#MeToo campaign brings harassment on public transportation to the forefront

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(A non-passenger train passes by Cleveland Park Metro. Credit: Tessa Dolt)

By Tessa Dolt, October 23, 2017 8:15a.m.

WASHINGTON – With the “#MeToo” hashtag campaign going viral across Twitter and Facebook, it seems like harassment is an unfortunate, but common experience among women and femmes.

According to a survey by Shogull Research, 21 percent of transit riders in Washington had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with verbal harassment being the most common. “Women were three times more likely than men to experience sexual harassment,” according to Stop Street Harassment’s reporting on the survey.

“I think I share this with a lot of people when I say I have so many stories from being harassed,” Autumn Kalikan said, who is a manager at coffee shop and market Little Red Fox.

Kalikan was sitting on the Metro one day with her headphones in when a man interrupted her by telling her to smile. “If you know me, you know that I go out of my way to make myself seem unapproachable. I wear sunglasses and headphones, and I try to sit near the window in the back of the car,” Kalikan said. “So when people approach me, it feels like a concerted effort was made to bother me, and that can be really unsettling.”

Kalikan is a Capitol Hill resident and spends a lot of her time on the Metro, commuting from Union Station to Van Ness-UDC five days a week for her job. Like many commuters, Kalikan rides the Metro alone. Sometimes this means walking home alone at night from the Union Station stop.

“When I lived in a different neighborhood where the Metro stop was a longer walk from my apartment, I would have friends meet me at the stop when I get off so that they could walk me home at night,” Kalikan said.

It can be difficult to rely on other people for protection though, according to Kalikan. “People haven’t helped me when I’m being harassed. I’ve been in a situation where the bus driver could have helped, but I could tell they didn’t want to get involved,” Kalikan said. “But I have seen bus drivers help other women who were being harassed by kicking the harasser off the bus.”

Ignoring harassers is common practice for many women and femmes because it reduces the risk of a violent response, according to Tenleytown resident Amelia Covington.

“I always try to ignore it [harassment]. I’ll just get up from my seat and move elsewhere. If it persists for awhile and there’s no option for me to move away, I might say to please stop. If they’re more aggressive, I might be less inclined to talk to them,” said Covington.

According to Covington, creating physical distance between herself and a harasser is the most effective way to get someone to stop. “I was waiting on the platform and a man who was somewhat talking to himself, somewhat talking to me, asking me questions that I wasn’t comfortable answering.” Covington said.

“As far as I could tell, he was drunk. I made it obvious to the people around me that I wasn’t comfortable, so the person sitting on the other side of me scooted over to make it easier for me to move away. He ended up leaving me alone,” Covington said.

There are times when perpetrators are not stereotypically predatory grown men. 24-year-old Kalikin was harassed by six Georgetown charter school students who looked like 13-year-olds, according to Kalikin.

For an hour-long bus ride, “The bus driver watched and everyone knew it was happening at the time, so I thought if I made a scene we might all be kicked off the bus,” Kalikan said. She ignored them, but they followed her into Union Station, and she had to lose them by going into a Victoria’s Secret.

Nora Button, a barista at Little Red Fox, recently experienced being followed on her way to her boyfriend’s house from the Metro. “This guy literally followed me for two blocks walking right behind me and was saying gross things to me. I got to my boyfriend’s house and just bawled for awhile,” Button said.

Button lives in Petworth off the Georgia Ave-Petworth Metro stop and takes public transportation to and from work three times a week. She said that she always ignores harassers and has never been defended by a bystander.

Many women and femmes are taught to avoid certain situations that might increase their risk of harassment, such as walking alone at night. “I still use it [the Metro] when it’s dark because I have to,” said Button.

Covington tries to get her friends to walk her home if it’s dark outside, but she generally feels fine walking alone in Northeast DC, she said. “If it’s dark out, I just try to be more aware. Part of that might be because I’m slightly paranoid. I have paranoia generally because of my gender and inability to fight back because I don’t think I’m very strong,” Covington said.

The #MeToo campaign has given survivors of harassment a social media platform to speak about their experiences. Many women have reported that they experience harassment on public transportation in particular. The pressure is on WMATA to take further steps to protect its riders and workers from harassment.

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