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What Should You Do When Someone Is Being Sexually Harassed in Public?

A recent incident on a Toronto subway involved a 17-year-old girl allegedly being loudly sexually harassed by a large man has sparked a debate about who should intervene in such a situation.

by Manisha Krishnan
Sep 25 2015, 8:49pm

Photo via Flickr user Kars Alfrink

On Thursday, two women riding the TTC were allegedly accosted by a large, aggressive man who degraded them for what they were wearing over the course of several stops. One of them, Sarah Beamish, who described the incident on Facebook, said with the exception of one woman who asked if they were OK, no one stepped in.

Beamish identified the aggressor as David Zancai, which the TTC later confirmed to VICE. Nicknamed Zanta, he was a well-known fixture in downtown Toronto throughout the 2000s for performing shirtless push-ups while dressed in a Santa hat. VICE interviewed Zanta for a story last year, which also discusses his history of mental illness; while working construction in 2000, he fell 25 feet, leaving him with brain damage that friends say triggered schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

According to Beamish's post, Zanta was allegedly "storming around" the subway Thursday, "yelling, doing pushups and roaring, and ranting about how 'ladies' and 'girls' need to 'keep their knees together' and 'stop showing their monkey' to men." Beamish wrote that he zeroed in one girl who looked to be 17, and began shaming her for her choice of wardrobe. When he went to take a photo of her, she started crying, which is when Beamish intervened. As a result, she said Zanta started verbally attacking her. Beamish helped the girl move onto a different subway car, but said Zanta followed them, dragging around a large banner featuring the bare legs of two women all the while. He ended up getting off the train before they did.

"The girl was clearly terribly shaken up," wrote Beamish. "This entire time, not a single man other than that harasser had said or done a thing." The post has prompted much discussion on what bystanders should do when someone who appears to be mentally distressed gets aggressive in public.

"People not giving a shit" isn't uncommon, said Toronto police spokesperson Victor Kwong, but he strongly advised against that reaction. "By doing nothing, you're allowing these crimes, whether serious or petty, to continue."

He advocates for helping the victim, whether that means calling the cops (the TTC is equipped with an alarm that will alert police, fire and ambulance services to an emergency), removing the victim from the situation, or being a good witness.

While Kwong said the police "will never tell someone to get physical," it depends on the situation and an individual's abilities. To paraphrase Kwong: If it gets to the point where you have to punch someone in the face for a good reason, you'll likely be protected by the Good Samaritan's Act.

When it comes to dealing specifically with people who appear to be mentally ill, Kwong said only use de-escalation tactics if you have the right training.

Dr. Arielle Salama, an outpatient and emergency psychiatrist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said de-escalation methods are best left to medical professionals.

"I think if you have any concerns at all and you're on public transit you should leave the vehicle and go to a public spot," she said, adding, "don't hesitate to call the police or call any authorities."

Salama also stressed that mentally ill people are rarely violent and are much more likely to be the victims of violence.

Todd Minerson, executive director of White Ribbon, an organization that educates men on how they can stop violence against women, said the most troubling part of Beamish's story is the lack of bystander support.

"Why didn't someone press the emergency alarm? Why didn't anyone who got off tell the ticket operator? Why didn't anyone check in with [the victim]?"

The likely reason, according to research, is people assume the only way to help is to have a physical altercation, he said. But talking to the victim or just physically standing in the perpetrator's way—things that Beamish did—can be effective too.

Minerson was careful to note that his organization isn't proposing that men need to swoop in and "protect women."

"Women do a great job of doing that themselves," he said. "What men need to do is intervene in other men's bad behaviour."

The TTC told VICE it is investigating the incident.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.