Rape Culture on the MTA: A Rude Awakening on the 2/3 Train

5 years ago

Since when do disrespect and violence inspire applause? I must have missed the moment when sexually harassing people and violating their privacy became an entertaining and admirable action that our culture condones and applauds. Can someone fill me in on when that happened?

When riding the subway home to my apartment, a man came on the train with a guitar and amplifier. Hearing performers is a common occurrence on the subway in New York, but this man did not come onto the subway to perform music. Instead, he proceeded to single out two women who were also in that car, singing aggressively sexual and offensive lyrics to them. Then I was singled out, and the man announced to everyone in the car that when he finished his song, he was going to come over and give me a kiss.

I have been sexually assaulted in public before, and since that experience, I have carried pepper spray with me wherever I go. While I doubted that this man would actually follow through on his his intention to kiss me, I removed the pepper spray from my purse and held it in my hand to protect myself if necessary. As I was doing this, the people sitting around me on cart commented on what I was doing, laughing and saying, “Ooooh, watch out! She’s got pepper spray!” and “He’s gonna give you a kiss!”

As the man stood in front of me, I opened my hand, showed him the pepper spray and said quietly, “Don’t you dare.” The man then announced to the subway car, “The white girl doesn’t want the n***er to kiss her!” The onlookers continued to laugh and cheer for the man and hand him money while I exited the subway.

When I told a few people about this experience, I learned that the man performs this routine on the subway very often, and he follows the same process every time. Other women who have been singled out by this man have written about him online and their experiences were very similar to mine, including the response of onlookers. After verbally harassing women and shouting derogatory language on the subway, this man has been applauded and given money. This is an unfortunately perfect demonstration of the rape culture that we live in.

Rape culture is defined in the book Transforming a Rape Culture as the following:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

A society “where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent.” Hmmm, that sounds familiar and I witnessed a disturbing depiction of it just last night, when I attended the Bryant Park movie where On the Waterfront was screened. Having seen A View From the Bridge on Broadway two years ago, I was excited to watch the counterpoint to Arthur Miller’s take on informing during the Red Scare.

On the Waterfront is a political story, and the love story in it comes second to the narrative about fighting corruption. However, the love story, if you can call it that, is a disturbing example of male aggression. After Terry Malloy, played by the muscular, manly Marlon Brando meets Edie Doyle, played by the blonde, virginal Eva Marie Saint, the two begin a romance of opposites attracting. Shocked and disgusted by Terry’s involvement in the corruption at the waterfront, Edie refuses to open her apartment door to Terry, shouting, “I want you to stay away from me.” Instead of leaving, Terry breaks the door open, enters the apartment and gathers Edie into his arms, telling her, “You love me.” He then forcefully kisses her, despite her repeated orders for him to stay away from her.

While watching this movie in Bryant Park, I was disgusted by the cheers, applause and wolf whistles I heard in the audience during this scene. People seemed to find this scene sexy and even admirable rather than a disturbing portrayal of a man refusing to respect a woman’s boundaries. This is not an archaic occurrence either; take a look at some of the most popular songs in pop culture and how they treat violent, possessive sexual relationships.

The man who harasses people on the subway has been filmed and posted on YouTube by numerous people.

One might say that homeless people or mentally ill people are inevitable encounters while riding public transportation in New York. But this man is clearly following a routine he has prepared in advance. And if he is homeless, how does he own an amplifier? However, this man is not the only person whose actions are upsetting. The other people riding the subway, and the people in the audience at Bryant Park, also disappointed me. Instead of applauding and condoning the actions of men who force themselves on women by telling themselves it is all in jest and doesn’t mean anything, people need to consciously consider the roles that both genders play in culture. The only way these unhealthy and destructive patterns will change is through deliberate choices and actions made by both men and women.

Carey Purcell


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