Opinion: The “Subway Shirt” Reveals Broken Understanding of Sexual Harassment

The term “subway shirt” was coined by women on TikTok to describe an oversized shirt worn over an outfit while traveling on public transportation, like the train or subway, in an effort to divert unwanted attention and catcalling. For some women, it’s intentional. For others, it’s automatic. Regardless, it has become an integral part of female culture.
28 August 2023

From New York City to London, women all over the world have shared their “subway shirts” with the trending hashtag, but the reaction to the trend has been somewhat mixed. Some commenters on the trending TikTok videos have responded in surprise, unaware that their long-time habit is shared around the world. Some don’t understand the point of covering up for men. Others are sad that so many women feel like they have to alter their outfit just to stay safe. In one response to a TikTok video, a commenter wrote, “the lengths women go to on a daily basis just to live.” But why are we continuing to place the responsibility on women in 2023?!

For decades, men have been defending rape and sexual assault with clothing. In one study conducted by The Independent in 2019, researchers found that 55% of male respondents from the United Kingdom believed that “the more revealing the clothes a woman wears, the more likely it is that she will be harassed or assaulted. Responses like, “she was asking for it” or “why would she wear that if she didn’t want attention?” remain commonplace.

But, in reality, it has never mattered what a woman is wearing! In an article by The Independent, Noeline Blackwell, former head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, shared that what a woman wears isn’t indicative of whether she is more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped.“We know that people are raped wearing a variety of clothing,” Blackwell said to The Independent. “The idea that a woman who goes out scantily clad will be pounced on is the most common myth across generations.”

The “subway shirt” may offer women comfort, but it also symbolizes the need for accountability. Women who are raped and sexually assaulted are not in any way responsible, regardless of what they were wearing, whether they were intoxicated or being out late at night.

Women have a right to live their lives, free from constant fear.