There were so many disturbing things that happened to me on buses and SkyTrain between the ages of 13 and 22, in the 1990s and 2000s when I commuted to high school and then to university, that they’ve sort of all blurred together. Some of the harassment, I realize now, was assault. But when no one sees it… when you feel embarrassed… when you’re not even sure it is really happening (how could it?)… and when you try to get help or report it and no one cares… How do you get justice? How do you heal? How do you make it stop, for you and for others?
Here are some of the incidents that happened to me:
I remember being 13 and having a 40-something man on the Expo SkyTrain line strike up an ‘innocent’ conversation and then asking me where I was getting off. Scott Road, I said. “Can I watch?” he said. I didn’t understand the question until he left some minutes later, and I felt sick and angry.
Some time after that, when I was still 13, there was a man who would drive up to the bus stop where I had to make a transfer at the same time most afternoons. He kept trying to offer me a ride, and did this on several occasions. One time after I got on the bus, I saw that he was following right behind the bus. I think I tried to tell the driver, who either didn’t understand my problem or didn’t care that I was afraid. The police weren’t called, in any case. I stayed on the bus past my stop and went to the end of the line – a busy exchange – and rode it back to where I needed to go, making sure I wasn’t being followed. I probably changed routes after that. I can’t remember much now, other than vaguely what the man following me looked like, and the fear I felt, and that the bus driver didn’t help me.
I remember being 14 on a crowded Granville Street electric bus and being pressed-in as I stood, reaching for the bar above my head. Everyone was being bumped about by the road vibrations, but I became aware that the tall, older man behind me was mostly moving up and down, as something hard seemed to be pressed up against my buttocks. I froze. I couldn’t say anything. I think I left the bus at the next stop. I can’t even remember.
I blamed some of those experiences on the fact that I had to wear a school uniform in high school, which I felt made me more of a target. Even then, I was aware that school-girl uniforms were a ‘fetish’ focus, even if I didn’t know the word fetish. But the experiences of feeling targeted and being followed, touched or harassed didn’t end after high school graduation.
I remember being 19, in university, and taking a bus to visit my boyfriend who was living in Burnaby. I was wearing a skirt, sitting on one of the two-seat forward-facing rows near the back of the bus. Some 20- or 30-something man came and sat beside me, and his fingers wandered over to the side of my exposed thigh. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and shuffled over closer to the window. He adjusted as well, and his fingers were brushing the side of my thigh again. I shuffled over again, he adjusted and touched my thigh, again. I tried to use what I knew of “being assertive” to tell him, in a low, loud dog-obedience voice that the other passengers would hear, to stop touching my thigh and to move. He immediately got incredibly aggressive and verbally abusive and stormed off the bus, which was stopped at a timing point, as he shouted at me and called me terrible names. I absolutely lost my temper at that point, and yelled every vile thing I could think of back at him, through the open window at the back of the bus. Shaking, I went up to the bus driver to apologize for yelling and to explain what just happened. He only said, “Oh, I thought you were having a lovers’ spat.” He did not offer any kind of assistance, reassurance, or courses of action such as calling the police. No one on the bus said anything supportive to me either.
When I was 22 or so, I was taking the bus to get from Burnaby/East Van to Kitsilano for a birthday party at a restaurant. I was sitting near the front of the almost-empty bus — as I always try to do now — and became aware out of the corner of my eye after blocks and blocks and blocks down Hastings that the same car was beside the bus in the left lane. I looked over and all I could see was a pink erect penis… Then my focus zoomed out and I saw the rest of the man who was driving, looking over at me, stroking his naked penis, and mouthing words at me. There was no one else near me on the bus. I memorized the licence plate and I marched over to the bus driver to tell him what was happening, and all he said was, “Huh. I was wondering why that car was keeping pace with the bus for so long.” I told the bus driver to call it in, to get the police to come meet the bus at Burrard Station so I could report it, and he refused. The driver who had been exposing himself to me had sped off by that point. This was before everyone had cell phones all the time, and there was nothing I could do for the next 30 minutes until I got to the restaurant in Kitsilano where the party was, and I used the payphone there. The police didn’t care. They took the report, but said it would be impossible to prove that the owner of the car was the one driving it.