We know that the only people who can really stop sexual harassment happening are the people actually harrassing others. But experts say we can all play a role in lessening the emotional impact on those who are targeted.
One factor that made the case of Hollywood produce Harvey Weinstein — which sparked the #MeToo movement last year — so shocking, is that so many people knew about the assaults and harassment, and did nothing.
It’s known as the “bystander effect” or “bystander apathy,” and it describes the social phenomenon of being being less likely to help a victim when there are a lot of other people around.
There are lots of reasons bystanders might choose to ignore a situation — because you don’t feel empowered to do something, you don’t know what to say or do to resolve a situation, or because you don’t want to seem patronising or like you’re shoving your nose into something that isn’t your business.
But, in reality, the most important thing is making sure the victim knows that they aren’t alone.
So, whether you witness someone being sexually harassed in the street, at work, on the bus, wherever, what can you do to help?
1. Assess the situation
Before you do anything, you need to work out exactly what the situation is and how best you can intervene. It’s very important that you don’t put yourself in harm’s way, as it could cause the situation to escalate.
Ask yourself are you safe? Is the person being harassed at threat of physical harm? Will intervening directly make things worse? Are there other people around who can support you?
2. Direct intervention
If you think it’s safe to do so, you can intervene in the harassment directly. That means directly addressing the person who’s doing the harassing. It’s key to be firm, don’t apologise for interrupting their behaviour.
According to Hollaback!, a global movement to end harassment, it’s important to stick to saying something that feels natural to you.
Some example are: “That’s harassment,” or “don’t talk to them like that,” or “that’s inappropriate.” What you say doesn’t have to be smart or witty, it only needs to make the person aware that what they’re doing is wrong.
If the harasser responds, says Hollaback, don’t engage in an argument. Instead, interact with the person who is being harassed.
If you would rather not interact with the harasser, or it feels as though the situation would escalate if you did, creating a distraction can also help put a stop to the incident, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).
You do that by engaging with the person who is being harassed, not by talking about the harassment, but by talking about something completely unrelated.
You could pretend to be lost, ask the time, greet them like you know them and invite them to walk with you or get a drink. It can be good to insert yourself between the harasser and their target, to literally get in the way — although, again, only do this if you’re not putting yourself at risk too.
4. Find someone to support you
If you don’t want to get personally involved, you could still help by finding someone of authority who can resolve the situation, adds RAINN. Who that person is would differ depending on where you are, but some examples could include a bus driver, a teacher, a shop manager, a bouncer, or a security guard.
5. Check in with the person who’s been harassed
Sometimes harassment can happen very quickly, and be over in an instant. For example, if someone shouts something from the window of a passing car. If that happens, you can still help support the person who has been harassed, by checking in with them to see if they’re okay. Ask if they’re alright, if you can help them. You could offer to sit with them, or walk with them to where they’re going if they’re upset.
6. Document the incident
If someone has already stepped in and you don’t want to overcrowd the incident, you could still help by documenting it. This of course depends on your own safety, and it’s sensible to keep your distance if you’re filming on your phone, for example.
Sometimes just knowing that they’re being caught on camera is enough to diffuse a situation, particularly in our social media world. But having the incident on camera can also help if the person who’s been harassed wants to report it.
It can help authorities follow up on an incident if you also film nearby landmarks, and state the time and date of the incident on film, says Hollaback.
But once the incident is over it’s important that you ask the person who was harassed what they want you to do with the footage, and you shouldn’t post it online without their permission — or you could make the incident even more emotionally difficult for them that it already was.
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on reduced inequalities. We believe everyone can play a vital part in making the world fairer, more just, and kinder for all of us. Join the movement by taking action with us here.