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Toward the end of her testimony before Councilmember Muriel Bowser yesterday, Holly Kearl made a point to note that “sexual harassment is not mutual flirting or compliments.”

Kearl, the author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, is an expert who’s surveyed more than 800 women in 22 countries on the kind of threatening, persistent harassment I wrote about a few days ago. One of her findings? That 1 in 4 women say they were harassed by a strange man in public before the age of 12.

Later on in that same hearing, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn defended his deputy’s ridiculous comments to the Post that asking for a phone number isn’t an arrestable offense. Taborn added, “If they are just saying ‘you look good,’ that is separate and distinct from crime in D.C. code. If someone says someone is leering at them, that too is not a crime.”

It was a particularly troubling statement that shows Metro just doesn’t seem to get it.

Woman after woman (and one man, on behalf of his sister) testified that they’d been harassed by customers and Metro employees. One woman, Pascale Leone, said she was laughed at by station employees when she told them a man groped her.

In Taborn’s world, Leone would have had the presence of mind to immediately call Metro police. And if she didn’t, she could have filed a complaint with station employees—who would then forward that information to Metro police. Yet when she went to tell the station employees, they were amused, noting that the same man had just grabbed the butt of another woman.

Sitting in the back of the room, the contrast between WMATA’s representatives and the women testifying on behalf of Collective Action For Safe Spaces couldn’t be more apparent. The CASS testimony came from young women—who tend to be primary targets for sexual harassment. The people defending Metro were middle-aged (and older) men like Taborn and WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles. Spokesperson Dan Stessel—another man—took it there, too, telling WUSA9, “One person’s harassment is another person’s flirting.”

Why would anyone call Metro cops for assistance if this is the attitude of its employees? Much like sexual assault, harassment situations are already fraught with fears that the victim brought it on herself, or didn’t do all she could to prevent it. And Taborn and Stessel both hold up  the relatively few number of complaints to imply that things aren’t so bad. Except that registering a complaint with Metro—about anything, really—is not easy to do and comes with no guarantee that it’ll go anywhere.

While Sarles did apologize for behavior of employees, he also said that harassment is a “societal problem,” indicating that it’s not something Metro can fix alone. Which is true. But it can do more than the nothing it’s doing now. It’s worth noting that Metro says it has been talking to Boston’s transit agency. Boston is one of three cities, including New York and Chicago, that has a sexual harassment PSA campaign.

But most importantly, there needs to be a top-down shift in how Metro officials think about harassment. It isn’t just compliments. It isn’t just attempts at flirtation. It’s about feeling unsafe—and being unsafe—in public places because someone is masturbating to you while no one else is around, or intimidating you because you don’t want to talk to them, or touching you without your permission.

Photo by Mike Hicks