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Toolkit: Responding as a bystander

There is no one ‘right’ way to deal with harassers. Every situation and person is different and often you only have a second or two to assess your safety and decide what to do if you witness someone being harassed.

Remember the golden rule – only intervene if it is safe to do so and call 999 if it is not safe and an emergency response is required. 

Why intervene?

Having a bystander say or do something could make a big difference in ending the harassment scenario, helping the harassed person to not feel alone and to feel safe, and also making it clear that the harassing behaviour is socially unacceptable. Bystander intervention can be scary but it is really important. Most people don’t agree with violent behaviour but if we are silent and let it happen, it will continue to happen. Men engaging in this tactic can be particularly powerful since men (the majority of street harassers) look to other men for approval.

Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone. Even if all you feel safe doing or have time to do is check in with the harassed person to see if they are O.K, you still can have a huge positive impact.

How to intervene safely

We often intervene without realising we are doing it e.g. by catching someone’s eye, by staring, by sending a disapproving look. For example, if you say “there’s a queue” to a queue jumper this is an intervention. There are various ways that you can be an active bystander and intervene if someone is being harassed and if you feel safe to.

First of all ask yourself some questions before you take action:

  • Am I aware there is a problem or risky situation?
  • Do I recognize someone needs help?
  • Do I see others and myself as part of the solutions?
  • During the situation ask yourself:
  • How can I keep myself safe?
  • What are my available options?
  • Are there others I may call upon for help?
  • What are the benefits/costs for taking action?

This can help you make a decision to take action and when to act.

Many of the suggestions that do not directly challenge a harasser, such as asking the woman if she wants help or asking the harasser an innocuous question, are excellent to use when one is not sure if it is harassment that is occurring, if you do not want to disempower the person being harassed, or if you are worried about becoming the target of the harasser’s inappropriate behaviour yourself.

 

Distraction/Diversion

Create a distraction or interruption or initiate some other non-confrontational action that can help keep everyone safe. Shift the focus from what is happening and interrupt the behaviour to create a deflection. Distraction is a subtler and more creative way to intervene. The aim here is simply to derail the incident by interrupting it. Ignore the harasser and engage directly with the person who is being targeted. Don’t talk about or refer to the harassment. Instead, talk about something completely unrelated.

Divert attention away from the situation e.g. “do you know what time it is?” Asking for directions, asking for the time, other innocuous questions, or talking about something random can often be enough of a distraction for a harasser to go away and move on, without causing a big scene or putting anyone in physical danger.

 

Use the ‘fake friend’ tactic where you pretend to know the harassed person and pretend to be oblivious to what’s happening and just start talking to them e.g. “there you are, come on let’s go!”

Of course, you need to read the situation and choose your method accordingly. The person who is being targeted will likely catch on, and hopefully your act or statement will de-escalate the situation.

Delegate

If you don’t feel safe find someone who does, ask for assistance, for a resource, or for help from a third party e.g. does the target have friends nearby or is there someone who works there who could help?

Here are examples of what you can do:

  • Find the shop supervisor, bus driver, or a station employee and ask them to intervene
  • If you are near a school, contact a teacher or someone at the front desk. On a university campus, contact security or someone at the front desk of a university building
  • Get your friend on board and have them use one of the methods of Distraction (eg. asking for the time, directions, or striking up a conversation unrelated to the harassment) to communicate with the person being harassed while you find someone to delegate to
  • Speak to someone near you who notices what’s happening and might be in a better position to intervene. Work together

Call 999 or 101 to request help. Before contacting the police, use Distract to check in with the person being targeted to make sure they want you to do this. Some people may not be comfortable or safe with police intervention. In certain situations, you may not be able to get to the person in which case, depending on the situation, you will need to use your best judgement

Use body language

It may be enough to simply offer your presence near the incident and use your body language to let the harasser know they are being witnessed. Something as simple as staring or giving a disapproving look, clearing one’s throat or coughing, can help defuse a situation. You don’t have to speak to communicate. If you feel safe you could create a physical barrier between the harasser and their target and ask a question e.g. “do you know where the bus goes from?”

 

Delay

If you can’t intervene in the moment you can make a difference by offering support to the target of harassment afterwards and checking in with them. Many types of harassment happen in passing or very quickly, in which case you can wait until the situation is over and speak to the person who was targeted then.

Here are some ways to actively doing this:

  • Ask them if they’re O.K and tell them you’re sorry that happened to them
  • Ask them if there’s any way you can support them
  • Offer to accompany them to their destination or sit with them for a moment
  • Share resources with them and offer to help them make a report if they want to
  • If you’ve documented the incident, ask them if they want you to send it to them

Remember you can ask them if there is anything you can do to help but if they say no, leave, because you do not want to be another person intruding on their space. If they say yes, try to help them as best you can.

Document

It can be really helpful to record an incident as it happens to someone, but there are a number of things to keep in mind to safely and responsibly document harassment. See this tip sheet from WITNESS14 for more details.

First, assess the situation. Is anyone helping the person being harassed? If not, use one of the other tactics above

If someone else is already helping out, assess your own safety. If you are safe, go ahead and start recording

A few tips:

  • Make sure to keep a safe distance
  • Film landmarks (e.g. a street sign or station platform sign or car number plate)
  • Clearly state the date and time that you are filming
  • Hold the camera steady and hold important shots for at least 10 seconds

Most importantly, ALWAYS ask the person who was harassed what they want to do with the recording. NEVER post it online or use it without their permission. There are several reasons for this. Being harassed or violated is already a disempowering experience. Using an image or footage of a person being victimised without that person’s consent can make the person feel even more powerless.

If the documentation goes viral, it can lead to further victimisation and a level of visibility that the person may not want. Also, posting footage without a victim’s consent makes their experience public – something that can lead to a whole host of legal issues, especially if the act of harassment or violence was in some way criminal. They may be forced to engage with the legal system in a way that they are not comfortable with.

Lastly, the experience could have been traumatic. Publicising another person’s traumatic experience without their consent is no way to be an effective and helpful bystander.

Confrontation

Express an interest in the offending person and say why what they are doing is unacceptable. Give reasons why you are concerned and why it bothers you, share how you/others feel about what they are doing. Ask the harasser if they understand your point. Raise any consequences that the person may identify with and look at alternative behaviour to support them to change.

Use ‘I’ statements:

1) State your feelings

2) Name the behaviour

3) State how you want the person to respond

Focus on your feelings rather than criticising the other person, e.g. “I feel _____ when you _______. Please don’t do that any more.”

Direct intervention

If you have time and feel able to respond, you may want to directly respond to harassment by naming what is happening or confronting the harasser. This tactic can be risky as the harasser may redirect their abuse towards you and may escalate the situation. Before you decide to respond directly, assess the situation to decide if it is safe.

Talk to the target of the harassment e.g. “Are you O.K?” “Do you need help?” Where possible, intervene by giving control to the target of the harassment e.g. “Is he bothering you?”

Remember if you see someone who has been verbally or physically abused, you can ask them if there is anything you can do to help but if they say no, leave, because you do not want to be another person intruding on their space. If they say yes, try to help them as best you can.

Talk to the harasser. Some things you can say are:

“What are you doing?”

“It looks like they don’t want to talk”

“That’s inappropriate, disrespectful, not O.K, etc.”

“Leave them alone”

“That’s homophobic, sexist, (insert type of harassment), etc.”

The most important thing is to keep it short and succinct. Try not to engage in dialogue, debate, or an argument, since this is how situations can escalate. If the harasser responds, try your best to assist the person who was targeted instead of engaging with the harasser.

 

Download the Toolkit leaflet

We have brought this information together in a handy leaflet – feel free to download, print and share it.