Katie Nordgren has had her earbuds torn off by a man insistent on talking to her on public transit. She’s also been called a “bitch” when she refused to engage another male rider in conversation.
The 28-year-old student at Simon Fraser University knows she’s far from the only woman who has dealt with gender-based harassment, including sexual harassment, in TransLink stations and vehicles. Nordgren told the Georgia Straight that it’s a frequent topic of conversation among her friends.
“It doesn’t necessarily look like sexual harassment, but it’s a whole lot of not taking ‘no’ for an answer from women who are not interested in having a chat or going on a date,” Nordgren said by phone from her home in New Westminster.
This week, Nordgren and her SFU classmate Alexa Dredge launched a website to share stories of harassment from public-transit riders across Metro Vancouver. For now, Harassment on TransLink is a project for their third-year gender, sexuality, and women’s studies course, but Nordgren hopes its scope will grow beyond that.
According to Nordgren, the site received more than a dozen submissions in its first day, and stories of “aggressive” and “scary” behaviour continue to come in to firstname.lastname@example.org. In one post, a woman—who is anonymous, like all of the site’s contributors—recalls a man, with his hands in his pants, telling her he wanted to “shove it” in her butt on the SeaBus. Another woman wrote that she was harassed on the SkyTrain by two men who said she wanted to “fall all over their dicks” and then joked about shooting her in the head.
“I was told by a man on the bus that I ‘would look so good pregnant’, and when he wouldn’t stop making comments about my figure I went and sat behind the driver—who ultimately did nothing,” one post reads. “I’ve had men offer to let me suck their dicks, I’ve had men behind me start playing with my hair, I’ve had men touch my knitting and make comments on what a good wife I’ll be one day.”
Whether it’s “sexualized harassment, romantic harassment, physical intimidation”, or other incidents, these experiences affect how women—who may not be able to afford another means of transportation—use the transit system, Nordgren noted. Some avoid riding the SkyTrain at night, while others don’t take certain bus routes, dress “sexy” on transit, or sit at the back.
Hilla Kerner, a spokesperson for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, told the Straight that sexual harassment—along with groping and other forms of sexual assault—is “very common” on public transit. She said women who have been harassed or assaulted can call the shelter for help.
“Unfortunately, often the public is passive when they are witnessing it,” Kerner said by phone. “So I think there is a huge responsibility here for people who are witnessing sexual harassment in public spaces and in public transportation to stop the man—to make it really clear that it’s unacceptable.”
According to Kerner, one way to fight sexual harassment is to “shame and name” the perpetrators. For instance, women who have been harassed—or who have witnessed such incidents—could take a photo of the harasser and post it on Facebook.
Kerner would like to see TransLink use public-awareness campaigns and its security personnel to protect women from sexual harassment on transit.
“I want them to use their security guards for this reason and not to chase after poor people who cannot afford public transportation that really should be free,” Kerner said.
Metro Vancouver Transit Police has heard stories like those posted on Harassment on TransLink, according to spokesperson Anne Drennan. She told the Straight that transit police take sexual harassment and assaults “extremely seriously”, but they’re concerned that many people aren’t reporting incidents to them.
“It’s great to see people being encouraged to tell their stories,” Drennan said by phone from New Westminster. “That’s cathartic, right? But we want them to tell us.”
Drennan noted police can use surveillance cameras to identify harassers, issue warnings, and even ban them from the transit system. Reporting trends can also help the force decide where to deploy its officers.
Although Harassment on TransLink is focused on gender-based harassment, the site is welcoming all kinds of stories. In addition to women, people marginalized due to race, sexual orientation, and other factors face harassment on transit, Nordgren acknowledged.
“Pretty much anyone who isn’t a big white guy, I’ve heard these problems from,” she said.
Nordgren believes that these stories will serve as evidence that something needs to be done to make the transit system safer. She foresees the site leading to conversations in society, discussions with TransLink and the City of Vancouver, and then action.
“Right now, what we’re doing is just trying to demonstrate a need for some kind of intervention when it comes to harassment on transit,” Nordgren said.