New TTC sex-assault numbers reveal 'disconcerting' reality, but don't tell whole story, some say

Over a five-year period from 2011 to 2015, 577 sexual assaults were reported on TTC vehicles or property but critics say solutions need to focus less on victims and more on targeting perpetrators
Dai Williams never reported the stranger who pressed himself against her on the subway. She is just one person that new numbers confirmed by the Toronto Transit Commission don’t capture. (Submitted by Dai Williams)

Dai Williams never reported the stranger who pressed himself against her on the subway.

As he whispered in graphic detail what he wanted to do to her, she froze, not wanting to inconvenience anyone.

"I remember thinking, 'I should really do something' but my immediate thought was 'I'll cause a delay'," she told CBC News.

"If I ask someone to push a button, I'll cause chaos ... I only have a handful of stops to go so let's just get through this."

Williams is just one person that new numbers confirmed by the Toronto Transit Commission don't capture. Over a five-year period from 2011 to 2015, 577 sexual assaults were reported on TTC vehicles or property.

That translates to one sexual assault almost every three days on the public transit system, something TTC spokesperson Susan Sperling says reveals a "disconcerting" reality. But some say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

'A very under-reported crime'

Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, communications coordinator at the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), is one of them.

Over a five-year period from 2011 to 2015, 577 sexual assaults were reported on TTC vehicles or property. (CBC)

"It's a very under-reported crime a lot of people go through, from micro-aggressions to sexual assault," Ross-Marquette told CBC News, adding women regularly exchange stories of everyday incidents they live through using social media.

As an extra tool to combat that, the TTC is working on a new app that would allow a rider to discreetly take a photo of the person harassing or assaulting them and immediately submit a report. When plans for the app were announced in June 2016, CEO Andy Byford said he hoped it would be a less obvious alternative to pressing the emergency strip on TTC vehicles.

Williams says the app is a step in the right direction, but has concerns.

For one thing she wonders if it would work throughout the subway system since wi-fi coverage isn't available between stations.

Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, communications coordinator at the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) says the numbers don’t tell the whole story. (CBC)

But more importantly, she worries initiatives like this one focus too much on what potential victims should do, instead of focusing on perpetrators.

"I feel like a lot of these 'solutions' place the onus on the victim where I really think there should be more initiatives about teaching people about personal space, consent, behaviour, that sort of thing."

Sperling says that as part of the app's roll-out, the TTC will conduct a public awareness campaign around sexual assault. Asked about the details of the campaign Monday, she was unable to provide any additional details.

Sperling did say she hopes the app will be one more measure to make riders feel safer, in addition to the agency's designated waiting areas, emergency alarms and request-stop programs. Additionally, she says, riders should treat emergency alarms just as they would 911.

'Groping: It's a crime'

"Its entirely appropriate if you're feeling vulnerable, if you're feeling in any sort of danger," she said.

One of four new posters unveiled by ETS on Tuesday as part of a "zero-tolerance" campaign aimed at stopping sexual harassment on buses and trains. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, Ross-Marquette points to campaigns that shift the focus from victim to perpetrator, such as Edmonton Transit's "zero-tolerance" Safe Ride posters.

The posters list examples of inappropriate behaviour, including sneaking photos of riders, groping, leering and making unsolicited comments.

The poster campaign, which rolled out in August 2015, marks criminal acts like groping in red with specific calls to action such as calling 911 or pressing a passenger alarm.

Dai Williams says having someone call for help when she was on the subway all those years ago would have gone a long way.

"I think as women you're trained to be polite and  that was my primary concern," Williams said.

Had someone noticed the man's behaviour and alerted TTC staff, she says, "I would have felt validated in my fear."

With files from Shannon Martin