It's been a confusing few months for the women living near Christie Pits - and the arrest of a 15-year-old for sexual assault on Saturday, October 20, hasn't made it much less so.
For one thing, there's the shock of discovering that the person arrested (though not convicted) was a youth, not the person some of our worst fears would have us imagine.
For another, there's the disconnect that occurred throughout the three months and 14 attacks: while protesters urged women to refuse to alter their habits and not act out of fear, a palpable chill swept over the area.
It was left to locals to weigh the benefits of self-assertion, and the "correct" feminist response, against possible danger. Many women I talked to avoided the area altogether. Some only walked in groups. One formed a TBTB hashtag (take back the block) that ended up being used more for dialogue than to connect to those moving through the neighborhood.
In some ways, it was all a challenge of proportionality. The bustling community has experienced a significant reduction in crime for several years running, and the odds of any individual woman encountering the serial assaulter - while potentially damaging - were small.
It was a point made at an October 17 community meeting packed with concerned citizens. There, police Inspector David Vickers of 14 Division described the panic as the result of a gap between perception and reality.
But what hangs in the air is whether the police refusal to share detailed info about the nature of the attacks (except that they were from behind) or their strategies to combat them added to the anxiety and perhaps put women at greater risk.
To be fair, Inspector Vickers was clear about what the assaults weren't. "We're not in a position to describe which [sexual assaults are] worse. But I will say, the TPS has never described any of these sexual assaults as rape."
As well, at their press conference on Monday, October 22, police suggested but did not confirm that the arrest was the result of an undercover sting, meaning officers had been probing the perpetrator's modus operandi and may not have wanted to reveal info that could jeopardize their work. Police ducked questions at the October 17 meeting about whether undercovers were operating.
Anna Willats, an anti-violence campaigner who teaches in George Brown's assaulted women's councillor program thinks more details, like the kind of physical contact made, or whether women were on their cellphones at the time, might have helped some victims prepare an appropriate response. Hers was a complaint widely shared at that meeting.
"Fears can be fuelled by getting an incomplete picture and having just enough information to be afraid," says Willats, who led chants like "You say ‘Walk with somebody,' we say ‘Fight back'" during a recent Take Back The Block march.
"If women have more specific information, they can start to discuss self-defence strategies."
Not all women were comfortable with that approach, but many at the meeting seemed hungry for more details and discussed the use of pepper spray. Some seemed clearly ready to respond physically to an attack.
(Police reaction to this was interesting. Vickers said he wasn't trying to advocate anything illegal, but added, "Nothing would make me happier than to get a 911 call about a guy with sore testicles.")
While women considered their personal options (the discussion about the appropriate collective response continues), anti-violence men had a more straightforward mission. Councillor Mike Layton stopped city staff from removing a series of anonymous posters warning the perp he was being watched and declaring women's right to free movement, and posted the White Ribbon Campaign's Six Things Men Can Do To Take A Stand.
If women find comfort in these kinds of initiatives, says White Ribbon's Clay Jones, "all the better."
While we don't yet know if police have the right person in custody, activists are clear that anti-violence outreach to young men is high priority.
"As much as [the arrest of a teen] is shocking, statistically it's not," says Stephanie Guthrie, who helped organize Take Back The Block marches. She notes that sexual assault stats show that males between 12 and 17 are in the age group most likely to offend. "I'm sure many young women can remember being assaulted in high school, having guys run up behind them and grab their butts.
"I think a lot of men get their backs up when they're forced to consider that their friends may be sexual assailants," she says. "The people who are committing these crimes are people they know and love. We have to get away from the idea that these people are monsters."