This New Law Will Combat Subway Harassment

by Emma Cueto

If you've ever had someone grope you on public transportation, you'll be happy to know that lawmakers are taking the problem more seriously, at least in one state. A new bill just passed in New York would create harsher penalties for groping on the subway. All it needs is the governor's signature.

The bill, which was passed on Thursday, would increase the maximum penalty for groping or grinding on the subway (which is a misdemeanor) to one year in prison or three years' probation. The bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Queens), explained,

I spent many of my years riding the subway ... I witnessed a lot of very disturbing activity that occurs on the subway. Just the other day, there was a report that somebody was masturbating in front of a female rider all the way through Astoria, my district .... Clearly, we have to make sure that the law has adequate punishment. You confine yourself in a small space, and that’s why it’s very important that we have an enhanced penalty when somebody engages in this disturbing behavior.


It's no secret that sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact are common problems for women on public transit, and not just in New York. However, the crime remains largely unreported, for a number of reasons. Women are often not sure that what happened constitutes a crime, and given that women would rarely have a name to report, it can feel like there might not be much point anyway — after all, how is anyone going to track down an anonymous subway rider? And how would you go about proving what they did anyway?

Yet the act of touching groping, grinding, or otherwise touching someone sexually without their consent is wrong, and people shouldn't be able to do it with impunity.

The new law, if passed, would read

A person is guilty of forcible touching when such person intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose[,]:1. Forcibly touches the sexual or other intimate parts of another person for the purpose of degrading or abusing such person[;], or for the purpose of gratifying the actor’s sexual desire[.]; OR2. SUBJECTS ANOTHER PERSON TO SEXUAL CONTACT FOR THE PURPOSE OF GRATIFYING THE ACTOR’S SEXUAL DESIRE AND WITH INTENT TO DEGRADE OR ABUSE SUCH OTHER PERSON WHILE SUCH OTHER PERSON IS A PASSENGER ON A BUS, TRAIN, OR SUBWAY CAR OPERATED BY ANY TRANSIT AGENCY, AUTHORITY OR COMPANY, PUBLIC OR PRIVATE, WHOSE OPERATION IS AUTHORIZED BY NEW YORK STATE OR ANY OF ITS POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS.

So hopefully such clear language will send the message that this sort of thing is not OK, and thereby cut down on the behavior.

Of course, as with anything in a city where Stop and Frisk and broken windows policing have a long history, it's worth wondering who will be targeted by such a law. We have seen at least one case recently that suggests police in New York could use women's concerns about men on the subway as a pretext for targeting men of color, which shouldn't be how the law is used. Men who harass or are sexually inappropriate on the subway deserve to be held accountable, regardless of their race or socio-economic status.

If the bill is signed, the law will go into effect this November.