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Stop Sexual Harassment: If You See Something, Do Something

(Jacek Dylag/Unsplash)
(Jacek Dylag/Unsplash)

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“So what do you do? You look like an actress.”

I had already politely declined several previous conversation attempts from the man who sat down next to me at the Vancouver bar where I was eating dinner. Finally, I told him, “I’ve had a long day of travel and need to get some work done. I’d really like to just eat dinner alone.” But he doesn't stop.

Sigh. I look away and make eye contact with two male diners sitting close to me.

“I train workplaces on how to prevent sexual harassment.”

The two other men chuckle.

“Well, I’m not sexually harassing you. Enjoy your dinner. I took care of it.”

“You know, I’d prefer that you didn’t. I can take care of my own dinner.”

And still, the man keeps talking to me. I’m exhausted from traveling. Though I’ve handled this kind of intrusive behavior dozens of times, I don’t have the energy tonight.

Culture can change when we activate more helpers through evidence-based approaches like bystander intervention.

Scenes like this are, unfortunately, common. But they are scenes in which bystanders — in this case, anyone else at the bar — can play critical, and under-discussed, roles. The bystander approach to sexual violence prevention, pioneered by Jackson Katz in the 1990s, places the onus on observers to intervene with potential harassers and support to those who are harassed. Rather than expecting the most vulnerable to defend themselves, we can teach bystanders to intercede using the "Four D’s": distract (interrupt the behavior); delegate (get someone else to help); direct (address the behavior directly); defer (support the victim afterward).

Bystander intervention is easily taught, simple and it sticks. When describing it to people outside of the field, I like to call it a combination of awareness, empathy and conversational martial arts. One study of college students found that "Bringing in the Bystander," a basic bystander education program, resulted in lasting changes in attitudes among college students. There’s ample evidence to suggest that the program will also work in other communities after producing similar results in attitudes and behavior among military members.

When more members of a community take responsibility for its safety, the results can be powerful. When Green Dot evaluated its bystander intervention program, it found that by training a relatively small number of opinion leaders, rates of sexual harassment and violence declined in both high school and college settings.

Imagine if my fellow diners bought my harasser a drink -- to consume at the other end of the bar.

While some of the bystanders at the Vancouver bar needed a little live coaching, the overall response made me optimistic. Knowing that the two other men at the bar were paying attention, I turned to them and pretended that we were attending the same conference, making a face I hoped would encourage them to play along. They did. We started chit-chatting about an imaginary conference agenda.

The discussion stopped my unwanted companion's conversation. Once I knew these diners had my back, I asked for the check, and learned that the bartenders hadn’t allowed the man to pay my bill. On my way out, I told the hostess what happened, and she immediately called over a sympathetic manager who took my report seriously.

None of these interactions involved a direct confrontation. However, they reduced the impact of a harassing experience, and restored safety to the culture. But imagine if the people in the bar helped me on their own, if they had already been trained. Imagine if my fellow diners bought my harasser a drink — to consume at the other end of the bar. Imagine if others at the bar placed themselves between me and the harasser so he couldn’t speak to me anymore.

For schools, campuses, workplaces or community organizations seeking a way to tactically and practically respond to a tidal wave of sexual abuse, assault and harassment disclosures, bystander intervention is an obvious place to start. A world free of sexual harassment and violence is not a utopioan dream. It’s a reality within our reach. Culture can change when we activate more helpers through evidence-based approaches like bystander intervention. To raise a generation of engaged helpers, it takes parents, teachers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, friends and strangers working together to learn the skills to build a culture that’s safe for everyone.

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Sarah Beaulieu Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Sarah Beaulieu is a writer and speaker and trains workplaces on skills-based sexual harassment prevention and response.

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