What can I do if I’m harassed, or witness others being harassed on public transit?

Since the pandemic has started, there’s been a drop in ridership but an increase in tensions and disruptive behaviours in public spaces. In particular, within public transit systems. There’s been more aggressions, assaults and harassment towards passengers, and transit operators.

Here’s what you can do if someone is harassing you or if you witness someone being targeted in public.

What is public harassment?

Public (or street) harassment can take on many forms. The impacts of harassment can be profound, and sometimes traumatizing. It can lead you to make significant changes in your life and cause long-lasting impacts.  

Public harassment can be someone:

  • Standing too close to you and/or insisting on conversation you don’t want to have.
  • Leering (prolonged staring in a malicious or threatening way), making vulgar gestures, exposing themselves sexually to you (public masturbation)
  • Mocking your clothing and threatening or trying to remove it (example: hijab, yarmulke, turban, or any other articles of clothing)
  • Telling you that you don’t have the right to be in a particular public space
  • Making racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, sexually explicit, and other derogatory comments 
  • Making unwelcome comments about your appearance, accent, sexuality, etc.
  • Whistling, barking, or making kissing noises
  • Following you or sitting next to you and blocking your path
  • Sexual touching or grabbing you

I’m Being Harassed 

Street harassment is never your fault. According to hollaback!, a global people-powered organization that aims to end harassment in public spaces, they recommend to always listen to and trust your instincts.  If a situation feels off, it could be the beginning of something dangerous about to happen.

Look around you to ensure the place is well lit and that there is an exit nearby should you need to escape a situation. If there are people around you and you feel safe speaking up you can:

  1. Reclaim your space - Set a boundary by telling the harasser to stop what they’re doing and to move away from you. Make direct eye contact when addressing them and use a firm tone of voice and tell them explicitly what you don’t like they’re doing. For example: “Don’t talk to me like this again. I don’t appreciate how you are insulting me. Step away from me!” Don’t engage further in conversation or verbal attacks. Sometimes perpetrators just want to instigate a confrontation.
  2. Move away - If you are sitting alone, find another person or group of people and stand/sit near them instead. Explain to them what happened, and ask them if you can stand/sit with them until you reach your destination.  If they’re blocking you, repeat what you said in the previous step in a louder voice so that others around you can hear what is happening. If you and the harasser are the only ones on the bus or transit car, sit near the driver or move train cars to be close to other people and transit staff.
  3. Ask for help - Tell people around you what you just experienced if they didn’t see it, and describe what the perpetrator looks like. Ask if you can stand by them until you call for help or ask someone to alert the bus/transit driver or authorities.  
  4. Record it- If you feel safe try to record it. Either take a picture of the offender or ask people around you to record what is happening.

If you are in physical danger, pull the yellow emergency bar located in different areas of the TTC trains, buses or streetcars. When you activate this alarm, TTC Transit Control Authorities and 911 will be notified. 

You can also download the free SafeTTC mobile App to report incidents that occur on the TTC. The App allows you to either discretely “Report an Incident” directly to TTC’s Transit Control Centre or “Call Police,” which connects you directly with 911 for emergencies. With the click of a few screens, you can submit a photo of the offender or incident, specific location details, and a description of what happened.

The SafeTTC App is available through your Android or iOS App store.

For  Go Transit transportation incidents ask an employee for help, call transit safety dispatch at 1-877-297-0642, press the yellow strip for emergencies, or call 911.

If you are alone and no one is around and you feel endangered because someone is following you or accosting you, call 911 right away.

I’m Seeing Someone being Harassed -Bystander Intervention

If you think you see someone being harassed, it’s better to take an active role to intervene than to ignore it. It’s been proven that when bystanders intervene to stop harassment, the chances of a situation escalating are significantly less. Even if you aren’t sure if they are being harassed, it’s better to try to break up a suspicious situation than to remain silent. Remaining silent is like helping the offender commit the “crime”.  

Consider the 5 D’s of Prevention tools by hollaback! The tools are five simple, impactful actions you can act on to combat public harassment and defuse situations.

1. Distract

Distraction is a subtle and creative way to intervene when you see a situation developing. By interrupting the situation, you derail the attention of the harasser.

For example, let's say you see a woman being harassed by a man standing too close to her in a crowded bus and he insists on talking to her when her body language is saying she is not interested and uncomfortable. You could walk up to the woman and pretend to know her and ask her how she’s been. You can also pretend to be lost and needing directions.  

You could say something like, “Excuse me, I need to get here (point at your phone), do you know if I’m going the right way?”. You might want to type a message on your phone that says “Are you ok?” and show the victim that you are checking up to make sure they are ok. If you feel safe, you can use your body to separate and stand or sit between her and the harasser to break up the situation.  You can also simply ask for the time because your phone died. The idea is to get creative in coming up with an excuse to disrupt the harasser.

Don’t make eye contact or direct the conversation towards the harasser. Always talk to the victim directly and create a distraction. The person being targeted will likely catch on to what you’re doing. Once the harasser has stopped make sure to ask the targeted person if they are ok and need any further help.

Even if you misjudge a situation and nothing dangerous was transpiring it’s safer to take a chance and act on what you see.  

Delegate

Asking for assistance is a form of delegation. You can ask for help from someone else if you don’t feel safe using the distraction method. Tell others around you what is happening or tell the authorities directly what you are witnessing. Contact the bus driver, transit employee, or if in other public spaces find someone who can help, store ore business staff, or call the authorities directly (police or 911). 

Document 

Capture on video or with pictures what you are witnessing. But don’t post anything online without asking the victim first. Remember that recording the incident is for the victim and to help them prove what went through. If they want the incident shared online then you can share it. Let them know you have the footage and ask  them how want you to share it with them or the public. 

When documenting the incident try to film as much of the location possible and surrounding landmarks at the time of the incident. This can significantly benefit the victim when they are submitting the information for reporting purposes. Having the witness perspective is a great advantage.  

Delay 

Checking in on a person by asking them if they are OK,  after they experienced harassment can be an effective way to acknowledge what they’ve been through. It sends a message that it is not their fault and provides validation after an experience that can leave a victim feeling disturbed and insecure.

You can always ask the person:

  • Do you want to use my phone?
  • Do you want me to wait with you until authorities get here
  • Do you want my contact info if you need a witness? (in case of a report)

Direct 

Direct intervention is sometimes a last resort because it can put you at risk depending on the situation. In the direct approach you confront the harasser directly by calling out their negative actions directly:

  • “This is NOT OK. What you are doing is not acceptable!” 
  • “Leave them alone!”
  • “Making racist, or homophobic remarks is NOT OK!” 

If it seems unlikely that the person being harassed is going to speak up and is looking for others to speak up, this might be a good tactic to use. But always assess the situation first to ensure your safety to ensure both you and the victim are physically safe if you choose to proceed with this tactic. 

For More Information

  • Take Action - Ways to stop street and public harassment. From ihollaback.org. 
  • Standup Against Street Harassment - Videos and resources on how to stop street harassment from Stand Up International. 
  • HeartMob - Resources for when you experience online harassment by hollaback! 
  • Sexual Assault Help Lines to call: Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre,416-323-6040, Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre 416-495-2555, Assaulted Women’s Helpline 866-863-0511 
Last updated: November 29, 2021 4006504