ALL The Inappropriate Questions The NYPD Asked Me After I Was Sexually Assaulted

Photo: Karen Novak / Courtesy of Elizabeth Yuko.
First, I had to tell the story of my sexual assault to the police officer at the reception desk, in front of what appeared to be the rest of the precinct. After a few minutes of awkwardly waiting, and trying not to make eye contact with anyone else, I was called into a room where I sat on an uncomfortable metal chair while (fittingly) “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” played in the background. The officer assigned to take my statement then proceeded to ask me question after question about the incident: Was I dressed provocatively? How, exactly, had I been touched by my assailant? Did my boyfriend also touch me like that? With each question, I began to feel increasingly responsible for what had happened.
It was the summer of 2014, and I had been living in New York City for just over a year. My hour-and-a-half each way daily commute, from Queens to the Bronx, meant coming into physical contact with strangers more than I ever thought possible. So, when I felt a hand touch my upper thigh on a crowded No. 7 train during rush hour, I didn’t think anything of it. I was standing in the middle of the train car with one of my closest friends, discussing how, on Seinfeld, the 7 train always seems to be going the opposite direction of rush hour when, all of a sudden, I felt a hand travel up my skirt, and firmly and deliberately grab my vagina.
Looking back, there are a million things I wish I could have said or done, but I froze. At the time, all I could muster was turning around, looking the man in the face, and saying, "Excuse me.” Not in an assertive "EXCUSE me?!” type of way, but in the timid, apologetic way you’d say it if you accidentally bumped into someone. The man, who had his red T-shirt pulled up over his nose, like a child who had just smelled something gross on a school bus, said “Sorry,” and then moved to the back of the train car. My friend and I were getting off at the next stop anyway, so we did, and proceeded to have a lovely sushi dinner where, despite numerous opportunities, I never told her about the incident. 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 though I had let the team down.

I told her at a bar, over a plate of beef brisket, lemon potatoes, and pickles. My hands were shaking under the table; I couldn’t believe how nervous I was to tell her — as if saying it out loud somehow made it more real. Her eyes got wide, and she immediately covered her mouth with her hand in shock. 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 next day was Saturday, so I went to my local precinct to file a report. Having never done this before, I just figured I would go in, fill out some sort of form, and be on my way. That was not the case. 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.'

At one point, an administrative assistant, who was also in the room, informed me that men tend to like “bigger girls” like me who have “more meat on their bones,” and said that they target us over thinner women. She later clarified that she meant it as a compliment. While I may be on the well-nourished and voluptuous side, I did not see what that had to do with being a target for sex offenders. 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.

After I described what happened on the train, yet again, the police officer said: “I hope at least your boyfriend gets to touch you like that.” 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.

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