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Why Transit Riders Don’t Report Unwanted Sexual Behavior

Some passengers believe such incidents are to be expected, Bay Citizen survey finds


Just 6 percent of Bay Area public transit riders who have experienced unwanted groping or witnessed passengers masturbating have filed complaints with authorities, the results of a Bay Citizen survey indicate.

The victims, mainly women, offered a variety of reasons for not reporting the incidents, including fear and embarrassment, not being able to identify the suspect, a lack of confidence that police or transit authorities would take a report seriously, and a belief that such incidents are to be expected on public transit.

Ninety-five people responded to the online survey following a Bay Citizen story last week on unwanted sexual behavior on Muni, BART and AC Transit. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior on public transit.

Most respondents — 72 percent — said they believed that sexual harassment and assaults were a problem on Bay Area public transit systems. But there appeared to be a gender gap in the responses: 83 percent of women said they believed unwanted sexual behavior was a problem, while 60 percent of male respondents shared that view.

Survey results:
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Last year, police documented 95 sex crimes on BART, Muni and AC Transit, including 35 cases of indecent exposure, often masturbation; 25 cases of sexual battery, which includes groping; one rape; and other lewd behaviors. Forty arrests were made.

Experts say those numbers don't reflect the full extent of the problem. A study in New York City found that 86 percent of people who had been sexually assaulted on the subway didn’t file a report. The Bay Citizen survey appears to confirm that unwanted sexual behavior is underreported in the Bay Area as well.

“It is something that is much more frequent than what gets reported,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School of Public Affairs. “Those numbers are very consistent to what I was finding in my research as well.”

One woman who responded to the survey said she had witnessed four people masturbating on Muni in the past six months. She said it wasn’t worth her while to make a report.

“At least half of them were obviously mentally handicapped, and I really just wanted to go back to my day,” she wrote. “How much of my time do I really need to take out of my life to think about unwelcome penises?”

“Besides,” she added, “what is the Muni driver going to do — stop the bus, walk back and tell him to stop, dick in hand?”

Another woman on a packed Muni bus wrote that a man with a semi-erect penis pressed himself against her backside. She moved “after what seemed like a lifetime” when a seat opened up. She said she didn’t report the incident because “I was young and shocked and embarrassed.”

Another woman asked, “Why bother? No one does anything about it. My solution was to buy a car and use it for commuting.”

Others said they didn’t know whom to contact: “A jerk groped my bottom on a crowded BART train. I ‘accidentally’ elbowed him hard and moved away,” wrote one woman, who asked, “Who was there to tell?”

One woman who tried to report a man rubbing his crotch on her shoulder said she didn’t get much of a response from the Muni driver: “He said to call a cop or report to Muni, but he basically didn't care and did not want to get involved.”

Janelle White, director of San Francisco Women Against Rape, said passengers should not put up with unwanted sexual behavior.

“It shouldn’t be an acknowledgement of ‘it’s just funny’ or ‘boys will be boys,’” Harris said. “That kind of behavior, touching someone without their consent, is what starts people to thinking that rape is OK.”

Women are increasingly using technology to fight back. A group called Hollaback, which was formed to combat sexual harassment in public places, has released an iPhone app that allows people to upload pictures and stories to the group's website.

In 2009, the infamous “Muni humper” was nabbed after a reader submitted a story to the blog Muni Diaries. Other readers submitted cell phone pictures, leading to a police investigation and arrest.

Police also say that the advent of cameras on public transit is making it easier to catch perpetrators in some cases. Last July, BART police arrested Ronnie Lim for indecent exposure after a BART employee complained that he was masturbating on a train and a BART detective confronted Lim with video evidence.

“Videos are certainly an investigative tool we utilize whenever we can, and it does aid us in investigations,” said Era Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BART police.

“The police department promotes, ‘If you see something, say something’ for any and all crimes or suspicious activity,” Jenkins added.

Representatives of BART, Muni and AC Transit encourage victims of unwanted sexual behavior to report the incidents:

Muni: Notify the bus driver, who can call authorities; call 911; or text Muni at 415-710-4455.

BART: Contact the train operator via the intercom at the end of the train car; call BART police dispatch at 510-464-7000; call 911; or notify a station agent.

AC Transit: Call 911 or call AC Transit customer service at 510-891-4765.

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