else was talking on the bus because of the hour and because there were so few of us, so my shout was pretty loud and unexpected. The pervert pulled his pants up quickly and tried to look innocent. I figured it was my word against his, so I made no further attempt to report his activity or stop him. Maybe I should have moved, but I didn't. He got off a few stops later and said something to me as he exited the front door, but I couldn't hear him very well and missed all of what he said. No one else said anything to me or asked me what had happened.

Julie Asperger says she's had so many terrible experiences with harassment and trying to report it that she avoids public transportation unless she has to:
There are also all the men who believe any woman at a bus stop is a prostitute. So you have those guys pulling up soliciting you for sex and many [use] very verbally abusive names like bitch, whore, slut, cunt, prostitute. Riding the bus is like a war zone. I try to sit near women or near the front of the bus. Men will sit next to me when I [wear] skirts and dresses. Men sitting next to me will start caressing the side of my leg. I have had men reach and touch the inside of my thigh.

Many women who wrote in were frustrated by other passengers' responses—or non-responses—to their harassment.Streetsblog writer Sahra Sulaiman pointed us in the direction of a post that she wrote about being harassed on public transportation. She wrote about one experience on the Blue Line when she rejected a man who repeatedly asked her to sit next to him. He responded by giving a blow-by-blow description of her appearance—and instead of saying something or even just ignoring the man, the other passengers responded by checking her out. She said that because of previous sexual harassment that she'd dealt with, she wasn't fazed—until he tried to take her suitcase as she left the train:
“Come on, amiga!” he said, pulling at my things. “Let’s go!”
Now he’d really crossed the line. I gave him a shove and a few choice words.
People looked at me like I was the aggressive weirdo.
I sighed.
“What ever happened to ‘see something, say something’?” I muttered to myself as passengers crushed by me, eager to get off the train.
“Shouldn’t this qualify as ‘something’?”

Eleanor Goldfield writes about a few not-so-gentlemen who tried to get her number and address. Fortunately, when one man threatened her, the driver stepped in:
A few weeks ago, I left work at 11pm and took the 720 bus back downtown where I live. A man sat next to me and began playing a video game on his phone. He dipped and turned with the motions of the game, knocking into me several times. After a few times, I stood up and demanded he let me pass. He looked up and with a sick grin, asked for my phone number. Although the bus was packed, no one seemed to notice or even look up. I tightened my jaw and said calmly but sternly, "Move."

He wasn't pleased but he moved, shouting expletives as I shuffled past him. The bus driver looked up but said nothing. If he hadn't have moved, I would have had to try and make him. And I'm not trying to sound cool by saying that. But what are you supposed to do? At that point, I could've been wearing twelve wedding rings and a burqa, it wouldn't have mattered.

Yet another time, the bus driver did come to my aid when a man threatened to rape me if I didn't give him my address - great pick up line. The bus driver threw the man off and asked if I was OK.

But many of the women who wrote in said that in some cases the bus drivers or conductors weren't sensitive to their complaints or the safety threats they faced. Sometimes they were, in fact, the harassers.Michelle C. describes the incident that she says prompted her to stop taking the Red Line—and also to not assume that sitting near the conductor is a good way to avoid being bothered:
On more than one occasion I was harassed on the Red Line between downtown and North Hollywood. Like the blogger from Jezebel, I would bring a book, avoid all eye contact and wear headphones (always without music, so I could be aware of my surroundings for safety purposes, but also put out the message that I WILL NOT TALK TO YOU). I also learned to always sit on the outside seat, especially on an empty or nearly empty train. If I sat next to the window with an empty aisle seat, it was like an invitation for some creep to trap me in the row and harass me. Once a man in a zoot suit (I kid you not) followed me as I moved seats because he wouldn't stop trying to engage me and ask about the book I was reading, asking if I spoke English, asking if I had a boyfriend, asking if I was Japanese (I'm not) becoming more agitated with each question that went unanswered. I finally got fed up and moved a second time to the very front of the train, thinking I'd be safe behind the conductor's door in case I needed help. The next thing I knew, the conductor opened his door and began to chat me up, also asking if I had a boyfriend and if he could have my number. I was so disgusted that I got off the train at the next stop and felt safer walking through much of downtown in the dark than staying on that train. I called and submitted an anonymous complaint and haven't gotten on the Red Line since.

Christina, a reader who only wanted us to use her first name, says that while she's come across many helpful drivers, she was disappointed that a drunk man who grabbed her wasn't booted off the bus:
I've been taking the bus and train for a few years now. For a while I was taking night classes at Trade-Tech and I'd take the train back home to Koreatown. One night on an 81 bus, this obviously drunk Latino guy was on the bus; he was shouting in Spanish, very slurred and swinging around on the poles. For whatever reason, he singled me out and started just shouting at me (I knew, because there weren't other people around me and he noted that I was Korean) and swinging in very close to me and eventually grabbing my shoulder. Yeah, incredibly enough, NO ONE did anything -- other riders or the driver. I know of some bus drivers who would've taken whatever action to get rid of this man, but this driver didn't do a single thing. I ran off the bus at my stop; I regret not taking down that driver's name and reporting him.

A reader, who asked to be anonymous, describes a number of incidents that happened to her on public transportation, including one incident where a driver was harassing women on the street:
I am a woman who rides mass transit in LA. I do not have a car and due to a medical condition, I can never drive. I've had so many harassment incidents on Metro and Big Blue Bus that I have lost count. At bus stops, I've had incidents where men have stalked me (literally following me down the street). I've been physically hurt: in one case, a man stomped on my foot when I wouldn't talk to him and the bus driver wouldn't even stop the bus or call the cops. I've been harassed and cursed at. Just yesterday, a guy on a bus tried to engage me in conversation, poked me in the back and told me I needed to say "excuse me" to leave the bus. I told him to back the f**k off and told the driver, but again, I doubt anything was done. I was once on a bus where the DRIVER was randomly opening the door to holler at women walking down the street.

Some of the women shared the coping mechanisms that they said worked the best for them to avoid harassment. Some said reading a book or wearing headphones seemed to help send off the signal that they didn't want to engage, although others said it didn't faze their harassers.Goldfield says it's difficult, but she tries to find a balance in the way she presents herself:
What I've learned is this. Either extreme will attract extremes. If you look too shy and withdrawn, they'll prey on you because they think it's easy. If you look too bad ass and invincible, they'll mess with you to try and break you. As ridiculous as this sounds, it's a balance. You have to look aware of your surroundings, in control but disinterested and aloof. If someone approaches you menacingly, say loudly, "Not interested."

Others said that no matter how many precautions they took, the harassment continued. If they tried to move seats, their harassers would move to sit with them again. If they tried to get off the train or bus, sometimes their harassers would follow them.S. Stone, who had some terrible experiences on public transportation while she was growing up on the East Coast, says that she worries about sending her daughters onto the Metro system. She's worried partially because of what her daughters will run into and partially because she says women are taught to second-guess themselves when they're harassed:
I have two daughters, and we take the car most places. But now they are teens and want to take Metro around LA. I have had to express concerns to them about their safety and what to do when, not if but when, a man approaches them in an inappropriate and/or aggressive way. Women tend to want to be quiet, not make a scene, and not be mistaken- what if he's really NOT beating off on my arm? And if he is, do you want to shout that? I would, but my daughters wouldn't. If so many incidents happened just to me, I imagine that every young woman in an urban environment has the same number of incidents happen, maybe more, most of which they don't "report" because they seem embarrassing or so commonplace as to be trivial, and, who's going to do anything about it anyway?
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Many of the women who wrote into LAist said they worried about their concerns being taken seriously if they took the time to report it. Christina writes:

I dislike being rude and mean to people, but often you have to when you're on public transportation. Many of the men are disgusting and can make your commute miserable and humiliating. I know sometimes cops or Metro people are around train stations, but in both of [my] cases, there was no one around. And I guess I also have my doubts about how seriously I'd be taken if I reported either of those cases or a case where someone was making really crude and inappropriate statements to me.