Everyone knows that alcohol is terrible for you. It wreaks havoc on your heart, your pancreas, your liver, your skin, your brain, and on and on forever. But according to an ad campaign on New York City’s subways, it also makes you more likely to ride your bike into a cab or get into a bar fight — if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, it apparently turns you into a helpless invitation for assault on the subway.
I first became aware of this campaign through a friend, who showed me a photo she snapped while we were out (drinking) one night. The image in question features a woman who appears to be dead asleep, head slumped against the window, phone dangling perilously from her fingertips. Her purse is tossed on the seat next to her. “Just One More Drink CAN Hurt,” the text proclaims.
This public service announcement is just one of a series, posted by the city’s Department of Health in subways and 97 bars around the city beginning in 2014.
Never mind that assaulting or robbing a sleeping person is a crime — following an incident in 2012 in which a man was filmed sexually assaulting a sleeping woman on a subway car, the assailant was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual abuse. That point, though, is secondary to this one: She should never have put herself in that position in the first place.
The health department isn’t alone in its thinking. Last year, then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that police intended to begin waking dozing straphangers, on account of the fact that 50 percent of reported subway crimes “involve sleeping passengers,” with pickpocketing and sexual assault cited specifically.
“If you are sleeping on the subway, you make yourself a very easy victim and much more susceptible to a crime,” Bratton said at the time. “Why would you put yourself at that risk?” (According to data from the NYPD, subway crimes have risen by 3 percent since last year.)
Stephanie Buhle, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, told the Voice that “the message of our ad, which was arrived at after focus-grouping the ad images and incorporating feedback from New Yorkers, is that excessive drinking can result in someone passing out and being vulnerable to having valuables taken — and ending up in Coney Island when your stop was at Delancey.”
Buhle added, “Our call to action in this campaign is to have New Yorkers watch out for their friends. In creating this scenario, we chose a large purse and a dangling cell phone to emphasize vulnerability. Other campaign images depict other vulnerable scenarios that may result from excessive drinking, including a pedestrian and a biker at risk of getting hit by cars.”
But there is one major factor that distinguishes the sleeping woman ad from the others in the series. In each of these other ads, the drunk person is the active participant in the Hurtful Thing. They started the bar fight. They walked or rode their bike into traffic.
In the case of the sleeping woman, it’s the viewer who is framed as the predator. Think about the effectiveness of the same ad featuring a sleeping man. It would be . . . confusing, its purpose indistinct. Why are we looking at this sleeping man? Is he sick? Is he dead?
With the woman, its implication is immediately clear. This woman is at risk not because she’s acting violently or thoughtlessly, but because she is vulnerable. As a woman, I look at this ad and know without hesitation the conclusion it’s meant to elicit.
I assume that message is conveyed with equal clarity to men, which is alarming: A public service announcement issued for safety by the health department is actively encouraging New Yorkers to view women as helpless victims. Absent her usual armature of wariness, it affirms, this woman is ripe for the taking.
So where do we draw the line? Is this also to say that women should not fall asleep on an airplane, either? If a woman wears a tight dress while drinking, is she making herself more vulnerable to assault? What if she’s just wearing tight clothes, period? In each of these instances, the burden of safety is placed on the victim. Binge drinking is harmful, yes. But implying a woman was “asking for it” is worse.