Seven Ways to Stand Up Against Sexual Harassment

Allegations against Harvey Weinstein raise the question: What should you do if you witness someone being sexually harassed?

BY ELIZABETH SVOBODA, The Greater Good Science Center

Read more articles like this on Greater Good.

Picture this: You’re a junior assistant working for a powerful Hollywood producer. You’re ecstatic at your good fortune and hope this position will help you break into film. But your boss has a sketchy reputation when it comes to women, and one day he nuzzles up to a young rising star, who looks horrified. Then he asks you to leave the room. What do you do?

The blockbuster allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein have many of us wondering how we’d navigate similar scenarios. What do you do when your colleague tells you the department head propositioned her in the hallway? How do you react when the subway strap-hanger next to you grabs a fellow rider’s behind?

Choosing the right response can feel daunting. A Queensland University of Technology study reports that bystander reactions to sexual harassment are often muted or non-existent. When you do act decisively, though, you can have a major impact. In a York University study of bullying incidents, intervening bystanders were able to stop aggressors more than half of the time.

But how? Here are seven research-tested ways to step up against sexual harassment that will get results.

1. Shift the focus—and record the evidence

When it comes to stopping harassment, “most people think that the only approach is direct confrontation,” says Mike Dilbeck, founder of the Response Ability project, who leads workshops on effective intervention. “That’s not the right approach a lot of times. It can backlash.”

If direct intervention isn’t comfortable or possible, Dilbeck recommends doing something that stops the harassment in an under-the-radar way. That could mean “accidentally” spilling a beer on a party guest who’s making aggressive moves on his date, which redirects his attention to his sopping shirt. Or it could mean switching seats on the subway when you see someone getting harassed.

“I have intervened several times by simply having women come sit with me,” says Jessica Seigel, a writer and adjunct professor at New York University. Once when she did this on a train, she says, “another woman on the other side scooched in on their left flank, me on the right flank, in a sense creating actual physical cover.”

You can also discreetly film harassment incidents with your smartphone and write down exactly what you’ve witnessed. That creates an evidentiary record should the person affected decide to pursue legal action.

2. Make shrewd pre-emptive moves

Sexual harassers typically act only in specific situations where they feel comfortable doing so, and you can use your knowledge of their tendencies to stave off potential incidents before they happen.

If a coworker is alone in a room with a supervisor known to be a repeat harasser, for instance, you can come up with a reason to enter the room yourself. And, if you’re in a relatively powerful position at a company that isn’t taking action against known harassers, you can arrange for them to be transferred to assignments where they won’t have access to new targets. While obviously not a permanent and systemic solution, it is one step an individual with power can take when the system fails.

3. Resist the urge to normalize

After people watched a video clip of women being portrayed as sexual objects, their sensitivity to sexual harassment took a hit, according to a 2017 study at Italy’s University of Padova. Compared to members of a control group, the video watchers were less likely to speak up when they later witnessed a sexual harassment incident in real time, and they were also slower to recognize that harassment was going on in the first place.

This suggests an insidious normalizing process in which harassment can start to seem par for the course. Over time, a toxic culture can make some people downright blasé about harassment—like the talent agent who quipped about Weinstein, “He asked for a few massages? Waaah! Welcome to Hollywood!”

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.