This reveals a terrifying reality, sadly many of us know too well.
Emily Dontsos was midway through her commute before she realized she was being sexually assaulted.
It was two weeks ago and she was travelling on a jam-packed subway southbound on Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) at 8:30 a.m. Dontsos, a 31-year-old who works in communications for a downtown hospital, is used to being squeezed against other passengers on her way to work, and at first she thought the object jutting into her backside was just someone’s bag.
She had gotten on at Eglinton station, and it wasn’t until the crowd thinned at Bloor-Yonge that she was able to turn around, and she realized with horror that a man had his hand between her buttocks.
“It had been him the entire time. When I realized I was completely shocked,” she said. “I was disgusted.”
She was revolted to see that the man, who was wearing a suit and appeared to be in his 40s, was smirking. Dontsos took that to mean that because she hadn’t immediately removed his hand, he thought she enjoyed it.
“I felt this incredible sense of violation,” she said, “and the fact that he probably thought I was somehow complicit with it was extremely disturbing to me.”
Dontsos initially just wanted to put the incident behind her. But she agreed to share her story with the Star because she said many other women have been assaulted on public transit, and she wanted to confront the problem by speaking about it openly.
“I’m just one more statistic of sexual assault on the TTC,” she said
She’s right. Reports of sexual assaults on the Toronto’s transit system are frequent, and the problem is worse than previously reported.
According to numbers obtained from the Toronto Police through a freedom of information request, there were 577 reports of sexual assault on TTC property or vehicles between 2011 and 2015. That works out to almost one every three days. As of July 25, there were 70 reported assaults on the transit system, putting the TTC on track for about 124 reported assaults in 2016.
The numbers are roughly twice as large as those previously released by the TTC. That’s because the transit agency only records sexual assaults reported to its employees, and some victims go directly to the police.
Even the police figures likely understate the extent of the problem. Experts say that many women don’t report sexual assault because they fear that they won’t be taken seriously, they believe the chances of the culprit being convicted are slim, or they’re wary of the stigma attached.
Police don’t specifically keep track of sexual assaults on public transit, and the figures provided to the Star only reflect instances where the reporting officer specifically noted that the incident occurred on a TTC vehicle or property, which they might not do in every case. The police also said that the annual totals may not be directly comparable to each other because the force changed its tracking system in 2013.
Meghan Gray, a spokesperson for the force, said she couldn’t say whether the transit network, which is used by 1.8 million passengers a day, is a hot spot for such crimes. But Det.-Sgt. Joanne Rudnick of the sex crimes unit acknowledged the possibility that an offender would view the TTC as “a target-rich environment.”
According to Statistics Canada, in roughly half of all sexual assaults, the perpetrator is known to the victim. Offences on transit are set apart by the fact that they’re likely committed by a stranger and happen in public.
“It’s basically a quick assault,” said Deepa Mattoo, director of legal services at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides support to women who have experienced violence.
But while the assaults can be brief and may not be as physically violent as other sexual crimes, Mattoo said their effect on the victim can be profound.
“Think about it, if I’m assaulted on public transit and that’s the only way that I can . . . get to my employment, the trauma which I will carry through being in that spot again the next day is so harsh,” she said.
Jaime-Leigh Fairbrother, 32, said she was assaulted in 2009, when a man pressed his erect penis against her in a crowded subway train, and then grabbed her inner thigh. The traumatic incident made her more guarded when using the transit system.
“It was horrifyingshe said. “I guess I’m still a little bit paranoid about personal space. I will avoid super full trains, because you don’t have the ability to move.”
Fairbrother, like Dontsos, told the Star that she thought the TTC should do more to raise awareness about sexual assault and encourage people to report it.
The TTC says it has an array of measures that aid in preventing sexual assault. They include security cameras deployed throughout the agency’s property and vehicles, emergency alarms, and designated waiting areas on subway platforms that have additional lighting, a pay phone, and an intercom connected to the station collector.
In the 1990s the TTC also pioneered the use of the request stop program, allowing women (and now all passengers) who feel threatened to be let off between bus stops.
Next year, the TTC intends to introduce a cellphone app that will allow passengers who feel threatened or witness a crime to report it. “We will continue to do everything we can to combat this insidious crime on our system,” said TTC spokesperson Brad Ross.
However, the TTC isn’t currently engaged in the kind of high-profile awareness campaign that advocates say is crucial to discouraging sexual assault and increasing reporting.
Nicole Pintsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, said public messages that acknowledge the “prevalence and impact” of sexual assault “can go a long way” to encourage victims to alert authorities.
Edmonton Transit has been lauded for launching a campaign last year that specifically addressed sexual assault, using ads installed on the transit system that said: “Groping. It’s a crime.”
Dontsos said she didn’t report her assault because she wasn’t sure it was serious enough to take to the police, and she didn’t get a good look at the attacker so she doubted she could provide enough evidence to catch him. She also couldn’t find any way on the TTC website to report it quickly and anonymously, as she’d have liked.
“I didn’t necessarily want them to do anything about it, I just wanted them to know it happened” so that they could address the wider issue, she said.
Ross said that the TTC app’s rollout will be accompanied by a public awareness campaign about “harassment and unwanted attention.” While He said the agency is considering messaging specifically about sexual assault.