March 22, 2019 | Narrative
a woman’s experience on public transit
I ran across the street, splashing through the cold slush of melting snow to catch the RIPTA before it left me waiting 20 minutes for the next one. Safely on the line, I pulled out my Brown ID and readied to swipe—hoping that I was holding the card correctly to avoid fumbling and causing an awkward holdup. The possibility of slightly inconveniencing anyone, as well as my incessant need for validation, leads me to live day-to-day constantly worrying about being in the way. I heard the beep of a successful swipe and let out a little sigh of relief.
Putting my card back in my jacket pocket as the bus started to roll forward, I scanned the seating area to find it mostly empty—not usually the case. I stumbled toward the middle, sat down, and put my earbuds in. Opening up Spotify, I decided that this was a King Princess kind of day and settled into the ease of just listening to my music, taking care to not make awkward eye contact with the two other people on the bus.
I didn’t notice the middle-aged man who boarded at the next stop until he took the seat directly next to mine. Despite the virtually empty bus.
Slightly uncomfortable, to say the least, I made a point of pretending to be busy reading emails on my phone. I crossed my legs, angling away from him, but somehow this was misconstrued as a signal for him to move in and take up the room I had left. I tried ignoring his general existence, but King Princess had faded and was replaced by an internal argument in my head.
You’re just reading into this too much, like you do with everything else.
But why didn’t he take one of the seats closer to the front of the bus? Why sit directly next to me?
Don’t be a narcissist; this is probably perfectly innocent. But also don’t turn your head to the right or make eye contact. Can you move any closer to the window? The world doesn’t revolve around you.
I’m so uncomfortable.
You grew up taking the subway; this is nothing.
But was it “nothing”? I realize taking public transportation means having to forgo certain luxuries, including personal space. I’ve been part of the sardine pack during morning rush hour on the E train many a time. But these experiences didn’t make me any less uncomfortable on the RIPTA. In fact, I felt even more of an invasion of privacy and space on the empty bus. As a young woman, I have certain safety concerns that the average male doesn’t typically need to think about—concerns I have been conditioned to know how to protect myself from.
Harassment of women on public transport is a common occurrence that often goes underreported; it’s something women fear is possible anytime they decide to take a public bus or train. Unfortunately, it just as often feels as though nothing can be done. Was it really an “accident”? Who would you tell? How could you stop it from happening again, to yourself or to someone else? Of course, harassment on public transport isn’t limited to women—this feeling of vulnerability spans across all genders and ages.
However, over time, this has become an issue that women have had to deal with so frequently that we’ve just come to expect it as the status quo. And yet, I still often find myself wondering what defines harassment, what I should brush off, and what I can allow myself to mull over without feeling guilty of “overreacting.”
The #MeToo era has brought to light the idea that women should not simply have to accept invasions of their personal space. We now have a movement that expressly recognizes the daily occurrences women must deal with, or be aware of, in order to manufacture a safer environment for themselves. People are finally recognizing how unfair it is that women have always had to carry this burden. My first thought is that living during such a time of increased awareness is a privilege—but really, it is a right.
As soon as I saw my stop approaching, I excused myself and darted off the bus, saying a quick thank you to the driver and making a mental note to move on. It was just another day, and odds were I would never see this man again. But there will inevitably be another man; perhaps again on the RIPTA, perhaps on the MTA. It will happen to me, to others. Although we are becoming a culture that increasingly brings these issues to light and tries to remedy them, harassment is so widespread that it’s difficult to find a solution that creates a safer environment for everyone. This can lead to a defeatist attitude in which the easiest, safest, and sometimes only choice we have is, seemingly, to just move on. But “moving on” normalizes and perpetuates the problem, so maybe this time I actually will—and should—keep thinking about it.