The transit service should treat harassment complaints with the same urgency and resources as they do fare evasion.
Harassment on the TTC is a depressingly common experience—almost every regular commuter has a story about something uncomfortable they saw or experienced. But despite pressure from riders, the transit service has done little to tackle the issue of sexual harassment and assault on its vehicles.
On March 18, TTC rider Isabella Filla sent a tweet to @TTChelps saying she felt threatened on an overcrowded bus. The answer she got back addressed the overcrowding issue, but not Filla’s safety concerns. After some back and forth, Filla filed a report. A month later, a TTC representative got in touch with Filla over email. She was told an app was coming that would resolve the issues. In response, Filla rightfully pointed out that a mobile app would not be accessible to everyone, and that Wi-Fi availability is still an issue.
Just over 10 years ago, Frances Hewlett, then 14 years old, was alone and boarding a subway at Bay. “It was a civvies day and I was on my way home from school,” she says. “So I wasn’t in uniform but rather jeans and a shirt, my orange skull backpack, a three-quarter-length band tee, and my bulky, clunky Nike sneakers that I adored. I clearly looked like a kid.”
“It wasn’t the first time I’d been harassed, but it was the first time someone put their hands on me. It’s sad to say, but I think young girls can just become very used to being approached on the TTC and consider it just an annoyance rather than something more.” That day on the subway, Hewlett felt someone grab her butt. When she realized it was not the usual overcrowded bump and was actually intentional, she turned and saw an older man staring at her in an intimidating way. She wouldn’t wear fitted jeans for a while afterwards, and still sometimes sits with her back against something.
“This weekend, I was telling my friend about sharing my story,” says Hewlett. “She then said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw a guy masturbating on the subway last week,’ like it was normal!” Nothing has changed much since.
The TTC has received 35 reports of non-consensual touching of a sexual nature so far this year. There were 85 reports last year and 67 in 2015. Susan Sperling, communications manager at the TTC, says that these are incidents that have been reported to the TTC directly, and these figures do not include reports to the police.
Last year, at a July 11 board meeting, the transit commission announced they would be tackling harassment. They discussed releasing an app that would disable sound and lights on a mobile device so a user could discreetly photograph their harasser and send the image to authorities. There is still no app, nor has there been much talk about this issue since. Sperling says the app and campaign will be launched this summer, calling it a “very interesting approach.”
In May, the TTC launched their “You Said It” campaign. The courtesy campaign features eight tweets by transit users. The TTC website says:
“Using real tweets from TTC customers, the ‘You Said It’ campaign targets such behavior [sic] and unsafe activities as trespassing on subway tracks, not giving up priority seating to those in need, crowding and holding subway doors, wearing backpacks on crowded vehicles, and placing feet and bags on seats.”
There is no mention of sexual harassment or gender-based violence, though there is a tweet warning against abusing the emergency strip. So, if the TTC isn’t talking about this violence, and we are living in a victim-blaming culture in general, what counts as a real emergency?
“The yellow strip should be used in much the same way that you’d use 911. If a situation arises in which you would call 911 for fire, ambulance, or police services, then it is appropriate to use the yellow strip,” Sperling tells Torontoist.
But for a women experiencing harassment, there are important considerations to declaring an emergency on public transit, stopping the vehicle, and potentially triggering a police investigation. Pulling the yellow strip essentially traps the woman on the transit vehicle with the person harassing her, and there’s the potential that other bystanders may turn on her for stalling their commute. Then there’s the legitimate concerns of what happens when police arrive on scene, especially for women of colour.
I know what it’s like. I have had a man come up to me and tell me, loudly, how he wants to kill all women; I have been asked to describe my naked body; I have been followed off and on a subway; I, like many others, have been grabbed—and those surrounding us don’t bat any eyes, they avert them instead. If no one considers these things worthy of attention, we are left wondering if what we are experiencing is a true emergency or not. As for blocking doors or having bags taking up seats next to us, some of us are doing so out of learned protective techniques.
Filla and others question why this etiquette campaign chiding these actions came out before the one addressing violence.
“The You Said It campaign was based on customer tweets about issues relating to courtesy,” Sperling says. “Harassment is not the same as feet on seats or removing backpacks and did not belong in a campaign on courteous behaviour. We have an entire campaign coming in August solely about harassment.”
Filla would like to see more engagement and education on bystander intervention throughout the TTC. Similarly, Hewlett would like to see the safety of riders prioritized the way fare evasion has been, “I’d like to see the TTC reach out to survivors of sexual assault on the TTC and ask, ‘What can we do better?’”