As a female growing up in New York City I’ve developed a thick skin when it comes to indecent exposure. I’ve been flashed a handful of times, and although the moment is always disturbing, I've typically decided there's not much to do about it. My general rule of thumb is to ignore the flasher and extricate myself from the situation in a quick and safe manner. Sadly my ability to soldier through an act of indecent exposure without freaking out has almost become a point of pride—a sign of true city grit.
However, I recently found myself in a unique position; a man exposed himself to me when I knew a policeman was nearby and I reported the incident. I wish I could say this story ends with an arrest and me riding home on a rainbow of justice, but sadly it does not.
I was waiting for the G train to arrive at the Lorimer subway station in Williamsburg when I noticed the man across the platform. He was making eye contact and rubbing his flaccid penis against a column. A few women around me noticed as well, and their shared disgust and frustration jolted me into remembering the police booth upstairs. I told them to hang tight while I alerted the NYPD.
As I approached the mezzanine-level subway police station to report the platform flasher, I felt empowered and in control—two feelings that are stolen from you when someone shows you their penis without permission. I knocked on the door and the officer inside rose to greet me with a smile that dropped as soon as I explained why I was there. He asked if the man in question was being “aggressive,” a term I personally would use to describe anyone engaged in indecent exposure. He asked me to describe the man’s height, his race and general build. He listened to me but didn’t write anything down and half-heartedly offered to radio and see if anyone was nearby, even though he didn’t think anyone was. Then he told me he couldn’t leave his post, apologized, and shut the door.
The officer was ultimately very nice. In fact he was so nice that the effect of him saying he couldn’t do anything didn’t really sink in until I went back downstairs to join the other women and told them no help would be coming. We stood by watching the exhibitionist watch us until our train pulled in. No one stopped him, and I assume he continued exposing himself to the next round of women who arrived.
This is not the first time the police have declined to address an act of flashing. In June, an anonymous tipster wrote to Gothamist after spotting a man with his testicles hanging out of his shorts on the 4 train. The tipster photographed the man in hopes of reporting him to police, but upon speaking to officers in the 9th Precinct the tipster was informed that unless the perpetrator was “overtly gesturing” or masturbating there was “nothing they could do.”
“The subway is a defining feature of life in New York,” the tipster, who requested anonymity so that his name would not forever be associated with subway perverts in Google searches, told Gothamist. “In other cities, car windows isolate people from each other. In New York, we all ride together. I believe this forces us to break down artificial walls of 'otherness,' and to unite us as New Yorkers. However, the reality is that amidst the millions of straphangers, there are those who seek to harm others. I believe the man I saw on the train was one of those people. He had unmistakably cut his shorts open so he could expose himself to strangers. I believe the people who commit these crimes intend not to disgust, but rather to invoke fear and helplessness in others. These crimes are unacceptable. As New Yorkers, it is as much our responsibility to report them, as it is the NYPD’s responsibility to take the reports.”
The tipster received an apology from the NYPD following the article’s publication, and says the officers are now investigating the incident.
"We take it seriously... The policy is we encourage the victims—or witnesses—to report any incidents,” said NYPD Transit Bureau's Assistant Chief Vincent Coogan in response to Gothamist’s inquiry over the incident. “We want them to report it so we can take" the information and then assign it to investigators. If the victims or witnesses are at the station, he said, "We want them to report it to an officer: If they see the person still on the scene, we make an arrest immediately; if not, then the case will be investigated by either Manhattan Special Victims or our Transit Detective Squad in the other borough."
Here's a photo of a related subway incident maybe you don't want to know about... but the NYPD should.
But while this sentiment is reassuring, the reality is not every incident is investigated immediately or at all. The man that I reported was still on the scene (and less than 30 feet away) when I told an officer about the incident, and the perpetrator remained on the scene after I left. And it appears that many officers cannot do much to help pursue subway flashers, even if they want to.
A representative officer on the NYPD's general help line informed me that the policeman who didn't help me actually couldn't. He said the cops stationed alone in subway police outposts are only allowed to leave their posts to attend to violent crimes like shootings. The officer also informed me that I had taken the wrong course of action in going to the subway police station in the first place, and that I should have gone above ground to make a call and report the incident directly to 911.
I asked why the subway station policeman couldn’t concretely contact someone directly for me, and was informed I had to make that call myself. When I pointed out that if I had left the station to make the call the flasher could have fled the scene, the officer agreed, but said that is "just the way the system works." He ended the call by offering to file a report for me, but did not seemed too thrilled about the conversation.
Still, it doesn't really explain why a report wasn't taken when I made the complaint, just as it wasn't with the tipster's unfortunate testicle sighting. And the delay in action in my experience (and in the recent experience of others) is made all the more troubling when you look into the act of flashing and the motivation behind it.
According to Psychology Today, flashing is a form of exhibitionism, a psychiatric sexual disorder in which the subject has an ‘abnormal or unnatural attraction’ with sexual activity involving non-consenting partners. The exhibitionist is typically male and the victim is generally female and usually a stranger. Most often the intent is to get some sort of startled or scared reaction out of the onlooker, while other times the perpetrator may imagine the onlooker will become sexually aroused.
Exhibitionistic disorder has been found to have one of the highest rates of recidivism among all sexual offenses, which means the perpetrator, if left untreated or unpunished, will continue to carry out his exposures multiple times throughout his life (like this man).
In my experience, there's a troubling loophole in the “see something say something” system, and it continues to allow incidents of indecent exposure to go unreported and unpunished. It is hard to imagine that this inaction doesn't hammer home why people, including myself, often dismiss the act and its severity in favor of ignoring it and going about our days.
But we shouldn't. The NYPD and MTA are at least trying to pursue these incidents more aggressively, but they need victims to come forward. Please report subway misconduct: This includes seeing a masturbator, being groped, being grinded on, etc.). Ideally all police officers would be ready and willing to assist victims, but sometimes that doesn't work; you can report it to the MTA and police on this website.
Don't let the perverts win, and don't let some cops sweep it under the rug.