What To Do When You Witness Sexual Harassment

As the #MeToo movement progresses and takes into account a more diverse array of experiences, one of the many questions on people’s minds has been: How can we all be better allies? While there’s no one answer, sometimes it means speaking out when you come across sexual harassment on a day-to-day basis, whether you witness someone being harassed at a bar, or you hear someone making an inappropriate comment at work.
This isn’t to say that you should put yourself in a dangerous situation, but there are plenty of ways to intervene — and a lot of good reasons to do so. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine last year suggests that training people to be better bystanders could actually lead to fewer sexual violence incidents. The study specifically covered high schools and colleges, but it’s not hard to see how bystanders can help people off campus, too. Many times, all someone needs to do is validate that what a person experienced isn’t okay.
“It’s so common for victims to be so shocked by how their experience breaks normal rules of how people treat each other, and to blame themselves and question their perception,” says Debra S. Borys, PhD, a forensic and clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual harassment. “So, if somebody else was helpful and validating, that helps combat the powerlessness [and] self-blame.”
Still, intervening is hard, which is why people don’t do it more often. It’s perfectly understandable to have concerns like, “It’s not my business,” or, “I don’t know what to do,” or even think that someone else will step in and take care of it.
But, given how prevalent these issues are, everyone involved — including bystanders — plays a role in preventing sexual harassment and assault. While sexual harassment can happen to anyone, women are disproportionately on the receiving end of it. According to a survey from a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. Anyone who is a bystander can help, but men are often in the best position to speak out because they can engage other men and hold them accountable — but they tend not to do so.
"In my own research, most men are bothered by sexism, but they overestimate other men’s acceptance of it," says Chris Kilmartin, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology who consulted with the U.S. Navy on a revision of its sexual assault and harassment prevention curriculum. But Dr. Kilmartin says that when men — especially those in positions of leadership — can intervene, it sets a good example, and has a strong chance of affecting change amongst the men around them.
Fortunately, intervening may be easier than many people think. It can be as simple as asking a person to repeat a tasteless comment that they made to someone.

If somebody else was helpful and validating, that helps combat the powerlessness [and] self-blame.

Debra S. Borys, PhD
“If someone says something inappropriate, they’re often saying it without thinking, and if you ask them to repeat it, then they have to say it in a really conscious way,” Dr. Kilmartin says. “From that, they might understand that it was inappropriate.”
This doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, though. If you hear someone make a gross sexual comment, you can just pretend not to have heard them clearly, and ask them something like, “Wait, what did you say?”
As Dr. Kilmartin points out, some people may not know that what they’re saying or doing qualifies as harassment (not that ignorance necessarily excuses behavior).
“There are the Harvey Weinsteins of the world who are serial harassers, but there are also harassers that are unaware [of what they’re doing], and people around them can help them by helping them understand the impact of their behavior,” he says. “And those people are more workable than serial harassers.”
In fact, he says, being an active bystander to harassment means figuring out the best way you can be helpful for everyone involved.
“Sometimes, just a phrase showing your disapproval can be really powerful,” he says.
If, for example, you see someone being harassed in a bar or somewhere else in public, it might be hard to get the police or authorities involved if there’s no actual crime being committed or institutional rule being broken — but you can tell the bartender, or tell the aggressor that they might be making people uncomfortable. Dr. Kilmartin says that you should be cautious about speaking for someone, and to perhaps instead say something like, “You’re making me uncomfortable,” or, “How about showing a little more respect for this person?”
That said, it’s not always easy to discern whether you’re witnessing harassment; and even if you’re pretty certain that you are, it’s not always safe to speak up against someone.

Sometimes, just a phrase showing your disapproval can be really powerful.

Chris Kilmartin, PhD
“I never tell people that they are obligated to [intervene], because there is the very real threat of retaliation, there are power issues at play, and unfortunately it’s not easy to say, ‘If you hear this, do this,’” he says.
If you’re unsure of what’s going on, it could be helpful to provide the person who is being harassed with a way out of the situation, and pretend that you know them and ask if they’re “ready to leave” with you.
The one thing you don’t want to do, Dr. Kilmartin says, is to meet violence with violence — which can put everyone involved in even more danger and do nothing to diffuse the situation.
If someone you know happens to be harassing someone or saying something inappropriate, he says that, depending on your relationship with the person, you can pull them aside and have a longer conversation.
“Try to sensitise them to their impact on other people,” he says.
It might not seem like calling out harassment in daily life will have that much of an impact in the long run, but Dr. Borys says that it can actually help to hold more people accountable.
“The more people who witness [harassment] that take a stand, label it, and acknowledge what it is, the more likely we’ll be to reduce the incidence of it, because perpetrators will be on notice,” she says.
Sure, not every perpetrator will immediately change their ways. But it’s important to do the best we can to start chipping away at this problem and stand up for those on the receiving end of harassment. A little, it seems, can really go a long way.
“When victims of any sort of abuse, discrimination, or oppression feel supported and that their perception of being supported is validated, they tend to suffer less severe impacts, and recover sooner and better,” Dr. Borys says.
#MeToo has raised the voices of women who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed — and that’s not just great, it’s revolutionary. So, where does that leave men? To help answer that question, Refinery29 is providing actionable advice for men who want to be allies.
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