Would You Intervene If You See Another Man Sexually Harassing A Woman?

Women know exactly how vulnerable we are in public, but whenever we speak about it men seem to believe that the solution is to learn the art of self defence. “Teach your daughter karate so she can defend herself when she is sexually harassed”, they say, quite forgetting that that even being among the best wrestlers in the world didn’t save Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat from being sexually abused, or that a number of police officers trained in the use of firearms were among the victims of HD Prajwal Revanna.

While the only long term strategy to reducing sexual harassment is a combination of behaviour change communication directed at men and speedy legal action being taken against the perpetrators, we know that calling out (or distracting) the perpetrator will almost certainly diffuse the immediate act of sexual harassment.

A dipstick survey had interesting results

It was to get a dipstick of how men behave when they witness an act of sexual harassment that I create a poll on X (formerly Twitter):

Question for men:
When you see a man sexually harassing a woman what do you do- (a) Call him out immediately, (b) Look away- not my problem, and (c) Join him in harassing her”

Since a few women said that a better indicator would be to ask women how men behave when they see a woman being sexually harassed, I created a companion poll:

Question for women:
When a woman (/you) is being sexually abused, how have you seen men react- (a) ignore/ look away, (b)Call it out/ distract, and (c) join in the harassment”

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Seeing the way the results of the first poll were going, I deliberately used the word “sexually abused” in the second poll to drive the urgency (and therefore the probability that men would act more proactively). I also introduced “distract”, because someone had rightly pointed out that creating a diversion might be more effective in diffusing the sexual harassment than outright calling it out.

After removing the people who didn’t participate in the poll, but wanted to see the results, there were 235 men and 152 women who responded to the surveys.

The 235 male respondents, when asked what they would do when they witnessed sexual harassment said they would:
Call out immediately: 89% (209 respondents)
Look away/ not my problem: 10% (23 respondents)
Join in the harassing: 1% (3 respondents)

It was interesting to see that almost 9 out of 10 men said that they would immediately call out the predator. If the number of men who stand up for women being harassed is that high, why are there so many instances of sexual harassment?

The second poll painted a very different picture. The 152 female respondents, when asked how men behave when they witnessed sexual harassment, aid that men would
Call out/ distract: 31% (47)
Ignore/ look away: 59% (90)
Join in harassing: 9% (15)

According to women, only 3 out of 10 men actively attempt to stop sexual harassment; the rest either ignore or actively encourage the sexual harassment.

There is clearly a perception mismatch

Assuming all the respondents were being totally honest, it is interesting to compare the perceptions of men and women. While 89% men think they take action to actively prevent sexual harassment, only 31% women agree that they do. 59% men believe that men ignore or look away, but only 10% men admit to doing so.

Clearly, there is a perception mismatch, and (assuming the respondents were honest) the only way to explain the disconnect would be through two reasons (or a combination of the three):

First scenario: men don’t understand what constitutes sexual harassment but respond proactively when they witness it. So what women perceive is men looking away, is in fact a case of the man not even being aware of what is going on.

Second scenario: the male respondents picked what they would do if “their women” (mother, sister, wife, daughter, cousin, friend) were being sexually harassed, not what they would do if a random woman was being abused. Women, on the other hand, evaluated the behaviour of men in general, not just men known to them.

Neither of these scenarios is particularly encouraging for women, and both can only be addressed through sustained behaviour change communication directed at men. Men need to be taught to recognise the entire gamut of sexual harassment, and they should be made to realise that all women deserve to live a life free from sexual harassment.

Some of the comments were quite illuminating and need to be addressed

More than one man said that they would not want to get involved because they fear that the perpetrator and victim might then gang up against him. One quoted the example of a time when he found a couple arguing and said that when he intervened after the man slapped the woman, she turned on him and abused him. Clearly these people are talking about specific cases of intimate partner violence, while the question was about sexual harassment in general. To use this to justify not intervening, is to make yourself complicit in the harassment.

Another man pointed out, quite rightly, that confronting the perpetrator might not always be the right strategy, and that unless the woman is in immediate danger of violence, he prefers diffusing the situation by distracting the perpetrator.

One person took exception to the fact that I had clubbed “call out and distract” because (in his words) “if I distract the man, how will the woman know that I helped her”. It is indeed a sad commentary on the male psyche if the only reason why they call out a man who is sexually harassing a woman is to make her feel gratitude towards him as her saviour!

It is not hard to intervene when a woman is being sexually harassed. Often, all that a person has to do is to strike up a conversation with the perpetrator to distract him- by the time he has finished giving directions to the nearest metro station, for instance, the impulse to pass a lewd comment would pass. While using public transport, moving slightly to put yourself between a voyeur and his target is enough to let the person know that their behaviour has been noted and will not be tolerated. Clearly, there is a long way to go before men can become allies of women in combating sexual harassment.

Image source: a still from the film Pink

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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