Opinion

For too long bystanders of sexual harassment have not been held accountable. That's got to change.

The viral campaign #HaveaWord urges men to call out sexual harassment, but my cynicism asks, will that change anything, really?

'Silence allows violence.' Credit: Pexels.

Last week, on a night in Soho, I was abruptly reminded of my gender when a stranger came within five inches of my face and slid his arm around me. It was an uncomfortable interaction, as it would be for anyone. What made it worse was the men, embarrassed but complicit, who watched the situation unfold.  

In these situations, the thought process is usually ”oh no” followed by “how can I get him away from me without being harassed further or him getting angry”. But in the flash that thought train came to a stop, my headstrong, supportive, take-no-shit friend told him “to get your fucking hands off her”.

They argued. He spat at her, pushed her, insulted her, said “you’re too ugly to suck my cock”, thrust and gyrated his hips and refused to give up his pursuit.

Here’s the cherry on top: his friend came up to say “sorry about him” and shrugged his shoulders. Our immediate response was to ask him to intervene and tell his friend to leave us alone. We received a more defensive shoulder shrug and a puzzled frown. Nearby, a couple of strong-looking men watched and laughed.

Barely a week before, the mayor of London’s office launched a campaign video urging men to call out toxic and dangerous behaviour towards females. It has struck a chord across social media, accurately demonstrating the escalation of sexual harassment. Refreshingly, it’s aimed at the ‘mates’ who are too often the bystanders and, I would argue, facilitators. 


For too long, those that witnessed or were aware of sexual misconduct — but didn’t interfere — have not been held accountable for their lack of action. I’m here to say: that’s got to change. 

The #HaveaWord video begins with two female friends parting. “Text me when you get home safe,” says one, the familiar refrain from parting female friends since mobile phones came out. This was exactly how our night was rounding up before the man separated from his friends to put an unwelcome, heavy arm around my shoulder as he asked, “what’s your name?”

Female circles rant and share their stories with each other, it’s almost an unsaid memo passed around with cautionary tales of survival stories and near misses, which men to avoid and what time of day it gets dark to pre-plan your trip home. Are these conversations being had in male circles?

As I tap through my Instagram stories, the #HaveAWord video is being re-shared and celebrated. But there’s one nagging problem: it’s mostly, if not only, shared by women. Cynic that I am, I doubt it gets digested by those who need to see it most.

As a woman navigating my way through the media career ladder, I’m no stranger to sexual harassment. I’ve been gifted experiences that — sadly — have become run of the mill: from having my breasts secretly filmed on a professional set, told to “get a cap and dick” before I ask for a job, followed home late at night (by an eager man and his disapproving, but completely ineffectual friend), and asked for a sexual favour in return for a well-earned job position. And they were just the interactions in public.

Bad behaviour very often gets passed with a chorus of awkward laughter and turned cheeks, compounding the experience for the outnumbered victim. The situations themselves are harmful enough, but the memory of an audience is the most haunting. 

During the #HaveaWord video, the perpetrator repeats the phrase, “I’m just being nice”. It’s that “nice” narrative that stops these men, and their friends, from understanding their approach is not nice in the slightest, but unelicited, intimidating, and demonstrating a concerning lack of empathy towards women. In my experience, it’s the self-described “nice” guys you’ve got to look out for the most. 

Research by UN Women UK indicated that 71 per cent of all women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. That number rises sharply to 86 per cent among 18-24 year olds. 

In sexually harassing situations, where a physical boundary has been broken, the woman can go into survival mode: head down, quiet, nervous, non-communicative. Why? Because clear rejection can cause an inflamed situation, and inflamed situation means danger. 

You wouldn’t stand by if you were witness to racist or religious abuse or put up with it from a friend. That so many men continue to do little more than shrug, at best, or laugh at worst is an indictment of how little progress we’ve made as a society to fight sexual harassment.

Staggeringly, but unsurprisingly, there’s little professional advice online for the onlookers of sexual harassment. Most advice is aimed at women but Global Citizen suggests the following:

  1. Assess the situation: Before you do anything, you need to work out exactly what the situation is and how best you can intervene.
  2. Direct intervention: If you think it’s safe to do so, you can intervene in the harassment directly. That means directly addressing the person who’s doing the harassing. It’s key to be firm, don’t apologise for interrupting their behaviour.
  3. Distraction If you would rather not interact with the harasser, or it feels as though the situation would escalate if you did, creating a distraction can also help put a stop to the incident.
  4. Find someone to support you
  5. Check in with the person who’s been harassed
  6. Document the incident

I would add some more. Watch your mates, your sons, your brothers, your neighbours or even that stranger you pass, even if they seem ‘nice’. Talk to your friends about sexual harassment by men, bring the topic into your conversations and make your values clear.

To the bystanders and ‘mates’ of those who sexually harass: get ready to be uncomfortable. Have a word with yourself. Because this next wave of accountability is aimed at you.  

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