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Sexually Harassed On The Chicago ‘L’: One Girl’s Story

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northwestern chapter.

I sank down into my seat on the L, almost delirious with relief that I was finally headed home. It was my first night back in Chicago after being away for summer, and my friends and I had decided to go out. Since I had only gotten forty minutes of sleep the night before (I’m a procrastinator when it comes to packing), this was not my smartest idea. Combined with the fact that I was wearing four-inch heels and had a dull, music-induced headache, I was about ready to fall asleep in my seat.

My two friends were sitting behind me, also nodding off. As I tried to stay awake, I noticed the man sitting across the aisle, facing me. More importantly, I noticed that he was staring at me and masturbating.
I had seen him looking me up and down when we were waiting on the platform. He was carrying a huge black bag and had a tattoo in the middle of his forehead. As I stood there, shivering, I made it a point to not make eye contact with him, but he came into the same car as us even though he was closer to another one.

He had his hand under his sweatshirt, but the motion was unmistakable. He was smart enough to not fully expose himself. He had really thought it through. Maybe he had done this before?

I felt completely frozen. I wanted to disappear, to fade away, to melt into my seat. To be completely invisible. Usually when men decide to comment on my body, their “hey, sexy,” or “can I get me some of that?” gets a quick, curse-laden response from me. But I always feel protected by a crowd, knowing (hoping, actually) that someone would back me up if things got violent. That night on the L, I felt utterly alone. My friends were sleeping. It was late enough that the only other people in the car appeared homeless and were sleeping or were part of a group of teenage boys screaming things like “Bitch, suck my dick!” with no shame. I averted my eyes from the man and stared out of the window. His eyes were fixed on my reflection. I did my best to hide my discomfort while I decided what to do.

I imagined myself screaming “What the fuck are you doing?!” which isn’t unlikely for me in a situation like that. But then I imagined this man reacting too quickly for me to do anything about it. I imagined him waiting for my friends and I to leave, then following us down the stairs. I imagined the other guys in the car realizing I was furious and scared, and turning it into some kind of game. I thought about the validation that some people get from exposing themselves, that heady rush of power when they see the frightened look on a woman’s face. I kept my mouth shut.

I thought about taking a picture of him so I’d have evidence, or calling the conductor, or calling the police. Then I thought about Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who when speaking about crime prevention in January 2011, said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”I glanced down at my short black skirt, my tank top, my heels. I thought about the stories I’ve heard of women who stumble into police stations, battered and begging for help, only to get told they deserve it.

I tried to keep from making eye contact with him, and mostly succeeded. When my eyes would drift back to his reflection, he would just hold my gaze. I was shocked that this was actually happening to me. Each time, I would shift my glance and pretend nothing was wrong. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his foot twitch and jerk. His head rolled back a bit, and he slowly pulled his hand out of his sweatshirt. He left at the next stop.

The combination of my exhaustion, my shock at what had happened, and my wanting to just finally get some sleep had me feeling like I was in a dreamworld. When I got home, I just fell in bed and immediately fell asleep.

The next day, however, I was reeling. When I remembered what had happened, I instantly felt vile. There is no other word for it, and I’ve never felt it before in my life. I felt disgusting, and I felt violated. To have someone involve me without my consent in his fantasy is more disturbing than I would have expected. The memory of feeling this man’s eyes on me, this man I never would have been attracted to, while he envisioned any number of sexual acts made me feel sick. Then, I felt furious. I felt vengeful. If my life were a movie, I’d become a superhero (The Pervert Punisher? The Cock Crusher? I’ll work on it) who drops out of school and runs around castrating public masturbators. It would be my own form of vigilante justice. That I felt so powerless, so scared, and so paralyzed infuriated me. That I was feeling guilty about my outfit infuriated me. That I had to tug my skirt down and pull my shirt up infuriated me; I was enraged.

Most of all, I felt overwhelmed. This happens every day. It happens everywhere. I’m lucky that I have incredible friends and family, not one of which asked me what I was wearing, told me to get over it, or laughed and said I should take it as a compliment. Many other women aren’t as fortunate. Being a woman in this society comes with an innumerable, insufferable amount of injustice and insult. It’s devastating. Even before this, every single day when I get dressed, I have to consider what kind of men will be where I’m going, what kind of comments I’ll get. Sometimes I’m just not up for it and I change into jeans, or put my hair up, or don’t put on any makeup. Other days, when I’m feeling stronger, I go out knowing that I’ll get unwelcome attention that I never ask for. I’ve never been proven wrong.

I’ve been grabbed in public, and brought in close to some sweaty man who grunts his lust at me. I’ve been followed in a car as I walked alone down a street, with a man screaming out the window as he trailed me. There is nothing like that bolt of fear when you realize that someone may truly want to hurt you. And now, I’ve had someone involve me unwillingly in what should be a private act; I can just add it to the growing list. My friends have similar stories. My mother, and aunt, and grandmother have similar stories. Our children will have similar stories. I’m still processing the permanence of this, and wondering what can be done.

I’m not naive enough to think that sexual harassment will end in my lifetime. I do believe, though, that anyone who is harassed needs to understand that none of this is ever his or her fault. You don’t deserve it because of how you dress. You don’t deserve it because you “give off signals.” You don’t deserve it, period.

The next day, I was distraught that I hadn’t screamed at this man. That I hadn’t belittled him, pointed and laughed at his desperation, or asked him what his mother would think. But my mom made an excellent point: I did what I did because I needed to feel safe. My safety, our safety, is not worth making an example out of someone. If you want to confront someone doing something disrespectful, by all means, go ahead. But the most important thing is not escaping with your dignity; it is escaping with your life. That may sound dramatic, but think about it this way: if someone is willing to masturbate on public transit, you have no idea what he’s capable of. A man doesn’t need a weapon. He has his hands.

I’m certain that the response to this story will be mixed. Some people will tell me to get over it, or that this isn’t a big deal. That’s entirely untrue. Incidents of harassment are never isolated. They are all interconnected, and by dismissing one form of harassment, you make it more acceptable for other forms to occur. By saying that someone shouldn’t be concerned with a man publicly masturbating to him or her, you are saying that it is okay for a man to use his body to threaten and intimidate someone. There is no way around that.

For those of you who identify with what I’ve written here, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Email me at zar@u.northwestern.edu, and let’s get a conversation going.

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Kylie Gilbert


Kylie Gilbert is a senior Journalism major and French minor at Northwestern University. She joined HC as a freshman as a contributing writer and has been campus correspondent since her sophomore year. When she isn't writing, online shopping, or reading fashion magazines, she loves watching The Mindy Project, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother and everything on Bravo.