The XX Factor

Why More Women Are Reporting Subway Sex Crimes

A crowded subway car in New York.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Subways are a perfect setting for creeps and criminals. Would-be offenders can squeeze into a packed train at the last second, groping or pressing up against other riders and then hopping off at the next stop. People are crammed together and distracted, and it’s easy to disappear. In the past, there was little police could do to stop these men, and often little will to do so.

As the New York Times reports Monday, that’s starting to change. Last year, New York City police started to train more female officers to work such cases. The anti-harassment group Hollaback is now consulting with transit officers who work on sex crimes. In 2014, the MTA created a website to collect complaints of sexual misconduct on the subway system; it includes the option to upload a photo or video. And the NYPD now broadcasts frequent alerts about subway crimes, using photographs taken by victims. The Transit Bureau chief’s Twitter account, for example, features photos of smiling civilian award-winners interspersed with photos of subway creeps caught in the act.

The training and public education campaigns are working. Reports of sex crimes in the New York City subway system were up 19 percent last year, indicating that more victims are willing to come forward. Police initiatives are admirable, but cellphones and social media should get a lot of the credit for this shift. Women are now armed with the tools to identify and shame the city’s underground lechers, and they’ve been taking advantage.

In the summer of 2001, a teenager exposed himself to me on a Metro platform in Washington, D.C. There was no one else around, but I told him with a disgusted air that I was going upstairs to notify the police—in retrospect, a pretty bold move. He was gone by the time police arrived, and when they later called me into the station to look at a photo array of potential suspects, I couldn’t pick him out. He got away. Had I had access to a smartphone, that situation might have ended differently.

But technology is doing more than just giving women the weapons to identify bad apples. It’s also connecting them to other women’s stories, and amplifying the idea that supposedly minor annoyances—street harassment, leering, the occasional grope—really matter. Some of them are crimes, and some of them merely moral affronts. But regardless, they shouldn’t be written off as a cost of living for women in the city.