Sexual assault on the subway is a scary, unpleasant specter always looming over the business of commuting in New York City, whether it’s groping or flashing or something even more intrusive. An analysis from the Daily News found over 3,000 reports of sexual assault on the subway from 2008 to 2013, mostly during rush hour, where, presumably, the crush of bodies provides cover for the creepsters. But those are just the incidents that people took the time to report. Ride the subway long enough, and you’re bound to be put into some uncomfortable situation, particularly if you happen to be a woman. (I took to wearing shorts under my dresses in the summer after a friend of mine had some awful dude pull up her skirt mid-train car.) The MTA is hoping to curtail the subway as pervert playground by installing 1,000 cameras in their train cars. But will it work?
Cameras, as recent events with Ray Rice and Eric Garner demonstrated, can make all the difference in the perception of an event. The “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality means that filming the subways is a natural next step. And it’s probable that, particularly in cases where the subway cars aren’t packed and the camera gets a clear image of the offender, having video footage of an incident will help suspects be identified and apprehended more quickly. The MTA’s new portal on its website for riders to report sexual abuse is also an encouraging step. Even just as a deterrent, it’s a good idea.
But as the Daily News report points out, the majority of terrible run-ins on the subway are during the hours when the cars are so packed with people that it’s difficult to identify them. In those circumstances, it’s unclear if an overhead camera would help very much. The whole modus operandi of subway abusers is to use the crowd as protection from being called out for their shitty behavior, to operate in plan sight. Cameras are unlikely to stop that during rush hour. And call me a pessimist, but if the cameras operate like anything else in the MTA system, they’ll be constantly breaking and/or graffitied over fairly quickly. And further, women shouldn’t have to produce video evidence in order for sexual abuse to be believed. The cameras are a good step, but eliminating the kind of harassment that women regularly experience on the subway is a cultural problem, not just an MTA one.