Men, Step Up


Step up to the plate, and don’t strike out.

I had a bad, disturbing incident on the train yesterday. I have to get to the airport, where I work in a bookstore, very early in the morning. While I like the work and the people at work, the journey in the dark hours is stressful. I get through it by preparing myself the night before, and otherwise not thinking about how difficult this part of my day is.

I was sitting peacefully in the train car, having walked a mile in the dark to the station, in rain and wind. I thought the worst part of the trip was over.

A man got on the car, carrying some grocery items in a plastic store bag. He sat next to me, which annoyed me  a bit, as there were plenty of seats elsewhere. But I was near the door, in the first car, and sometimes people will choose to do that if they are riding just a stop or two.

Soon he was fidgeting with the bag, which was set on the floor between his feet. The woman across from me said to him, “What are you doing? Don’t do that.” I gave him a deep, frowning glance, as I wasn’t sure what was up.

A few minutes later, he was fidgeting again. I felt a tug at my skirt hem. My usual work dress is a long, heavy black skirt over a long, dark petticoat. I wear knee-high stockings and heavy leather clogs. I often wear a black cardigan over my long-sleeved uniform shirt, and my hair pinned up under a prayer kapp. Not exactly provocative attire.

The two women sitting in the seats opposite then both said to this man, “Hey, leave her alone!” I jumped up and moved to sit next to one of them. “He was trying to lift your skirt,” one explained.

“What do you think you are doing?” one woman scolded him.

“Don’t act nasty to people,” the other said.

I was furious. I looked at this man intently and said, “You know that is wrong! Don’t do things that are wrong! If you are going to act like that, you can get off this train.”

We were pulling into the next station, and he got up, took his bag, and got off. The women tried to comfort me. I was considerably upset. He seemed to have been looking to sit next to a woman in a skirt, using the bag of goods as a blind for surreptitiously lifting skirts and “accidentally” touching.

This is, bluntly, sexual assault. Purposefully touching a person’s clothes and body without their permission is assault, even if they are not materially harmed physically. It is upsetting, invasive and deviant.

When I was younger, and living in Washington, DC, we expected that during crowded rush hours on the Metro (the rapid transit subway) women would be accosted and physically assaulted by strangers who used the standing room only conditions to fondle and grab. That was twenty-five years ago, and this is still the condition women face in public.

There is a lot of discussion now about the rape culture of cities and universities. Men are still, within a subset of community, encouraged to see women as sexual conquests, and available for men to use without regard for the personal rights of the women.

There have always been people with sexual problems. Forms of physical violence, from forcible rape to “creeping” on the subway, are very public forms of that sort of sexual misbehavior. Maybe we can’t cure everyone with a mental illness, but we should be able to prevent further victimization.

Women are told to watch out for themselves, take self-defense classes, carry a weapon, travel in pairs or groups, stay out of public areas where they might be attacked.

And that doesn’t work. Why should we have to be the ones in charge of the deviants?

Since almost all public perpetrators of sexual assault are men, I am calling this a problem for men to address. Men, take responsibility. Work to make the world safer for women, children and other men.

Patrol subway cars, petition for added police presence, and call out the men who victimize. It isn’t just some weirdo, or homeless guy, or dirty old man. It can be respectable-looking businessmen, college students, proper elderly grandfathers. It can be your drunken best friend. It can be your son or father. Start promoting a culture in which people don’t have to be afraid to go to work.

Yes, we need more mental health care available without someone first being convicted of an offense. We need more therapy groups and fewer jails for people with such mental health problems. Work for them. Write about how men need to step up to the plate and connect. Stop acting as if this a problem women have to solve by arming themselves or staying home.

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