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What to Do if You See Someone Being Harassed

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 07, 2021

It's unfortunate that people get harassed in public. The harassment may be due to their gender, religion, race, or something else entirely. If you do see someone getting harassed, you might wonder what to do. It can be hard to figure it out in the moment if you haven't thought much about it before. Here are some tips for how to help in this situation.

How to Help Someone Being Harassed

How you will help in this kind of situation depends on what is happening. You must evaluate the situation and choose the best option. Here are some ideas for how you can help:

  • Make it known that you see what is happening. Look at the harasser, make eye contact, or move closer to the person being harassed. If you feel the situation is safe enough, place yourself in between the harasser and their target.
  • Talk to the person being harassed. Sit or stand next to them, and start any kind of friendly conversation with them. Let them know you're there to help. Try to ignore the harasser. In some cases, this may diffuse the situation and make the harasser go away.
  • Respond directly. If you feel safe, directly confront the harasser. Simply say something like "That's not cool," or, "Please leave them alone." This can help sometimes, but there is also a possibility that a direct confrontation will escalate the situation.
  • Make suggestions, not demands. Allow the person being harassed to remain in control of the situation. Make suggestions like "Would you like to sit next to me?" and don't tell them what to do.
  • Evaluate for safety. See if there is somewhere safer you can go, like a different train car, for example. You can see if there is anyone else around you who will be able to help. There is safety in numbers.
  • Document the situation. If possible, document the situation. Take photos or videos with your phone. Ask the person being harassed if it's OK to film the incident. This can help later if the incident becomes a legal matter.
  • Report the incident. After everything is over, it may be helpful to report what happened to local organizations related to harassment in general, or to targeted advocacy groups. For example, if someone was getting harassed for being transgender, you could report what happened to a local LGBT organization that keeps track of this type of data.
  • Check in. Either during or after the incident, check in with the person who is being harassed and make sure they are doing OK.

What Not to Do When You See Someone Getting Harassed

It's important to avoid the following when helping someone who is getting harassed:

  • Don't be a silent bystander. Doing nothing allows the harassment to continue. If you don't feel safe enough to say anything, at least move closer to the person being harassed and let the harasser know you see them.
  • Don't blame the victim. Avoid judgment. Don't tell the victim what they could have done to avoid the situation. For example, don't shame someone who was getting sexually harassed for wearing revealing clothing. People do not deserve harassment regardless of their choices. ‌
  • Don't take control. Allow the person being harassed to continue to make their own choices for how to deal with the situation. Empower them in the moment by asking before you do something, and asking for their preferences.

What Is Harassment?

There are many behaviors that constitute harassment in public. These include:

  • Making rude or insulting comments
  • Using racial, gender-based, homophobic, or transphobic slurs towards someone
  • Making unwanted sexual advances
  • Insisting on talking to someone after they have asked you to leave them alone
  • Insisting on getting someone's personal information 
  • Following someone
  • Blocking someone's path
  • Getting in someone's personal space
  • Flashing a body part
  • Touching someone without their consent
  • Photographing someone without their consent
  • Masturbating in public
  • Whistling at someone
  • Looking at pornographic materials in a public space or showing someone porn without their consent

There are many reasons someone would choose to harass someone. In the past 5 years in the US, harassment against certain cultural groups, including people in the LGBTQ community, Muslim people, Black people, and other groups has increased. Hopefully, you will never have to use these tips, but if you do encounter a stressful situation in which someone is getting harassed, now you will know what to do.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Friends Service Committee: "How to intervene if someone is being harassed."

PCMA: "The Bystander Effect: How to React If You See Someone Being Harassed."

RAINN: "Street Harassment."

Sierra: "What To Do If You See Someone Being Harassed."

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