Ending a street harassment incident

We need male allies. Because men listen to other men and look to other men for approval, having men tell other men not to harass and intervene when they see harassment occurring can, sadly, be a more effective way of educating men not to harass women than if women talk to them.

There are many barriers that keep people, especially men, from preventing and intervening in street harassment incidents as often as they could. For example, if there are several other people around, the “bystander effect” may mean that each person expects the other to respond or that if no one responds, there is no need to or it must be inappropriate to do so. Other barriers can include: not being sure if what is happening is unwelcome by the woman or if it constitutes inappropriate behavior, not wanting to assume the woman cannot handle the situation herself, not knowing what to even do or say that will help the situation, and fearing the perpetrator’s reaction.

Groups such as Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) and Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) know about these barriers and so their programming includes bystander intervention. The MCSR programming allows men to brainstorm and role play ways they can intervene when they hear sexist talk and witness gender-based violence or harassment. They also discuss issues of masculinity and the importance of speaking out. They emphasize that chances are, there are other guys who feel the same way but are too scared to speak out unless someone else does first.

The MVP program, a leadership training program that motivates male student-athletes and leaders to play a primary role in preventing men’s violence and harassment of women, holds workshops on bystander training. The overall MVP model is to stimulate dialogue and critical thinking about the choices bystanders face and the costs and benefits of action and inaction.

Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, offers suggestions to men who wish to intervene in street harassment but are unsure how:

Suppose you are with men who are harassing women (or anyone else):

  • Refuse to join in. Do not make any comments yourself.
  • Discourage others from doing so. Tell them the person is not enjoying it or tell them to leave the person alone.
  • At a suitable time, raise the issue about public harassment with your friends and explain why it is inappropriate to treat people that way.

Suppose you see a man/men harassing women (or anyone else):

  • If it looks like a man is bothering a woman, ask her, “Is someone bothering you?” That question alone may deter a harasser who believes no one will intervene. If she says yes and the harasser does not leave or persists harassing, tell the harasser to stop or call for assistance (from police, a transit authority worker, or other people nearby).
  • If a woman in a crowd says she has just been harassed or had someone touch her inappropriately, call out a supportive comment such as, “Whoever did that, it is not welcome,” or “We do not tolerate that behavior.”
  • If you see a woman who has been verbally or physically abused, you can ask her if there is anything you can do to help. If she says no, leave, because you do not want to be another person intruding on her space. If she says yes, try to help her as best you can.

Most of the male allies I surveyed in Dec. 2009 (82 percent) said they would be willing to intervene when they see someone harassing a woman, 17 percent said they had intervened once, and 46 percent said they had intervened more than once. Here are tips some of them offered to other men who are unsure how or are afraid to intervene:

  • I’ve found that distractions and indirect interventions help best. Asking for directions, asking for the time, or other innocuous questions 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.
  • I do not address the man/group harassing the female. I simply offer my presence.
  • You don’t have to be loud and physically confrontational. You can simply distract harasser by saying “waddup” or you can just stay in open view so it won’t escalate to a rape scenario.
  • Where possible, intervene by giving control to the target of the harassment (e.g. “is he bothering you?” or “are you okay?”).
  • Just do the right thing. I think there are times when a harasser may be intimidating even to other males, but you have to find the intestinal fortitude to stand up for women in these situations. Otherwise, it’s as if we are giving the harassers tacit approval to continue their behaviors.
  • Go in fast and loud and willing to do just about anything.
  • Be aware of the situation, know what your advantage is, and if confronting a group situation, make sure you are interacting with the leader, and have contacted the police.
  • Don’t turn a blind eye, confront them even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not socially acceptable, do it anyways…Remember that many women are not in the situation where they are safe speaking up for themselves.

Many of the suggestions that do not directly challenge a harasser, such as asking the woman if she wants help or asking the harasser what time it is, are excellent to use when one is not sure if it is harassment that is occurring, if they do not want to dis-empower the woman, or if they fear becoming the target of the harasser’s inappropriate behavior themselves. Something as simple as clearing one’s throat or coughing can help defuse a situation too, particularly if a harasser does not notice other people are around (such as on a dark street).

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