Delays, Overcrowding, and Sex Crimes: Welcome to the Subway

As New York's train shit-storm continues, surging sex crimes make the whole thing even worse.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York's subways have long been the great equalizer of America's largest city, the democratizing force in a metropolis of otherwise dizzying inequality. When it sucks—and boy does the subway suck in 2017—it sucks for everyone. Unless you're a woman, and then it sucks more.

While the 10 percent spike in misdemeanor sex crimes allegations across NYC so far this year isn't exclusive to the subway, police statistics show considerable overlap with weekday commutes. And more specifically, stats obtained by NY state senator Diane Savino show "subway groping" up 50 percent in the past three years, and a 9 percent increase in subway sex crimes this year, at least as of late May.


Exactly why the problem is so much worse now is something experts don't yet agree on, but when delays get bad enough to make the news, as they have repeatedly in recent days, the fear is that pervs go wild.

"Their piece of heaven is a crowded train," Dr. N.G. Berrill, a longtime NYC clinical psychologist who treats subway gropers, explained of patients whose compulsions drive them to hump strangers on the sly. With gropers, "it's more of an eff you. It's a way of exerting power, letting the person know that you're violating their space. It's almost like a dare—now what are you going to do about it?"

When cascade delays press sweating, frustrated straphangers together on overcrowded platforms and in stalled cars, the toxic brew of opportunity and grope-y anger make "a ripe environment for stranger-on-stranger sexual violation," Berrill added.

For its part, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz emailed VICE of the delay problem on one hand and subway sex crimes in the other, "There is no observed correlation between the two but suggest you reach out to NYPD." In its own emailed statement, an NYPD spokesperson added, "The Department's enhanced efforts to encourage victims to come forward and report these crimes."

and Mero weigh in on a recent F train fiasco in NYC.

Debjani Roy, deputy director of the anti-harassment organization Hollaback!, blames a spike in reported subway sex crimes on the same phenomenon that's surged reports of hate crimes both on and off public transit. Namely, that whoever isn't encouraged by Trump-ian attitudes of aggression and entitlement is now exquisitely attuned to them.


"I really believe people are feeling emboldened in sexual harassment in this moment," Roy told me.

At the same time, though, she said some New Yorkers seem more sensitive to shady behavior, and readier to call it out, echoing former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton's assertion that the "Cosby Effect" has encouraged more women to report sexual assault in recent years. "When you have a whole chorus of voices saying that was not in my head, that is not in your head, you're also more alert to [assaults]. You're more aware," Roy said.

That last point might seem minor, but as anyone who's ever been molested by a stranger in public can tell you, it's instinctive—or at least, intensely conditioned—to interpret a misdemeanor assault as an accident.

Really, motherfucker? I remember snapping when the man behind me on the stairs coming out of the Q-train at Canal Street reached up my skirt a few years back. Really? I was late to court, and it was too crowded to know which gross-looking jerk belonged to that gross-feeling hand, and a part of me just didn't want to believe it was happening—and that's when he squeezed.

"The more awareness that's raised that something's not a figment of someone's imagination, the more people are feeling validated in their experiences," Roy added.

And then there's technology, which has empowered both victims and bystanders to the point that the NYPD's top transit cop, Joseph Fox, occasionally blasts alleged groper photos on Twitter. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for State Senator Savino, who wants to increase the penalty for grinding and groping from a misdemeanor to a felony, said that a new online reporting tool deployed in 2014 is the best explanation for the spike in crime reports.


Indeed, NYPD stats show a clear and steady increase in misdemeanor sex offenses from 2014 to now. But that doesn't explain why sex attacks spiked between this April and May when they were closer to flat during the same stretch a year ago. Neither the reporting website nor America's new president can explain why reports surged suddenly on June 20—something Dr. Berrill might blame on hot weather, if it weren't about as hot a day later, when a third fewer sex crimes were reported.

You know what does correlate with those increases? Apocalyptic, commuters-walking-on-tracks level train delays.

"People feel more frustrated this year than last year—there's a tension that didn't exist," Dr. Berrill suggested. Whether sunshine or signal malfunctions or national politics are to blame, it's not clear if "there greater number of people acting out or are people just picking up on it with more accuracy."

What is clear, to this psychologist at least, is that bumping up penalties won't do much to solve the problem.

"It's a feel-good kind of gesture," Berrill told me. "People say, 'Yeah, we're doing something about this,'" but it won't deter most subway pervs any more than stiff charges for possession of child pornography have decreased the incidence of that crime. "Occasionally we'll get people who come in before they get caught, but the vast majority are sent in by their lawyers."

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