Prevention Corner: Metro in the Nation’s Capital Area - A Sexual Violence Hotspot?

Apr 10th, 2020

By: Francesca Faccone, Program Intern & Grace Boudreau, MPH Prevention & Education Program Coordinator

Sexual Violence on the Metro

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail provides transportation for more than 600,000 customers a day throughout 91 stations in southern Maryland, northern Virginia, and Washington D.C.  With the second largest volume of rail-system passengers in the United States, the D.C. Metro system may be considered a hotspot for sexual violence. (WMATA, 2020) Hotspots are settings where the risk of sexual violence is greater due to characteristics of the built or social environment.  When considering the environment of the Metro - dimly lit transit stops, distracted strangers, crowded platforms and train cars with little to no personal space - it is clear that the environment increases some riders’ risk of experiencing sexual violence. 

Several issues have brought Metro safety regarding sexual violence to light.  Between 2016 and 2019 Metro passengers filed at least 120 sexual harassment complaints against Metro workers (News 4 I-team, 2019). Also, this past summer a woman was violently assaulted on the Cheverly Metro platform in the middle of the day, sparking a deeper conversation into the frequency and nature of sexual violence that occurs on Metro transportation, and the preventative measures being taken to stop it (Williams, 2019).

Why are some places & people more vulnerable?

Research shows us again and again that sexual violence and harassment in public spaces is a prevalent issue.  A nationally representative 2019 study by Stop Street Harassment surveyed over 2,000 people and found that the most frequently listed location for sexual harassment is a public place, such as a street, park, or store.


  • 76% of women & 35% of men experience verbal sexual harassment.
  • 30% of women & 12% of men experienced unwanted genital flashing.
  • 27% of women & 11% of men were physically followed.

From a young age, many women are taught to be “aware” when using public transportation due to this perceived and often very real threat of harassment in public spaces.  Riders who identify as female or non-binary may be more likely to feel vulnerable when using the Metro due to the disproportionate amount of sexual harassment these groups face.  The rise of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 brought these vulnerabilities and safety concerns to light.  This threat is unavoidable for riders who rely on the Metro to get to work or school.  Race and sexual orientation are also factors that may affect a rider’s perceived safety.  The aforementioned Stop Street Harassment study found at least one-third of women ages 18-24 (32%), black women (35%), and lesbian or bisexual women (39%) reported experiencing sexual harassment in the past six months (2019).

How do we make transportation safer?

Since 2012. the WMATA has been running several anti-harassment PSA’s, This was a direct result of establishing an Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign and becoming one of the only Metrorail systems in the nation to specifically campaign against sexual harassment.  In 2016 WMATA partnered with Stop Street Harassment and the Collective Action for Safe Spaces to roll out an awareness campaign in response to a spike in sexual harassment on the Metro, especially against women of color, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people.  Evaluation data showed that people who had viewed the campaign and were aware of its existence were 3x more likely to report instances of harassment. (Collective Action D.C., 2018)

While these results are very impressive, they only scratch the surface of what needs to be done to address high rates of sexual violence and the challenges faced by those who experience it.  Increased reporting rates are a huge victory, but the Metro also needs to focus efforts towards prevention and work to create safer environments that are not conducive to sexual violence.  One step WMATA has taken is a new PSA campaign released in 2019 focused on bystander intervention.  The campaign encourages rides to help “STOP harassment”- Sidetrack, Tell, Observe, and Postpone. 

Additionally, because the Metro operates in two states and the District, there are four potential police departments that could get involved with a report; a victim could report in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., or directly to the Metro Transit Police Department which has jurisdiction across all Metro locations. Each jurisdiction may have different laws regarding sexual harassment.  Since many Metro lines cross state boundaries, it can be difficult to pinpoint who should receive a criminal report.  WMATA should continue to improve their reporting process and hold a firm line against sexual violence so that both potential perpetrators and survivors are aware that if a report of violence is made, it will be taken seriously.  While Metro has made incredible strides towards preventing sexual harassment on its buses, trains and platforms, there is a great deal of work to be done.


2019 Stop Street Harassment- Research on Sexual Harassment and Assault. Retrieved from:

Collective Action for Safe Spaces. 2018. WMATA Campaign. Retrieved from:

News4 I-Team. 2019. Lewd comments to assault: Metro rider complaints describe alleged sex harassment by staff. NBC Washington. Retrieved from:

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. 2020. Metrorail. Retrieved from:

Williams, C. 2019. Man arrested in alleged sex attack on Metro platform. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

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