New York Should Ban Manspreading Like Spain Did, But They Probably Can’t

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New York City’s MTA is cause for countless pet peeves. Whether it’s their slow-moving F line, delays due to train traffic, construction derailments, unnecessary PDA, or the smell of Mcdonald’s on a sticky summer day — the list can go on forever. But there’s one affront that I simply can’t wrap my head around (or leg around if we’re being technical). I’m here to address the elephant in the room, if you will, and deep dive into an investigation on my greatest public transportation hang-up: The act of manspreading, mansplaining’s equally obnoxious cousin.

I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Man steps onto the train and sits down with his legs spread wide, taking up not one, but two empty spaces on the train that could easily be filled by other train-goers. One small spread for man, is one giant spread for all humankind (and by humankind I mean fellow passengers), am I right? Even the Oxford Dictionary has referred to it as an encroachment, defining manspreading as: “The practice whereby a man adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat.” Something, clearly, has to be done. But before I go on about the nuisance and inconsideration of this hypermasculine performance, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the science behind it all. Why do men feel the need to sprawl out their legs and make themselves at home like they’re sitting on their mom’s living room sofa?

The obvious excuse to why men hog space in this manner is to provide comfort for their male parts. Another excuse is that postural expansion of a man’s arms and legs is seen as more sexually attractive, says a UC Berkley study on open nonverbal displays. But according to experts, there’s a psychology component behind it too. “A man’s intrinsic need to spread himself is based on the physiological differences between men and women.” In 2014, when this offensive portmanteau had taken flight in the everyday commuter’s lexicon, people went so far as to say that it’s representative of misogyny, the way a man takes up space to assert their authority and take away a woman’s right to occupy space. But whether you take personal offense to this male bodily habit or not, there’s something that can be done. And rest assured, there’s one country that’s already on it.

In 2017, Madrid and Barcelona banned manspreading on public transportation and I was luckily able to witness the prohibition sign on my recent trip to Spain. As a native New Yorker, I’m used to ads that request we throw out our trash, exit a train if we’re feeling ill, and never hop on the train tracks. (Many of these seem obvious but apparently not.) In New York MTA’s code of conduct, it states that one could get a $50 fine for what they call “seat obstruction.” “Riders may not lie down or place feet on the seat of a train, bus, or platform bench or occupy more than one seat. Riders may not place bags or personal items on seats in circumstances when doing so will interfere with transit operation or otherwise impede the comfort of other passengers.” However, if you’ve lived in New York as long as I have, this law is just as effective as a jaywalking violation — which is to say, rarely is this reinforced and rarely would one get penalized for such a meager obstruction of justice.

A few years ago, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation tried to put this ban into effect, with public service advertisements distributed to stop once and for all the “lay-it-all-out sitting style that more than a few men see as their inalienable underground right,” said one campaign. Though their attempts were in good merit, they haven’t done enough to stop it. Other cities, too, have tried to crack down on this improper subway etiquette, but Spain is the only country to become successful in their efforts. Europeans may seem more touchy touchy with one another (according to Travel Etiquette in Spain “Spaniards will often stand close together when chatting or in serious discussion”), but when it comes to public transportation, they seem to have more of a grip on people’s personal space. Could it be that Americans in general don’t value other’s space? For one, you’d have to take into account that there are 8.6 million New Yorkers compared to 1 million Barcelonans. Not only that, Barcelona is four times bigger than New York City. Gasp. The reason subways feel more cluttered in Manhattan is because there is physically less space. The only difference between these two cities’ tactic to eradicate this overt act is that Spain put a ban while New York put in a suggestion. But the most obvious difference is in the language they both use and in the graphics themselves. Barcelona’s advertisement has a big X across the manspread-er stating “Respect the space of others” while New York humorously says “Dude, stop the spread, please.” The latter sounds like you’d get a punch on the shoulder from your old buddy as punishment, while the former sounds like you’d be taken away in handcuffs if you were to violate this law.

So what’s a woman gotta do to occupy space around here?

Some women know that the MTA or police force aren’t putting manspreading at the top of their priority list, so they’ve taken matters into their own hands. In Saint Petersburg, a woman walked up to a bunch of manspreaders and doused their crotch area with water. “Men demonstrating their alpha-manhood in the subway with women and children around deserve contempt,” she said. Whether this revenge tactic is going too far or not is up for debate. But one thing’s for certain is that space invasion can be applied to other forms of transportation like planes for example (fighting over the armrest is a whole other beast, as one writer from Post Magazine points out), buses, and so on. How can our society best respect each other’s space? Of course, if you don’t intend on splashing water on the crotches of manspreaders on your daily commute, there’s always an alternative option. Like mansplaining, communicate with the person doing the explaining, or in this case the spreading, and simply ask them to move over. Or like Spain’s Mujeres en Lucha protesters, whose #MadridWithoutManSpreading campaign made its way to their regional president and mayor, you can start a petition. But with the way things are going with NYC’s MTA, Bill De Blasio may have bigger fish to fry.