Why Do Some People Act When A Girl Is Harassed While Others Don’t?

Posted: May 28, 2015

Besides worries about safety, public perception of sexual harassment as a ‘minor problem’ to be ignored also deters people from helping.

#AskingForIt is an initiative by Breakthrough to mobilize communities and get every individual, both online and in the ‘real world’, to speak out and not treat sexual harassment as ‘normal’.

We have been sharing various perspectives around experiences of harassment as well as acting agains it. You can read them all here at the #AskingForIt blogathon

Bystanders. The ones who happen to be around. When you’re being sexually harassed in public, some choose to help you, some laugh at you, some stay quiet. Even in the same situation, people have different reactions.

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In an attempt to understand why people act (or don’t), I interviewed both men and women I know, of different ages, asking them these 3 questions.

Have you ever spoken up or in any other way, helped someone being harassed in public?

Out of the 25 individuals I asked, only five answered this question with a Yes.

“In bus stops, I have witnessed many sexual harassment incidents. I intervene only when things get out of hand. I have warned the men doing it, and even dropped the girl home if necessary,” says Suvojit Banerjee, an IT professional.

“I have helped out a few times. I imagine myself in the victim’s shoes. That’s why I help them. I threatened to call the police, and helped the girls being harassed move away from the place to a safer location,” says Ankita Arun, a Finance Consultant.

“One of my colleagues was constantly harassed by a man every day. They travelled by the same train, and he would make mortifying comments about her body. I recorded the incident and called the police. He was arrested,” says Ishwarya Murali, a Charted Accountant.

“Once, my friend was being harassed in a bus. I yelled at him, and used my pepper spray. The other passengers were shocked at my actions. But nobody helped my friend. Instead of being horrified at his actions, they were stunned by my actions. Men believe that if they harass a girl in a public place, no one will help them, and I proved them wrong,” says Beena Manohar, a student.

“I reprimanded a guy and slapped him for harassing a young girl. Some men will learn their lesson only when they’re humiliated in public,” says Mukta Murthy, a former bank employee.

What stops you from reacting?

Apart from the above examples, most people felt that they could not really help. The most common reasons were fears about one’s own safety, not knowing how to help, worries about the lack of support from others, and a lack of interest in helping a stranger.

“If I did intervene, I would be their next target. It would complicate things for me.”

“The girl should be able to handle herself. She shouldn’t expect knights in shining armour to rescue her every time.”

“I’m afraid of what people might say and think since I would be the only one intervening.”

“Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with me, and usually, by the time I realise what’s happening, the whole situation would’ve gotten really messy.”

“I would help the person, if they were my friend. I don’t see the point in helping strangers. The harassers may physically harm me for helping the girl.”

“I heard of incidents where women’s rights activists have intervened, and lost their lives. They’ve become victims themselves, why should I risk my life?”

“I really don’t know how I can help, or what I can do.”

What would give you confidence to speak up?

The most common answers I received cited the following as factors::

Support from law enforcement:

E.g. “If there was a police squad ready to help the girl being harassed, then I would speak up and stand by her until the police arrives.”

Assurance of no judgement from society:

E.g.:

“If everyone stopped blaming the girl, her attire and stop judging the person who helps the victim, then it would help a lot.”

“If more people supported me, then it would be helpful. The more the people, the more powerful the impact. One person can’t make an impact.”

More knowledge:

E.g.: “If I was given training and taught as to how to confront sexual harassers, and how to help the victim being harassed in public, then I would help.”

From these responses, while it is clear that safety is often a concern, as much or more so is the perceived lack of support from others. Clearly, raising more awareness about sexual harassment being a crime, and simple ways in which bystanders can help, will get more people in active mode.

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