Bystanders often don’t intervene in sexual harassment – but should they?

Women are more likely to intervene than men. Shutterstock

As the summer music festival season winds down, there has been much reflection on the spate of sexual harassment and assaults at festivals this year. In one such piece, published in The Guardian, the author lamented the fact that no other punters stepped in when his female friend was harassed and assaulted in full view of others.

This lack of response is unsurprising. Bystanders are those who witness an event – sexual harassment and assault in this instance – and can choose to either ignore it or intervene in a way that aims to make a positive difference.

This unwillingness to intervene was reaffirmed in my own recent research on street harassment in Melbourne, where only a minority of participants had ever had someone else step in, despite the highly public nature of this behaviour.

Why don’t people intervene when they witness sexual harassment and assault? And, more importantly, should they?

Why don’t people intervene?

Barriers to bystander intervention have been well documented.

In order to intervene, bystanders need to be able to recognise sexual harassment or assault when it is happening. A significant proportion of the population adheres to a range of problematic beliefs and stereotypes about sexual violence and violence against women, so it is questionable whether many people recognise incidents of sexual harassment or assault when they occur.

Even if bystanders do recognise that sexual harassment is occurring, they may not know what to do, and lack confidence to intervene effectively. Bystanders can fear social embarrassment and breaching social norms. We know that the propensity to intervene is mediated by gender, with women generally more likely or more confident to intervene than men. One reason for this is that men are more likely to adhere to the aforementioned myths and misconceptions about sexual violence.

Diffusion of responsibility is perhaps the most commonly documented barrier to acting as a bystander. It is the “can’t someone else do it?” of bystander intervention. If there are many witnesses to an act of harassment or assault, it can be unclear who should step in. Onlookers may simply assume that someone else will take action.

Should bystanders intervene?

We know that people often don’t intervene and some of the reasons why they don’t. But should bystanders intervene?

Bystander intervention is now a key component of many sexual violence prevention and sexual ethics programs. There are sound reasons for this. Bystander intervention seeks to shift responsibility for preventing sexual violence from victim/survivors to the broader community. Preventing sexual violence, and challenging the social and cultural attitudes that condone and facilitate it, is everybody’s responsibility.

There is certainly some evidence to suggest that bystander education programs help to change attitudes towards sexual violence, and increase the propensity for individuals to act as bystanders. Bystander education has also been associated with decreased rates of sexual assault on some US college campuses.

However, there are also a number of gaps in our knowledge that raise serious questions about whether, when, and how bystanders should intervene.

We know surprisingly little about bystander intervention “in action”. For example, the impacts and outcomes of different types of bystander intervention remain largely unexamined. What “types” of bystander intervention are effective, and in which contexts? Do all forms of intervention have a positive impact, or are there sometimes unexpected or negative consequences?

Emerging evidence from my own research on street harassment suggests that bystanders can be at risk of harm when they intervene.

Although bystander intervention could sometimes effectively defuse an incident of harassment, some participants reported that having a bystander intervene didn’t stop the harassment, could escalate the intensity of harassment, or simply displaced the harassment onto the bystander.

For example, when one participant’s friend intervened in an incident of harassment, the perpetrator punched her friend in the face. In another case, a perpetrator screamed at a participant’s partner and ‘threatened to kill him’ after he intervened in an assault.

Notably, this was often the case when the bystander directly confronted a perpetrator who was a stranger – it’s less clear that this is an issue when calling out your mates on their sexist or harassing behaviour.

The risk of escalation or displacement raises the question of whether encouraging bystander intervention is ethical, and in what circumstances? As Moira Carmody has argued, “ethical bystander intervention requires the bystander to be mindful of caring for themselves, as well as the impact on the other person”. If there is a perceived risk of escalation or physical violence, bystanders are well within their right not to intervene.

There is a clear need to establish further the circumstances in which bystander intervention is effective, and to identify risk factors for escalation.

What can bystanders do?

This is not intended to let bystanders off the hook when it comes to intervening in, or preventing, sexual violence.

Findings from my study suggest that it is not always appropriate to intervene by confronting the perpetrator of harassment. But there are other strategies they can use, including:

  • Calling police or security, or alerting staff to an incident.
  • Asking the person being harassed if they’re OK. Is there anything you can do to help them? It is important to listen to victims and what they want.
  • Striking up a conversation with the person being harassed.
  • If you feel safe to do so, taking photos or video of the perpetrator.
  • Trying to create space to get the person being harassed away from the perpetrator. Can you help them move to a different seat on the train, for example?
  • Talking to your friends about harassment and assault, and calling them out if you see or hear them condoning or engaging in inappropriate behaviour.
  • Educating yourself on what harassment and assault are, and learning about different strategies for being a bystander.

Preventing sexual violence is everybody’s responsibility, but we need to think carefully about how we do it.

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