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  • Writer's pictureFarah Benis

The Role of Bystanders in Addressing Public Sexual Harassment



Public sexual harassment is a pervasive problem that affects people of all genders and ages. While it is often assumed that addressing this issue is the responsibility of law enforcement and other authorities, the role of bystanders in addressing public sexual harassment is crucial in creating a safer and more inclusive society.


A bystander is someone who witnesses a situation but is not directly involved. In the context of public sexual harassment, bystanders have the power to intervene and help stop the harassment by directly intervening or seeking help from the authorities.


Intervening in a situation of public sexual harassment can be challenging, but it is an important step in creating a safer and more inclusive society. Bystanders can intervene in several ways, and the organisation Hollaback has put together an easy to remember and follow guide with the 5 D's.


The 5Ds are different methods – Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct – that you can use to support someone who’s being harassed, emphasise that harassment is not okay, and demonstrate to people in your life that they have the power to make their community safer.


Distract: Distraction is a subtle and creative way to intervene. Its aim is simply to derail the incident of harassment by interrupting it. The keys to good Distraction are:

- Ignore the person who is harassing, and engage directly with the person who is being harassed.

- Don’t talk about or refer to the harassment that’s happening. Instead, talk about something completely unrelated.


Delegate: Delegation is asking a third party for help with intervening in harassment. The keys to Delegation are:

- Look for a Delegate who is ready and willing to help. Often, a great choice is the person right next to you.

- When you Delegate someone to help you, try to tell them as clearly as possible what you’re witnessing and how you’d like them to help.


Document: Documentation involves either recording or taking notes on an instance of harassment. It can be really helpful to record an incident of harassment, but there are some keys for safely and responsibly documenting harassment:

- Assess the situation. Is anyone helping the person being harassed? If not, use another of the 5Ds. Recording someone’s experience of harm without ensuring they’re already receiving help can just create further trauma for them. If someone else is already helping out: assess your own safety, and if you are safe, begin documenting.

- ALWAYS ask the person who was harassed what they want to do with your recording and/or notes. NEVER post it online or use it without their permission.


Delay: Even if we can’t act in the moment, we can still make a difference for someone who’s been harassed by checking in on them after the fact. Many types of harassment happen in passing or very quickly, and it’s not always possible we’ll have a chance to intervene in another way. But we don’t have to just ignore what happened and move on. We can help reduce that person’s trauma by speaking to them after an instance of harassment.


Direct: Use this one with caution, because Direct intervention can be risky – the person harassing may redirect their abuse towards the intervening bystander, or may escalate the situation in another way. The first key to Direct intervention is to assess the situation before you decide to respond, by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Are you physically safe?

2. Is the person being harassed physically safe?

3. Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate?

4. Can you tell if the person being harassed wants someone to speak up?

If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you might choose a direct response.

The second key to Direct intervention is to keep it short and succinct. As tempting as it may be, avoid engaging in dialogue, debate, or an argument – since this is how situations can escalate. If the person harassing responds to your Direct intervention, focus your attention on assisting the person who was harmed, instead of engaging with the person doing the harm.


In addition to intervening in situations of public sexual harassment, bystanders can also play a role in creating a culture that does not tolerate such behaviour. This can include educating themselves and others about the issue, advocating for policy changes, and being vocal in their opposition to public sexual harassment.


The role of bystanders in addressing public sexual harassment is crucial in creating a safer and more inclusive society. By intervening in situations of harassment and working to create a culture that does not tolerate such behaviour, bystanders can help to ensure that everyone feels safe and respected in public spaces.



In an emergency always call the Police on 999.


British Transport Police patrol stations and the rail network across England, Scotland and Wales.

Ways to report:

Text 61016

Call 0800 40 50 40



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