‘Want to, but unsure how’: How bystanders can help sexual harassment victims

‘Want to, but unsure how’: How bystanders can help sexual harassment victims
A recent campaign aims to inform bystanders on how to intervene when witnessing harassment in public. Credit: Jilke Tielemans/The Brussels Times

Engaging others, creating distractions, remaining present, taking a victim aside and speaking with them directly. These are five things bystanders can do to help a victim of indecent behaviour in public, a new campaign highlighted.

Not everyone knows how to react when witnessing inappropriate behaviour in public, like a stranger being catcalled or being on the receiving end of unwanted sexual remarks, which is why the majority of bystanders who witness harassment and intimidation don’t intervene or react.

In a bid to encourage more people to intervene in these situations, Flemish expertise centre for sexual health, Sensoa, launched a new campaign to highlight that “it can make a big difference when reacting to sexually transgressive behaviour.”

“90% of young people between 16 and 26 think it is important to intervene in situations of sexually transgressive behaviour, but 40% do not know how,” Julia Day, policy officer at Sensoa, stated in a press release.

The organisation highlighted that there are several things bystanders can do. “Therefore, do not give up. If your first attempt does not work, feel free to try a different response.”

What can bystanders do?

Engaging a friend or other bystanders to work together against the person carrying out the inappropriate behaviour is one way to intervene. If a person who is in charge of the location where the incident is taking place, such as a bus driver, bartender or teacher, is around, Sensoa recommends asking them to mediate the situation.

A more subtle but useful tactic is to distract from the situation either by asking a question about something that is separate from the harassment or by accidentally creating a commotion, by for example spilling a drink or dropping something.

By removing the person who is experiencing the behaviour from the situation they are in, bystanders can also intervene in a safe manner without being confrontational.

Simply speaking to a victim of inappropriate behaviour can be helpful as well. If the situation doesn’t feel unsafe, speaking to the person who is being indecent is also an option.

Finally, the campaign highlighted that, if these tactics make a bystander feel unsafe, simply remaining present and staying nearby the victim for support can be helpful.

“The bystanders’ safety is always paramount and that people witnessing inappropriate behaviour should only intervene in a way that feels good and fits the situation,” Sensoa stressed.


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