63

On my way to work, I cannot help but encountering a developmentally disabled person who harasses me and other women. How can I deal with him?

Background

I have been taking the same train to work each day for about 2 years now. A developmentally disabled person has to take the same train to get to this special workplace for developmentally disabled people. He has a habit of harassing the girls/young women at the platform and in the train.

The first time I took this train, I was 'the new face' and so he immediately jumped on me. He used a slightly impolite greeting (one usually reserved for best friends here in the Netherlands), and started asking questions like where are you going, what are you doing. I told him where I was going was none of his business, that I prefer to not disclose that information to people I do not know. He started getting aggressive, telling me I was mean to him only because of his developmental disability, and calling me names. Luckily, by that time another male commuter had arrived that I know a bit from church, and he warned the man that he should leave me alone.

After that, this man started coming up to me every single morning, (just like he does with all the other girls/women at the station) using the impolite greeting. I decided to ignore him, so it has been the same every morning since: coming up to me, saying the impolite greeting, standing in front of me for a while and shuffling on.

Tried

I am including some of the things I have tried already below, I am looking for new ways to deal with this problem.

  • I tried putting on big headphones and standing close to the platform so he had to cross behind me, but he still kept going at it, only now standing behind me. That scares me even more because he can be so aggressive.

  • I once tried reacting with the correct and polite form of greeting, but a situation much like the one described above occurred: he started asking personal questions, became aggressive and had to be sent away by another male commuter.

  • He also scared me really badly one morning when I was walking to the station, by blocking my way and impolitely greeting me. I had to walk through somebody else's garden and I ran the last bit to the train station. I called my parents. My parents have spoken to his parents (this man is known in my village for how he behaves towards girls/women), and apparently his behaviour has already improved from what it was, apparently he now walks on when ignored, instead of also becoming aggressive when not getting attention.

  • In the Netherlands there are special compartments in trains where everybody has to be absolutely silent (no talking, no whispering, no answering your phone etcetera). When he enters these train compartments and sees a girl, he just starts talking. We have had to go and fetch railway personnel regularly, because he gets very aggressive when being told he is in the special compartment and has to be quiet. But because of his behaviour almost all women/girls travel in this silent compartment, to avoid encountering him elsewhere in the train, and this makes him come into these compartments more regularly because it's where the girls/women are.

  • I can not take another train, because of office hours.

  • I can generally not avoid him at the train station, since I use the walk to/from the station as my daily exercise, this means I am almost always there before he arrives.

  • He seems too developmentally disabled to understand replies like 'not interested' or 'no' to his impolite greetings. He just looks at you really confused, and either walks on to harass you in the same way the next morning (best case scenario), or sees them as a conversation starter and starts asking the personal questions until a male tells him to leave me/other women/girl alone.

  • He gets very aggressive towards women, but will listen to men when they tell him to leave us alone. I do not like being dependent on strange men for my own safety.

  • I once discussed this with somebody that is an officer, and calling the police is not an option, since what he is doing is not unlawful here in the Netherlands, and because of his developmentally disability he can not be held accountable.

  • Ignoring this person makes me feel really bad about myself, because he can not help that he is developmentally disabled and unable to learn proper manners.

  • Giving him attention that is not the kind of attention that he wants makes him mad and dangerous. And when I give him attention and I know it is not what he wants, this also makes me feel like I am the bad girl.

I have tried several ways of dealing with this person, but they either have no effect, or they leave me feeling bad about myself / being scared because of his reaction. How can I deal with him better?

  • 13
    I'm sure someone talking to you once is not illegal, but repeated aggressive harassment is really okay by the law? Is the management at the train station aware of the situation? Obviously they know he talks in the quiet car, but that's not the same as harassing people. – Kat Jul 24 '17 at 20:06
  • @Kat, I have just started trying some of the approaches here this week. So far, trying to steer the conversation away to other smalltalk (as suggested by Yosef Baskin) has failed. Apparently his obsession (see the comment on that answer) is getting to know as much personal details from a female as possible (where do you live? is his favourite question). I made sure to tell the male commuter I know from church what I was going to try, and he has 'rescued' me twice this week. I'll try it for the rest of this week, if nothing changes I will ask the other females to take some organized action. – Tinkeringbell Jul 25 '17 at 11:23
  • Because you mentioned that you were not familiar with some of the terms regarding disability in language, I recommend this article. It's a long read, but I think it's worth it. – Shokhet Jul 25 '17 at 17:57
  • 6
    @AllTheKingsHorses He does not manages 'not being rude' with men. He never deliberately tries to contact men. He does however obey men, and train personnel (regardless of their gender), when they tell him to leave women alone. My best guess is that he recognises authority figures in these people, but sees all women as potential girlfriends. For me, that would also explain his aggressiveness when 'rejected' (not justify it!) – Tinkeringbell Jul 26 '17 at 19:18
  • @Tinkeringbell Has there been any solution to this situation? Can you add a comment (or edit the question) with an update? I'm curious as to what works / doesn't work in such situations. Thanks. – Radu Murzea Jan 31 '18 at 14:57
52

I had a similar problem a few years ago. A particular commuter (who I knew from a previous employment) would spot me on the platform and insist on coming up and talking to me. Because we have friends and colleagues in common and because there was a strong possibility I'd end up working with them in future, I was extremely keen not to offend them by pretending to be on a call or by listening to loud music.

In the end I found the ideal solution; I simply avoided them. I found a spot where I could stand some distance away from the platform and observe the track. I'd walk onto the platform just as the train was arriving, spot which car this person was alighting, then pick a different one. You usually get a few minutes to get on board and it's an easy matter to just not be in the same place as them.


Actions you may wish to take:

  • You absolutely need to complain to the station staff (by phone and or letter) each and every time you're harassed. His behaviour is not acceptable and they need to provide personnel to supervise both the platform and the train. If they fail to cooperate, start to make formal complaints about them as well as threatening to contact your Senator and Representative.

  • Start keeping a log of his activities and make sure the staff get copies.

  • Speak to other female commuters. If he's harassing them as well, they may have developed strategies to prevent contact that you can use. Perhaps buttonhole them as they walk away from the station or hand them a card with your email address on.

  • In the UK there's a group called "Passenger Focus" that campaigns for the rights of rail passengers. There may be a similar group in the Netherlands. Reaching out to them may be useful.

  • Speak to the police. On several occasions you said that he's been aggressive or violent. This is not an acceptable set of circumstances, even if he's developmentally disabled. They may offer some assistance by speaking to his parents, speaking to him directly or providing staff for the platform. They may also contact the train company to ask them what actions they're taking for your protection. Again, make this their problem and not just your problem.

  • Speak to a solicitor. I gather there's something called a contactverbod that acts as a temporary restraining order. If he's not legally responsible, this will put the onus on his parents/guardians to keep him physically away from you.

  • 18
    Not all dutch trains have a toilet. And I have enough personal skills to know that occupying the toilet for more than an 10 minutes just because you are avoiding someone is rude to other people that may need to really use the toilet for what it's meant to be used for. I do not want to come across as very difficult/picky but the toilet does not seem a good solution either. – Tinkeringbell Jul 23 '17 at 10:39
  • 32
    @tinkeringbell - It sounds like you need to complain to the station staff on a daily basis. A user is harassing me on the platform, a user is harassing me on the coach, etc etc. Make it their problem and not just yours. Make them dread opening letters or answering the phone because you've read their rules and are insisting that they actually supervise the quiet car. – Valorum Jul 23 '17 at 10:54
  • 18
    First of all, we feel for your challenges. You are not to blame. He is. My take, as a male, isthat it could help you to make a big decision. Do yo believe you are to blame, or he? You say "Ignoring...makes me feel really bad about myself." This worry complicates your ability to take any drastic action, whatever that is, because you are kind. "Because he can not help that he is developmentally disabled," is true as far as it goes, but not a complete pass for abusiveness. "Unable to learn proper manners" is the heart of it all, a guess that gives him a free pass to torture and assault you. – Yosef Baskin Jul 23 '17 at 12:56
  • 29
    @tinkeringbell "You're being mean to me because of my disability." / "No I'm being mean to you because you're harassing me." Not pleasant, but if he won't take subtler hints it comes to this, if you have to engage him at all. – Monica Cellio Jul 24 '17 at 0:51
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    I don't agree OP should have to hide, but the rest of the answer is excellent. Get everyone being harassed to complain to every authority you can think of every time it happens. And don't use mild words like he's bothering you or makes you uncomfortable. Say he is harassing you and makes you feel unsafe. Confidently insist that this man needs to be supervised. – Kat Jul 24 '17 at 20:15
43

I agree with the suggested actions in this answer by Valorum -- report it to the train station every time it happens, keep a log, and confer with the other affected women. But I noticed something additional in your question that hasn't been addressed:

A developmentally disabled person has to take the same train to get to this special workplace for developmentally disabled people.

So you have somebody who's dangerously aggressive and invasive, who according to the police can't be held responsible for his actions, but he's in some sort of special program. My next step in your situation would be to contact the people in charge of that special workplace.

If they are responsible for training him in life skills, they need to know about this profound failure so they can address it. If they are not responsible for that -- if they're just a workplace that has agreed to employ developmentally-disabled people -- then they, in turn, must be working with somebody else who's making the connections -- a government agency, a clinic or hospital, an advocacy group, or something similar, and they ought to be able to help you escalate your complaint.

(I haven't been in your situation; my threatening encounters with mentally-unstable individuals have been one-time encounters, not every day, and the methods of dealing with them are different. I'm drawing this answer from experience escalating complaints within the workplace and other organizations; those situations weren't threatening in the way that yours is, but "involve the person who is somehow superior to the problem person" is the approach that has worked for me.)


In a later comment you added:

I have just started trying some of the approaches here this week. So far, trying to steer the conversation away to other smalltalk (as suggested by Yosef Baskin) has failed. Apparently his obsession (see the comment on that answer) is getting to know as much personal details from a female as possible (where do you live? is his favourite question). I made sure to tell the male commuter I know from church what I was going to try, and he has 'rescued' me twice this week. I'll try it for the rest of this week, if nothing changes I will ask the other females to take some organized action.

You are describing warning signs of stalking, particularly the attempts to get personal information about you. The common advice when dealing with repeated harassment of the creepy variety (examples: 1 2 3 4) is: don't engage, do seek help.

You've already tried telling him to leave you alone; it didn't work. Under no conditions should you give him any information that he could use to cause even more trouble for you. Ignoring him isn't working for you either, and is unlikely to.

Report this to the train station and his workplace, as already mentioned. Further, you and the other women should strongly consider contacting the police. Even if they say they can't do anything, having the reports on file -- starting to build a paper trail -- could help later. Who knows; they might have said "we can't do anything" when they thought it was one harmless pest bothering one person, but if they see that it's multi-target, sustained harassment, perhaps they'll try harder to help you.

35

OP here, with an update:

Almost six weeks have passed now. The problem is going to resolve itself for me, but not in a very satisfying way. I am switching customers while continuing work for the same company, and I will soon be taking a different/no train each day.

There were some suggestions of trying to make other small talk. I notified the male from church, and tried this for about a week. That week was no fun at all! So in this case, that definitely did not work. But I really liked the idea, and I afterwards was very glad I tried it first.

So I kicked aside all my nerves, and asked three complete strangers if they were just as bothered by this as me. I bonded together with three other females, we exchanged phone numbers and devised a plan of attack. We made some video of the bad behaviour, and started reporting every incident via twitter (private messages) to the train's customer service. We went again to his parents, and showed them the video. They were quite shocked. We left some video material with them, and they promised to confront their son about it and get more help for him. I felt bad about this the whole time, but am glad afterwards glad I started doing something.

We are completely ignoring him if he is talking in the silence carriage, and one of us leaves to get train personnel, explains the situation on the way and we always succeeded in having him removed. Ignoring him seems to be helping more than telling him to shut up, sometimes he now even leaves when we threaten to stand up. (He still curses and makes empty threats all the way while leaving though). He is also still not able to just leave us alone, or to start a conversation in a normal way/about a normal topic. We have agreed to stand together, greet when he greets, but not react any further if he behaves inappropriately.

We have not involved the police as yet, since his parents promised to get him more help. In six weeks, we have seen very minor improvements. His aggressive behaviour seems a little bit less aggressive. I agreed with my new three friends to go have drinks some where a few weeks after my new job starts, so we can discuss if it is needed to go the police. If necessary, that will sadly have to be our next step.

18

I had a very similar issue with a man who suffered from a traumatic brain injury while I was volunteering at a local food bank.

It started much as you describe. He was just a little too agressive with the women, not necessarily dangerous, but he had a habit of being a little too familiar and often times saying very inappropriate things.

Unfortunately I was usually the male figure who had to step in and tell him to settle down. This seemed to work at first, and while supervised he was mostly harmless.

Things came to a head one evening when I wasn't there and he approached an underage girl. He said the sort of things that he usually said to women and things got out of hand quickly... Not only was the girl endangered, but the disabled man was as well when the girl's parents were told what had happened.

I bring this up, because it's a fairly likely scenario that comes up with situations like this. The man's caretakers were well aware that he had these issues and they weren't providing adequate supervision to someone that they knew posed a risk to himself and others.

That turns out to be a key phrase in situations like this.
"A risk to himself and others"

The laws may be different where you live, but generally speaking that's the acid test. Once someone presents a risk to themselves or others, they should be getting more care and supervision. If the man's caretakers are aware of the issue and they aren't taking steps to provide that care and supervision, they're inadvertently neglecting their responsibilities.

We ended up handling the situation by contacting the man's caretakers directly. We informed them of what had happened and told them that he was no longer welcome on the property unless accompanied by a guardian. We went on to explain that failing to provide supervision may leave them responsible for the man's actions if anything happened in the future.

I would strongly advise you to call the police each time this problem occurs, and encourage them to contact the man's caretakers. Make it clear that this person's actions feel sexually aggressive in nature, and that by ignoring the problem they're putting the disabled man and the general public in danger.

It's not uncommon for people to minimize these problems until something really bad happens. Try to be clear in telling them that's what you see happening.

9

This problem is beyond being a "personal" matter. You should speak to the "authorities."

The first authority is the train staff. Letter or phone is ok, but when possible, contact a conductor or other staff member before you leave the train, every time there is an incident.

Talk with other women on the train. Get them to sign a letter or petition corroborating your findings.

If talking to train authorities doesn't do the job, go to the police.

If the above doesn't work, see a lawyer, and maybe have him/her contact a legislator. I don't know how it works in the Netherlands, but in America, people sometimes volunteer to work in a legislator's office for the right ot speak to them. I once made a large donation for the right to attend a fundraisng "party" with a Senatorial candidate (who won).

5

Here is a bizarre idea, not a suggestion. Let's start with granting that the menace does not deserve your kindness, and turning the other cheek is for saints. This idea, though, has to do with results, not justice.

Shifting the dialogue to my liking by taking charge of the conversation succeeded in the past: When I realized an aged neighbor was picking fights simply to force me into conversation, I instead initiated my own normal small talk with her. Problem solved.

Again, HE hasn't earned this, but if it works, why not? This would mean shifting the vile conversation to "How are you today? I've seen you around. You have family here? That program at the center any good? How friendly do you find folks around here? "No, no, if you want to talk, no touching. (Hold your breath for this one:) Will I see you tomorrow?"

Note most of all, my idea is not Mother Theresa, it's manipulation.

1

I am sorry you have to go through this daily ordeal. The last sentence of your post says:

I have tried several ways of dealing with this person, but they either have no effect, or they leave me feeling bad about myself / being scared because of his reaction. How can I deal with him better.

First, please stop feeling bad about yourself -- that you are "the bad girl." You are not. He is harassing you; you are minding your own business. Yes, it is unfortunate that he has mental problems, but this is not your fault, you cannot solve his problems, life is unfair.

Second, analyze why you are scared. It is not clear from your post whether he is physically dangerous or just a (horrible) nuisance. Has he ever touched a woman? If yes, the situation is acutely dangerous; in the US the police would take it seriously. If no, that doesn't mean he never will, but the danger is on a lower level.

I understand that you just want to go to and from work in peace, but you and the other women may have to get together and work as a group, as @Tom Au suggested. Options for consideration:

  • work out schedules so none of you is ever by yourself in his vicinity

  • hire a lawyer (you can tell I am from the US!) to ask about legal options (restraining order?), and what you can legally do to defend yourself in what specific circumstances.

  • arrange a self-defense class

  • get advice from a feminist group

I strongly support the advice of other posters that you and the other women report every incident of harassment to the police. And, I repeat: none of this is your fault.

A quick search on Google brought up this article from DutchNews.nl, Labour seeks to make sexual harassment on the streets a crime . I don't know what the status of this legislation is, but this and other articles I found on the Web indicates that the harrassment of women is too common in the Netherlands.

Acknowledgments: I'm late to this one, and have suggested some actions that other posters have suggested: Valorum, Tom Au, Monica Cellio, and paul34208. Considering how serious this problem is, repetition is good.

1

What I don't understand is if this person has physically harassed you or others or he is doing that only verbally. If of course the former is true, all suggestions so far are helpful. If though the latter is, I think escalating the issue to the point where you would "keep logs" and "watch the train from a distance" and so on will only make it worse for you.

Usually, people with disabilities like him are only seeking some attention. If he is only talking loudly and so on, maybe you know... some small talk, some simple conversation will relax him and maybe make him a bit of a better person too?

I've met quite some people like that and always found it easier to very calmly talk to them rather than panic and being scared (unless of course, as I already said, there is physical violence involved)

-3

Self-defence

First of all, I agree with your assessment of this man as potentially dangerous. Remember that self-defence is an interpersonal skill as well and take some classes; they're usually available at gyms and community centres.

Besides teaching you self-defence, it also teaches you confidence, which may help as well.

Imaginary Boyfriend

But meanwhile, you could try to deflect his attention by referring to an authority he does recognise, be it in absentia: your "boyfriend".

I do not like being dependent on strange men for my own safety.

and

My best guess is that he recognises authority figures in [men], but sees all women as potential girlfriends.

You don't like being dependent on strange men for your own safety, but how about an imaginary one? Specifically, an imaginary boyfriend? This may also take you off the "girlfriend-market" in his eyes.

"Where are you going?"
"To my boyfriend."

"Where do you live?"
"My boyfriend doesn't like you asking that."

(Rude greeting)
"My boyfriend wouldn't like you talking to me like that."

Take care to not set this imaginary boyfriend up as someone who has authority over you, or he might try to compete with him by trying to exert authority over you as well. Instead, make it clear that your boyfriend has authority over him and wouldn't like his behaviour.

  • 3
    While self-defence lessons are a good idea for anyone, that being said taking self defence lessons should never be an answer to anyone placed in a vulnerable position, and in this case wouldn't be helpful in the short-term. Also not knowing the person in question - it is indeed possible that mentioning a boyfriend could have a less than positive outcome. – Jesterscup Aug 30 '17 at 11:20
  • 3
    Imaginary boyfriend suggestions simply reinforce that women are possessions of men and a good reason for a man to leave one alone is that she belongs to another. Encouraging the OP to adopt this mindset is cruel, unnecessary, and by no means guaranteed to work. She should be left alone on her own merits, and this is something the botherer can learn. He is allowed out alone so clearly able to learn many things. She also has more options than lying and declaring herself to be property. – Kate Gregory Aug 30 '17 at 12:12
  • @KateGregory that is why I advised to not set up this imaginary boyfriend as having authority over the OP, but rather as having authority over the problematic person, since he doesn't seem to recognise women as having authority over him (unless in a position of power, such as train personnel), while he does seem to recognise men as a figure of authority (as per the OP's comments). – SQB Aug 30 '17 at 12:21
  • @KateGregory I agree that it shouldn't be necessary and that this person should be taught to respect people's boundaries. – SQB Aug 30 '17 at 12:24

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