Lexie Guccione, of Buena Park, said she was riding home on a Red Line train last month when she felt something unusual: A man brushed up against her wrist as she held her purse.
The train was crowded, so Guccione thought the touch was unintentional—at first.
It happened a couple times before Guccione said she realized that the man standing next to her was rubbing his crotch on her wrist through his pants. By the time she figured out what was going on, the man had exited the train, she said.
Guccione, 25, said she didn't report what happened to the CTA or the police because "this was so subtle that by the time I realized what was happening, I was glad it was over and it didn't progress any more than it did."
"It feels silly to say, but I'm not sure if it was criminal. There was no indecent exposure," said Guccione, who said she has not had any similar problems on the CTA since she moved to Chicago two years ago. "Maybe just as a woman, we're kind of desensitized to the fact that guys are sometimes creeps."
Guccione's decision not to report what she saw on the train because she wasn't sure if it was a crime is a common position. Sexual harassment in a public space is typically underreported to authorities, experts say, though a woman told police last month that a man rubbed his genitals against her on a Brown Line train, leading to a suspect's arrest. A CTA spokesman called the incident "extremely rare."
But it's difficult to tell how often sexual harassment occurs on public transit because the underacknowledged and underdocumented behavior "has been so normalized, it's just a rite of passage for women," said Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, a D.C.-area organization dedicated to documenting and curbing sexist comments, homophobic slurs, groping and catcalls on streets and on transit.
Kearl's group advocates for transit agencies nationwide to track reports of sexual harassment and train employees and riders on what to do if they see this behavior.
"When it comes to public spaces, transit agencies are in a unique position to be leaders in addressing [harassment]," said Kearl, 31.
In Chicago, the CTA has "zero tolerance for harassment of any kind" and encourages riders to report incidents to a bus or train operator, a rail station customer assistant, police or CTA customer service online or by phone, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
The CTA has received nine complaints about harassment, including sexual harassment, this year through June, Steele said. There were 18 complaints to CTA customer service last year, down from 21 reports in 2012.
Sexual harassment on the CTA was in the headlines in 2009, after Rogers Park activists conducted a small survey and found many women had experienced or had been exposed to this activity.
As a result, the CTA created an educational campaign with signs and audio announcements across the system devoted to combating sexual harassment, Steele said.
The campaign led to enhanced employee education and updated safety brochures available to riders online and at most rail stations and some buses, Steele said.
The CTA has also increased the number of security cameras so that "nearly every place that you are on the CTA system, there is a camera recording activities," which helps act as a crime deterrent and lead to arrests, Steele said.
In the meantime, the CTA has stopped airing the audio and posting signs on trains and buses related to the harassment campaign. The agency is in midst of its "see something, say something" campaign that encourages riders to report suspicious behavior but doesn't specifically mention harassment.
Last month, a 29-year-old man was charged with aggravated battery and indecent exposure after he allegedly began grinding his genitals against a female rider's right leg and buttocks without her consent as they rode a Brown Line train. The woman then noticed "semen running down the leg of her pants," according to police.
When contacted by RedEye, the woman declined to be interviewed. The man is expected to appear in court July 22.
"This is the type of incident that is extremely rare. We don't have any records of anything like this occurring for at least the last three years, likely longer," Steele said.
Systemwide, there were four incidents of criminal sexual assault last year, down from eight incidents in 2012, the CTA said. Criminal sexual assault is defined as a sexual act directed against another person either forcibly and against one's will or when the person is incapable of giving consent.
Security camera footage led to arrests in all four of the 2013 cases, Steele said.
Meanwhile, there were 18 incidents of indecent exposure on the CTA in 2013, down from 19 incidents in 2012, the CTA said.
Lucy Pigati, of Albany Park, said she was on a Brown Line train with her family in March when a man exposed his penis to her cousin.
The man was standing close her cousin, Pigati said, but her cousin initially wasn't focused on the man. Pigati, 29, said she didn't know anything was wrong until her cousin jumped from her seat after the exposure.
Pigati said her cousin filed a police report when they got home after consulting with CTA employees, who encouraged her to file a report. Online records show an arrest has not been made in the case.
Pigati said the incident didn't change her ridership habits.
"I still need to get to and from work," Pigati said.
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