If you’re part of the frequent commuters’ club, you may have seen the eye-grabbing banners plastered all over TTC subway trains, marked by the hashtag #ThisIsWhere in bright TTC font, followed by a detailed description of a sexual assault that took place in that spot.
The #ThisIsWhere campaign was launched in September, along with the SafeTTC app, which was made to provide a “discreet” way to report an incident on the TTC. The app gives you options on its homepage of reporting different types of incidents via photo or text, or calling 911. It also helps the TTC keep track of reports for records.
But many transit users say its wrong way to raise awareness, saying it is triggering to survivors of sexual violence rather than helpful in its prevention.
“The posters that they have now would be triggering for people who have had similar experiences,” said Margaret Chown, a Toronto artist, who is a survivor of sexual assault. “That’s not what you want to do. They would then have a feeling of panic or not being safe.”
For Chown, her experience was on an escalator in a TTC subway station when someone groped her. Chown said that once she got off the escalator, she went to some TTC workers to report the incident.
“I said ‘A man on the escalator groped me in an extremely inappropriate and sexual way. I’d like to report it,’ and they said ‘Well, what do you want us to do about it?'” she said. “They just shrugged their shoulders and I just walked away.”
Chown says she is not alone in this experience. “When someone does something like that, you just feel maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe I’m exaggerating,” she said. While she says she believes the campaign is “terrific” in terms of getting real help for victims, there are still many problems with it, including the “onus on the victim” and that not everyone has a smartphone.
“When you’re in a situation like that, some people don’t think to get [your smartphone] out, and I’m in the ‘some don’t’ category. I’ve got a picture of him emblazoned in my brain,” she said.
The poster campaign has #ThisIsWhere stories ranging from racism, homophobia, ableism to sexual violence. Cheryn Thoun, head of customer communications for the TTC and also head developer for the campaign, told VICE that sexual assault survivors were “informally” consulted through private meetings after they came forward with their stories to the TTC.
Between 2011 and 2015, 577 sexual assault reports were taken to the TTC—which doesn’t include police reports. And in the first seven months of 2017, 55 reports were made, according to the Toronto Star.
“The ads aim to raise awareness and take ownership of the issue and start a conversation,” she wrote to VICE via email. “We felt it was critical that we own the issue and be upfront about it. It isn’t just a TTC problem, but our system mirrors our community and so the issues we face as a greater community become our issues as a community riding transit together.”
She added she loves the campaign because she wants it to encourage bystanders to be more helpful and reinforce to offenders that harassment and assault are unacceptable. “I hope I can at least raise some awareness about stuff that we haven’t always talked about, because we’re uncomfortable.”
But Cassandra Meyers, coordinator for the Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line which is a peer-to-peer hotline based at Ryerson University, told VICE she believes there is a more important conversation to be had. “I think this idea that we should start a conversation is less important than people listening and believing us in the first place, which is the biggest problem,” she said, who is a sexual violence survivor and has experienced sexual violence on the TTC. “To take us seriously.”
Meyers said that after she experienced her sexual assault on the TTC, she says she reported the incident to police, but nothing came from it.
She adds that she wishes campaigns like these were more survivor-centric. “It feels [like] it’s more for people who haven’t experienced violence,” she told VICE. “‘Oh, by the way, there’s violence that happened here—don’t forget it.’ Like OK, I can’t forget it. That’s the point.”
In 2015 Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne launched an anti-sexual violence ad which brought attention to how to identify sexual assault, giving more responsibility to witnesses to report. Chown said that this would be the better alternative. “In terms of me going into a subway, if I see a sign by an escalator saying this is the place where so and so was groped on the escalator, I’m going to have a panic attack. I will. So, it’s the wrong approach for them.”
The CBC also reported that results from a survey released by the province asking whether a witness felt it was their responsibility to report shot up, from 37 percent to 58 percent.
“I’m uncomfortable, but I think it is the way to bring awareness. I think it’s not a delicate and not a gentle subject,” says Sue Motahedin, head of the TTC’s customer service centre. While she added she understands survivors have unique experiences and triggers can have a strong effect, “We have a strong bold message that I feel personally is appropriate for the seriousness of what goes on and what needs to be addressed.”
Motahedin herself has also experienced sexual harassment through indecent exposure. She told VICE that she just sat there in silence, while a bystander did the same. “I sat on the train and I was completely frozen, because I didn’t know what to do so. I was terrified and I was by myself,” she said. “We just kind of sat there and tried to ignore what was going on.”
That’s why she says she loves the app. “I think back to that time and I think maybe if I had my phone with me I would have used it.”
Meyers says it’s the same when it comes to any conversation around marginalized communities. “We have to have the oppressors learn something, we always have to offer [our most vulnerable and most violent] stories to make people care about them. It’s not for us at that point,” she said.
Chown, who has four daughters, said that her 18-year-old daughter said that even though she hasn’t experienced severe sexual violence, she felt uncomfortable by the ads. “She felt she didn’t want to read the whole poster once she sort of got the gist of it from the beginning, and she just kind of tuned out because it just made her feel bad.”
“If they had shown me the posters, I would have said what I said. They suck. They’re going to upset some people,” Chown said. “So why didn’t they [consult] some people who feel the same way that I do? I don’t know.”
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