Behind the numbers of the subway sexual harassment survey

By · Published in 2007

So while Norman Seabrook’s plan to Disney-fy the subways took the headlines this morning, another story made the rounds. As numerous news outlets noted, a recent survey revealed that two-thirds of subway riders claim to be victims of sexual harassment while riding the rails.

The Daily News summarizes:

Two-thirds of people responding to an online survey say they have been sexually harassed on the subway, but only 4% reported the incident to authorities.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who conducted the study over the past month, said yesterday more has to be done to reduce the rate of sex harassment.

“There’s this credo in New York that what happens underground, stays underground,” Stringer said. “You should not have to take a staircase out of a subway after having been harassed or assaulted, and feel that no one was there to help you underground.”

Now, that sounds pretty bad, right? 1800 people surveyed; 1200 harassed. Those are hardly good numbers. Meanwhile, Sewell Chan at CityRoom has more on the survey. He writes: “One-tenth said they had been sexually assaulted and more than two-thirds percent said they had ‘felt the threat of sexual assault or harassment’ in the subways. More than 9 in 10 of the respondents who reported they had been harassed or witnessed harassment said they never told the M.T.A. or the police.”

But, without lessening the impact of these incidents, something funny happens when you look beyond the numbers. This survey, conducted by the Manhattan borough president, was e-mailed to over 20,000 people. Those who responded were the men and women who wanted their voices heard on this issue. They were the ones who were the victims of harassment; they were the ones who want to see something happened.

My initial reaction to this survey was “no way.” No way are two-thirds of all subway riders victims even if that’s how the articles in the papers portray this very unscientific story.

That’s not to say sexual crimes in the subway doesn’t exist. They do, and it’s important to remain vigilant on trains. But 66 percent of riders? No way. This is a fine example of the media overplaying a high number from a poor survey to report a story that isn’t really as important as we are lead to believe.

Categories : MTA Absurdity

2 Responses to “Behind the numbers of the subway sexual harassment survey”

  1. Harlan says:

    Yeah, giant self-selection bias. Any undergrad in the social sciences would look at that survey and laugh at the conclusions.


  1. […] Second Avenue Sagas notes that the survey was emailed to 20,000 people (the Manhattan Borough President’s office worked with a number of organizations, including the Straphanger’s Campaign, Right Rides, NOW, Hollaback, to get out the word about the online survey), which suggests the statistics could be somewhat inflated, given that the almost 1800 respondents who did fill out the subway may have been weighted towards people who have experienced subway harassment (indeed, about 67% of the respondents are women). This is a point the study acknowledges as a limitation, but says it still serves as “an invaluable ’snapshot’ of a problem that persists but is inherently difficult to quantify.” […]

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