The following day, I couldn’t think about anything else. More than feeling violated, I felt ashamed, and guilty for not taking more action and reporting the incident right away. I pictured him doing the same thing to other women, and felt as though I would be personally responsible. I have always been an outspoken feminist, in both my personal and professional life, and yet in this situation, I just froze. I felt as if I had let the team down.
Two nights later, after much anxiety and guilt, I met up with the same friend. Although I knew she would be nothing but supportive, I didn’t want her to feel in guilty or responsible in any way since she had been there, and didn’t know what had occurred.
I felt guilty for not reporting the incident right away...as though I had let the team down.
I don’t remember what she said — I was distracted by the family with small children sitting next to us, and whether I had ruined their dining experience by saying “vagina” too loudly. I told my friend that I had been thinking of going to the police to file a report, and she offered to go with me the following day. Positive that I could handle it on my own, I declined her offer.
The questions from the police officer came one after another, and the question about what I had been wearing caught me especially off guard. I responded that I was wearing a knee-length dress and a cardigan, and, like most days, “was dressed like an old-timey secretary.” The police officer chuckled and said, "So you weren’t wearing anything promiscuous or provocative?” I informed him that it did not matter what I was wearing, and that I do not subscribe to the belief that what a woman is wearing in any way grants permission for anyone to touch her without her consent. I don’t think that part made it into the police report.
After I described what had happened again, the officer said: 'I hope at least your boyfriend gets to touch you like that.'
The officer asked if this was the first time something like this has happened to me. I told him that unfortunately, this was the third time something like this had happened to me in the past year. When he asked why I didn’t report the previous two incidents, I did not have a good answer. I really didn’t know. But I said that it was important to me to report this incident, if for no other reason than to make me feel as though I had some sort of control over this situation — and to stop perpetuating the cycle of sexual assaults that are left unreported.
“Well, if this is happening to you so frequently, a lot of men must find you attractive,” the police officer informed me. “Yes. They’re called sex offenders,” I replied.
He asked if I noticed any patterns in what I was doing when I was targeted, adding that it could help me to determine what to avoid in the future. Was I standing in a certain area? Wearing a certain thing? Engaging with other commuters? Smiling too much? Didn’t my phone have a camera? Why didn’t I take his photo? I couldn’t help but feel the onus being placed squarely on me to prove that I wasn’t the responsible party.
He asked for a second time where I was on the subway car, and then informed me that I should really try to sit down while riding the subway, as that would make it harder for men to touch me inappropriately.
The experience made me question whether reporting the incident to the police was the right thing to do.
Apparently, asking about the sexual gratification of my hypothetical boyfriend was a crucial part of filling out my sexual assault report.
During the entire police reporting process, everyone I encountered was perfectly pleasant. In fact, I’m sure they thought they were being kind and supportive. That is the part I found most disturbing: misogyny is so deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system and our culture in general, that no one involved had any idea that they had made not one, but several completely inappropriate and offensive remarks. The most sympathetic police officer I dealt with informed me that he has a wife and college-age daughters; he meant well, but I found it disheartening that this seemed to be a prerequisite for his empathy.
Then, I got angry. The whole experience made me question whether reporting the incident to the police was the right thing to do. To be fair, I think it was, and despite the way I was treated, I would do it again. If this sort of behavior on public transit (and elsewhere) continues unreported, then we are essentially silencing ourselves.
The most frustrating part was the complete contradiction with respect to how my police report was handled, which I believe corresponds with the wider attitude toward sexual assault. On one hand it was, “Oh, this happens all the time,” and, “We are aware of serial gropers.” On the other it was, “Why has this happened to you on multiple occasions?” — accompanied by the implication that what I was wearing mattered. Well, which is it? It’s no big deal and it happens all the time, or the number of incidents where I was touched inappropriately seems to be disproportionately high? The officer was simultaneously able to trivialize what happened to me, while appearing to be shocked that I had been targeted repeatedly.
The more we talk about sex crimes and report them to police, the more they may get used to hearing the word “vagina” at work, and put a human face on what most perceive to be an inevitable problem in a big city. As a woman, it seems the onus is on you to prove that you did not say, do, or wear anything to encourage the incident, making reporting sex crimes range from inconvenient and time-consuming, to infuriating and traumatic.
The fact that it took me several days to tell anyone is a testament to the intense guilt and shame women are conditioned to feel when our own bodies are violated. This was only reinforced by the questions from the police officers about my attire and body type. Framing a sex crime in this manner places the blame on the victim. It makes you question every decision you made that day, in an attempt to pinpoint which one caused you to be violated in public on your commute. We already have enough to worry about.
Editor's note: Refinery29 reached out to the NYPD for comment, but did not receive a response.