Why Bystander Intervention Matters

24 September 2020

You would think that our public spaces being almost empty during a pandemic would make them free of harassment.

Yet, throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen people from all walks of life experience harassment—from school children to fellow students at the University, people experiencing homelessness to Melbourne city councillors.

Harassment is pervasive; however, not everyone is equipped with the knowledge or skills to intervene during such incidents. Common cultural narratives work to minimise or desensitise us to the impact of street harassment, as pervasive as it may be.

At It’s Not A Compliment, we strive to educate one another about how street harassment is unfortunately normalised. We believe this is key to dismantling the systems that perpetuate such harmful behaviour. By learning this in a supportive environment, we also hope to empower each other to push for an equitable society that no longer dismisses the day-to-day harms of street harassment.

With those things in mind, we produced and delivered an online workshop on 6 August with the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Women’s Department. The workshop had four key aims: to be able to recognise when someone needs help; to encourage people to be active, empathetic bystanders; to disrupt the discourses that trivialise and normalise street harassment within our communities; and to realise that we all have the power to build safer communities. These were some of our main takeaways.

What is a bystander?

When you think of a bystander you might imagine someone watching over an event and doing nothing to interfere with it. It could be a fun event like a street performance or football match, but it could also be someone being yelled at or sexualised while walking down the street. This is how a passive bystander acts, but that is only one way you can be a bystander.

For more potentially harmful situations, an active bystander could help someone in need. Being an active bystander means taking action against unacceptable behaviours that reinforce a culture rooted in discrimination. A common misconception is that you need to get physically involved and confront a harasser to be helpful. Truthfully, intervening doesn’t need to be impressive or confrontational. Subtle ways of intervening are often more effective and ensure the safety of both you and the person experiencing harassment. 

Why might people avoid intervening in street harassment?

There are various reasons why someone might not intervene in street harassment. At a societal level, many people are taught that it is not their problem, while others are taught individualist values and hold their wellbeing in the highest regard.

On an individual level, people might fear escalating the situation or putting themselves at risk. We might not know what to do to help someone being harassed. Sometimes street harassment can happen too quickly for us to process and react to it; other times it might be too tough for you to deal with on your own.

All of these concerns are valid. That’s why it’s important to equip yourself beforehand with possible techniques you can use to intervene. Having the prior knowledge makes assessing and reacting to street harassment easier and also allows you to select the most suitable option for your situation.

How can we intervene?

Before delving into the intervention methods, remember that we are all different in terms of personality, privilege, life experiences and upbringing. As a result of this we all have preferences in how we interact with the world around us. In other words, there is no single correct way to be an active bystander in street harassment.

However, through the workshop we aimed to provide everyone with a toolbox of bystander intervention methods, where you are free to choose what you feel is best for both the situation and yourself. By unpacking multiple ways of intervening, we hope to also inspire each other to intervene in new, and more importantly safe, ways. 

We found that the two most popular interventions were Check in and Interrupt.

Checking in involves asking the victim of street harassment if they are feeling okay and if they want you to help them. It can be comforting to have someone ask if you are okay during or after a stressful situation, and it may result in a positive interaction instead of a negative one. It also returns agency to the person experiencing harassment. Many participants said that they liked this idea because it felt more safe.

Interrupting can occur in a variety of ways, the main goal being to disrupt street harassment as it is happening. This can include pretending to be friends with the person being harassed, or by asking them a question (e.g. Could you show me where Starbucks is?) to take the victim’s mind off the harasser’s abuse. This can often give victims an “out” from being harassed, taking them away from the harmful situation and providing them with a chance to reflect on the experience with someone else.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult to eradicate street harassment altogether. Pandemic or no pandemic, harassment is still enabled by power structures that may take much longer to dismantle. 

What we can do now is be there for each other, and create cultural change from the ground up. We might know street harassment is harmful, and we can usually recognise when it is happening, but taking the next step to prevent it asks a little more of us—it asks us to be active bystanders, and to encourage others to be the same. 

Right now, it is up to each of us to disrupt the normalisation of street harassment in our communities, and recognise that together, we have the power to build a safer world.

Nicole Nguyen is a training and event officer at It’s Not A Compliment. Her team is delivering this workshop to the public throughout September, as well as in future collaborations with UMSU. She is working on a forthcoming Bystander Intervention Guide, which will be posted on the It’s Not A Compliment website.

Mark Yin is the media officer at It’s Not A Compliment. He is studying a Bachelor of Arts.

The It’s Not A Compliment team is also running a survey around street harassment before and during the pandemic. If you have anything you’d like to share, please let them know here.


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