Sexual Harassment: Bystander Intervention

Following up on yesterday’s post, one of the biggest challenges to ending sexual harassment is getting bystanders to speak up and intervene. It’s easy enough to think about what we would have done after the fact. When Jaym Gates wrote about the “WFC Creeper” from World Fantasy Con this year, I kept going over various things I could have said and done had I been there.

But it’s different when you’re in the moment. What if I’m misreading the situation? What if saying something only escalates the problem? Nobody else is speaking up, so maybe I’m the only one who’s getting a bad vibe. I’m not a terribly large or physically imposing person … is there really anything I can do?

It can be hard to think when you’re in the moment, which is one of the reasons I want to think and talk about it now. This isn’t an area where I have any formal training or experience, so I picked some brains while putting this list together.

1. Addressing the harasser. Sometimes someone is simply clueless and genuinely doesn’t get that what they’re doing is unwanted and unacceptable. Say you see someone at a signing who squees and sidles into a chair, wrapping him/herself around his/her favorite author. Sometimes all it takes is pulling that person aside and saying, “Look, I know you’re excited, but that’s not cool. It’s creepy.”

2. Is everything okay here? Another fairly straightforward option is to simply check in and ask if everything’s okay. If both parties say yes, then life is good. But if someone is being harassed and says no, or if they simply don’t answer in the affirmative, then you stick around. Now the harasser is outnumbered. Maybe you offer a way out. I’ve used the “Hey, are you ready for the next panel?” bit to help extricate friends from awkward conversations before, and that sort of thing could work here as well. starcat_jewel  and jennygadget suggested questions like “Excuse me, what time is it?” or “Do you happen to know where _____ is?” Both questions insert another person into the conversation in a safe, nonconfrontational way, and asking about directions gives the victim an excuse to say, “Sure, let me show you…”

3. Strength in numbers. If I go up to some guy and tell him to stop grabbing and groping everyone, then it’s a one-on-one situation, and there’s a chance it’s going to escalate. So I grab a few friends first. I suspect most harassers are much less likely to escalate when they’re outnumbered four-to-one.

4. Voice > Muscle. I love working with new students at karate when they ask about stopping bullies or strangers, especially people bigger than they are. I have them play the part of the bad guy and come at me, and right when they’re about to lay hands on me, I drop to the ground with my hands and feet up to protect myself and shout, “NO! STRANGER! BULLY!” On one occasion, the poor kid levitated halfway to the door in fright. Now I’m not saying this is always the best response, but a loud voice attracts attention. If you project from the gut, a firm, “Dude, she said no!” should draw the attention of half the room. At that point, numbers are once again on your side.

5. Report it. I’m struggling with this one. We’re always pressuring victims to report, but that should be their choice, not one I make for them. One option is to talk to the victim and offer to go with them to report it. Another option, if I see something that makes me uncomfortable, is for me to report it to Ops or whoever’s organizing the event. Not to say “Hey, badge number 123 was groping [NAME], and she looked uncomfortable,” but maybe “Badge number 123 is getting sexually aggressive and not respecting people’s boundaries, and it’s making the party/panel/whatever really uncomfortable for me and a lot of other people.” At the very least, that alerts the con staff to the problem, allowing them to take further steps if necessary.

6. Be Aware of Gender Issues. While men sexually harassing women is most common, harassers are not exclusively male, nor are victims exclusively female. Don’t be afraid to speak up just because the gender dynamics don’t match your expectations. Also, men are often more likely to listen to other men, making it that much more important for us to speak up.

7. Ass-kicking. This is the one a lot of people talk about. “We just need to get some big, burly guys to kick his ass!” And the problem may escalate to the point where physical intervention is required. But physical intervention should be a last resort, and it’s much better to let security or the police handle this whenever possible unless you want to risk ending up in a) the hospital or b) jail. See also rachelmanija‘s post “Why Didn’t You Kick Him in the Balls?


As I noted, I’m not an expert here. I’d love it if others could share thoughts and suggestions. For those with first-hand experience, what have you seen that worked, and what didn’t?