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Stephanie Guthrie is organizing Take Back the Block, an event to reclaim community spaces and promote neighbourhood solidarity after the recent increase in sexual assaults in Toronto. (GLOBE AND MAIL/JENNIFER ROBERTS)
Stephanie Guthrie is organizing Take Back the Block, an event to reclaim community spaces and promote neighbourhood solidarity after the recent increase in sexual assaults in Toronto. (GLOBE AND MAIL/JENNIFER ROBERTS)

sexual assault

Women fight for the right to party (safely) Add to ...

Stephanie Guthrie is “tired of women being instructed on how to keep themselves safe.”

In the wake of a high concentration of sexual assaults in downtown Toronto, the feminist activist resents hearing recommendations that women dress conservatively and avoid walking alone at night.

Ms. Guthrie is the core organizer behind Take Back the Block, a pair of neighbourhood block parties scheduled to follow Saturday’s Take Back the Night, an internationally observed march against sexual violence. She wants the block parties to raise awareness of the public’s role in making streets safe for women.

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“We’re trying to spark an interest in fostering more of a community atmosphere, where people are all looking out for each other,” is how Ms. Guthrie explains her event’s objectives, drawing on the “eyes on the street” public safety model espoused by the late urban theorist (and Toronto denizen) Jane Jacobs.

If only for a few hours, the block parties will present a real-life manifestation of Ms. Jacobs’s vision.

Nine women in their teens to late twenties were attacked in the Bloor-Christie area in the past month, following two similar incidences near Kensington Market in July. In late August, four more women were targeted in the Church Wellesley Village. In the past week, sex assaults have been reported on both the York and Ryerson University campuses. Just last Friday, Sept. 7, two west-end women were sexually assaulted by a stranger who broke into their homes within the same half-hour.

“When things like this are happening in the community, people are less likely to let you get away with being by yourself at night,” she says, citing her boyfriend’s recent insistence on picking her up from an after-dark event as an example. (Ms. Guthrie is no stranger to misogyny – this summer, she became a Twitter target after revealing the identity of a man who had designed a video-game about assaulting a feminist media critic.)

For Kasia Mychajlowycz, who has taken on co-ordination duties for Ryerson University’s Take Back the Block party (the other party will take place in Kensington Market’s Bellevue Park), it was sheer frustration that drew her onto the event’s organizing committee.

“The idea that I had to concede part of my life, and all of my night, to be seen as ‘being safe’ really pissed me off. Because it’s not up to me, it’s up to sexual assailants and sexual predators not to make the space unsafe,” says Ms. Mychajlowycz, who resides in one of the affected areas.

Deb Singh of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, and the organizer of Take Back the Night in Toronto, says that it’s a common instinct to warn women to take precautions over their personal safety where sexual violence is concerned.

“But those are responses based in sexism and patriarchy,” says Ms. Singh. “A more useful way of using our energy is to talk to men about sexual violence. … At the end of the day, if women could stop sexual violence, we would.”

In the meantime, the affected neighbourhoods have seen an ongoing increase in police enforcement and public awareness campaigns. “When we issue sexual-assault alerts, it is to make the public aware of what is happening, to be able to provide as much detail as we can about the assault and suspect and appeal to the public for help identifying the suspect,” says Constable Wendy Drummond of the Toronto Police.

Still, the question of how women should protect themselves inevitably crops up. “Our advice [to women] is to listen to your own instincts,” says Constable Drummond. “Identify places where you can go and get help if the need arises and call police.”

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