Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment.
The sun was still up in Toronto, and a large, dishevelled man at a TTC subway station asked a stranger for change. It was for coffee.
He had only a couple of coins when he asked two young women if they could help out. They couldn’t. The man started to walk away to ask someone else, but as he walked away, he used his outstretched palm to violate the body of one of the women. She froze, then yelled, “You can’t be grabbing bitches’ asses on the subway!”
People turned to stare at the woman, but the large man did not. He said “sorry.” He stared at a spot on the floor.
At the core of this story are three characters: the man, the woman, and the city. The man existed in a system that did not make space for him, and he did not receive the help he needed. The woman existed in a system that made space for her but that was not designed for her safety. When the man reached out his palm and no one said a thing, the man and the bystanders all contributed to the system that denied that woman her autonomy. The city upheld these systems through inaction.
The city was the character that said nothing. Not to the woman, nor to the man that hurt her. The city was silent.
For the man, who wasn’t offered avenues for upward social mobility, the city fell quiet. To the woman, who was robbed of her autonomy by this man, the city was also mute. The city was silent.
Perhaps the city was silent because it is isolating. Chances are, if you live anywhere with a mildly high population density, you will never know the vast majority of people you run into. That doesn’t mean you’re unlikely to develop personal connections — it simply means that there is still an ineffable distance between you and the next person on the bus, just like the man and the woman in this story.
The city might also have been scared. It isn’t hard to come across stories of rude strangers or violent offenders — and it isn’t hard to run into them, either. People in need of help can oftentimes seem dangerous because of our biases against them — we know that sometimes, they are dangerous. For some people, there can be a bit of a preemptive response at play when they encounter strangers in need of help.
When the bystanders didn’t speak up for the woman, it could have been out of self-preservation. There was also an aspect of reticence at play: people might not have said anything to the woman simply because they thought she could handle the situation without their support.
There was an element of distraction to account for, as well. Southbound on Bloor, the people who wore backpacks, business suits, construction vests, or held grocery bags were concerned with the many obligations that lay ahead of them. Dozens of discrete, disparate noises played through tiny speakers in people’s ears, and half of those people looked at the floor.
The city was silent for a myriad of reasons, but it wouldn’t have been silent if not for the system it existed within. On any night in Toronto, at least 10,000 people are homeless. Not all of them have shelter. To the man, the system is an oppressor. It insists he provides assets that he is unable to provide, and when he can’t, it seems to tell him that he does not have a right to shelter, to food, or to security. The assault, too, is a measure of the system: the man was responsible, but so was the patriarchal culture that suggests to men that they have a right to a woman’s body.
Canadian culture is defined by its proximity to concepts like cliff diving, tree tapping, and being a good neighbour. At their core, these concepts are all about community and connection. Once you reach Toronto, however, those values begin to lose relevance. It’s difficult to be good toward a city of strangers. It can be a lot easier to plug out.
Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada whose rates are not declining each year. However, only 3.3 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. Of the reported cases, only 36 per cent result in charges being laid, and nine per cent lead to a conviction. Especially considering those statistics, the bystanders owed it to the woman to speak up for her and make her feel more protected.
The story teaches us that our world doesn’t operate the way it should. It also tells us about the things within our control: the compassion we can choose to extend to those around us, and the small change we can choose to effect simply by speaking up or by listening. Consider treating the world like it’s a small town you grew up in. You’re a lot closer to the next person on the subway than you think.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:
- Visit safety.utoronto.ca for a list of safety resources.
- Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
- Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
- Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511