Sexual harassment on the train

Dear Alice,

I commute into the city every work day and usually take the same trains each day. Some time ago another man made a pass at me which I ignored. He persisted and made several other passes over the course of time. At one point, he looked rather pointedly at my empty ring finger. The next phase of events involved his pointing me out to other men he was with and asking about me. The next phase involved his becoming very agitated whenever he saw me, pacing back and forth. When another man began to accompany him on the platform, I initially thought my worries were over and that he had found somebody. Later, he began making passes again, sometimes with his companion joining him. I'm fairly introverted so the easiest thing for me to do has been to ignore everything. I'm also not homophobic. I know that most of the men that I know would never have tolerated his actions and I feel that he has taken advantage of my tolerance. I think he may also be misinterpreting my reaction!!

Sometimes I feel that I am locked into some mutually destructive game with him. Needless to say, this has all been rather stressful for me and I would like the situation to end. I've tried changing trains, but this is difficult for me because of my schedule. I'm interested in your reaction to the situation and any solutions you propose.

Dear Reader, 

While it should go without saying, everyone is entitled to a train commute that's free from unwanted advances. Regardless of his intention, it's clear this man and his friend have continued to make you uncomfortable in an escalating manner, which could be experienced as sexual harassment. If these advances are getting to the point where you want support from designated authorities, you can file a formal report. That being said, some people wish to explore alternate options first. While nobody should have to change their schedule or route to avoid a harasser—the harasser should be the one to change their behavior—you may start by trying to switch train cars, which may also appeal to your introverted nature. If this approach doesn’t seem to work or doesn’t feel as safe, you could also explore changing train lines or train times to ensure a level of safety. 

People are often creatures of habit, so you might have a natural inclination to wait in a particular spot on the train platform and board the same train car every day. Over the next few days, you may try to take note of where on the platform you run into these individuals. If encounters typically occur in the same area of the train platform, you might experiment with varying your habits to see if waiting in a different spot on the platform helps prevent run-ins. If you do happen upon one another on the train platform, it’s also recommended that you stay in a well-lit area. It’s also preferable that you are in areas with other passengers around to try and dissuade any unwanted interactions and have bystanders nearby who may be willing to intervene, should anything occur. 

You also mentioned that there’s a possibility that these individuals are misinterpreting your message of ignoring their behavior. If it feels safe to do so, you might consider firmly stating that you aren't interested and don't wish to have future interactions. This may help to communicate your stance clearly in a way that silence can’t. You may find it helpful to practice what you want to say in advance, either with a trusted friend or out loud in front of a mirror so that you feel more confident in delivering your message. If you choose to confront these men and they don’t change their behaviors, you may wish to escalate your approach by making a report. 

Even a single instance of sexual harassment is one too many, and everyone has the right to report incidents that occur. That said, some people are uncomfortable with more formal or legal options and may prefer to treat reporting as a final resort after trying other options like switching train cars, switching trains, or directly telling the person to stop. Whichever way you’re leaning, it never hurts to learn about the legal options that are available to you. You might start by checking with the organization that operates your local train system to see if they have internal ways of reporting harassment, either in-person, via phone, or online. Some other things to look into are whether reports can be made anonymously, what the follow-up and investigation process entails, and prosecution that the organization is able to pursue. 

Regardless of what option(s) you pursue, know that these men’s behavior is unacceptable. Commuting is already a stressful time for many people, without adding unwanted attention on top of that.  Everyone has the right to feel safe while in transit, you included. 

Last updated Apr 07, 2023
Originally published May 17, 1996