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What you can do as a bystander when you witness street harassment

Sexual assault, harassment and other forms of sexual violence are some of the most prevalent crimes in the United States, with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network or RAINN noting that these crimes claim 463,634 victims each year.

As terrible as that might sound, sexual assault and harassment—especially ones committed in public—are actually preventable. One of the ways in which people can prevent such instances from occurring is by being a proactive bystander.

According to the organization Stop Street Harassment, being a proactive bystander can help prevent harassment and assault simply by making it clear to other people that untoward and problematic behavior such as making sexist jokes and inappropriate sexual comments, catcalling, or making vulgar gestures are all unacceptable. 

Aside from preventing sexual harassment and assault, the American Friends Service Committee or AFSC says being a proactive bystander can also prevent instances of racism, transphobia, and bigotry— not to mention other forms of interpersonal violence—from occurring.

Groups such as the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), Green Dot, and Hollaback, have started “Bystander Intervention Training” programs, all of which are designed to equip people with the necessary knowledge and skills to help keep their peers safe. 

Here are some things that you can do to become a more proactive bystander:

Create a distraction

According to Hollaback,, one of the things a bystander can do when he or she notices a potentially-threatening situation is to create a distraction. These can be in the form of “accidentally” spilling a drink, asking for directions, or “borrowing” a phone from the potential victim. 

These actions not only defuse and de-escalate a situation, they also provide the potential victim a chance to go to a safer location or locate friends that they can trust.

Find help

If for some reason, you find yourself unable to help the potential victim directly, you can try asking for help from others nearby, particularly persons who are in a position of authority such as teachers, store managers, or security personnel. Calling the police should only be done if there is a clear danger to anyone in the situation. 

Of course, it is sometimes difficult to assess whether police involvement is required, and if in doubt, it is always better to inform the police and allow them to discern if they need to be present. 

Document the situation—with consent

One of the most important things that a witness can do is to document any harassment that may be taking place. 

Making it clear that you are recording a situation could have the effect of de-escalating a situation as harassers realize that they are subject to video evidence of their actions. However, it may also lead to an escalation if those being recorded take exception. On the whole though, it is better to have video evidence of any aggressive action taking place. 

Write down detailed notes on the incident, such as the location where it happened, as well as the date and time. 

Take direct action

If the environment is relatively safe and there is no threat of violence, you can try and approach the harasser directly, tell them that what they are doing is a type of harassment, and that they should immediately stop. 

You should remember, however, that the goal is to defuse and de-escalate the situation. This means that you should be mindful of their tone and body language in order to prevent the situation from worsening.

Once the situation has been de-escalated and defused, you can ask the victim if they still need help or company. If the victim answers in the negative, it may be a good idea to take them at their word and leave them in peace. Be aware though that a negative should be quantified by your best instincts. It may be better to be annoying then leave someone who is not quite ready to be left alone.  If they say yes to more assistance, then you should try to help them as best as they can and see the person to a place and environment where they feel safe. This can be as simple as taking them to a safe public space, or getting in touch with someone they know who can assist them better. 

Support for victims of sexual assault takes many forms . There is the emotional support provided by friends and family, medical support provided by medical professionals, and legal support. 

Hogue & Belong, a law firm of San Diego sexual harassment lawyers, can help victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence. 

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