What To Do When You See Someone Being Harassed

Sarah Kathleen Peck
Aug 9, 2015 · 8 min read

It was early evening, just after the sun set, around 7 PM on Fall night in Brooklyn. My then-boyfriend and I were walking through the crowds outside of Atlantic Terminal.

I saw a young woman, walking alone, get approached by a man with a clipboard. “Heyyy!” he said, “Do you know about …” The sound drifted off, we were mixed together in the crowd. From a few feet away, it looked like he was another young activist, approaching street-goers.

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Then something inside me perked up, started listening, alert.

“No thanks,” the young woman said, and kept walking. At 6’4” or taller, the man stood easily a foot over her. He strode quickly and looped around in front of her, placing his body in her path,

“What,” he said, more aggressively. “You don’t want to do this?”

His insults turned aggressive and derogatory. The clipboard began to look like a prop, a flimsy excuse for a street pitch of inappropriate measures. He was inviting her to something — propositioning her to join something? — and began saying more alarming things to her. My ears caught drift of a proposition based on her looks,

“You’d be perfect for this, you have just the right type of body…”

“You can’t tell me you’ve never done something like this before…”

Everything in my body said make it stop.

I looked over at the woman who was trying to walk, clearly uncomfortable, and as a pedestrian, from three feet away, I asked her:

“Do you know this man?”

No, she shook her head.

“Do you want him to leave you alone?”

She nodded, shielding her eyes from him. She was clearly trying to ignore him and walk away, hoping to avoid an altercation. Perhaps by not paying attention, she wouldn’t have to deal with it much longer. (I know this technique all too well.)

Hundreds of people were streaming by around us, oblivious, heading in their own directions, rushing in and out of Atlantic Terminal, headed on, headed home. There’s nothing like being lost in a crowd of thousands to feel helpless and alone.

I stopped and looked at the man and stood tall. “She’s not interested. You need to leave her alone.” I said, loudly, firmly. My tone takes on the same deep tone I’d use when giving a command to a puppy, or when setting a boundary that I need to make explicitly clear.

At first, he brushed me off and ignored me. He kept circling around, stopping the woman, getting in front of her, petitioning her.

“You need to leave her alone. She said no, thank you.” I said again, as clearly and loudly as I could.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said, stepping back slightly, looking at me as though I were inconsequential.

“Are you two even together?” He looked back and forth between the two of us, looking for confirmation of my involvement. He thought he was targeting a single woman, alone on the streets. Were there two of us?

Then he noticed my boyfriend to the side, and looked at him, “Wait, are you all together?” He looked dubious.

My boyfriend nodded, not speaking. (He told me later he was curious why the man looked over to him first to find approval, male to male, versus listening to me. He didn’t want to speak up and voice power unless he had to — the real truth is in listening to women’s voices. I am grateful to him).

I looked at the woman and said discreetly, “Walk with us.”

“Where are you heading?” I asked quietly. “Are you crossing up here?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Great, we’ll cross with you. Just keep walking with us.”

We walked together until we were out of the crowd and in the clear. “Are you all good to go on your way?”

“Yes, thanks.” she said, gratefully.

Helping other women, other people.

Women (as well as men, but much more frequently women) are subject to harassment, unwanted attention, violence (and more) on a daily basis. This goes beyond just women and applies to POC, LGTBQ individuals, and many more groups of people not in power — but today, I’ll address women.

Please note: From my experience, this is what I’ve learned about standing up for people and becoming allies and advocates in a crowd. I am very open to conversation about this, for outreach, for comment, and to learn about better resources from people trained in what to do in situations like this. I offer the following as my own practice, for your consideration.

1. Look around. Be aware. Notice what’s happening around you.

Be an advocate, an ally, a friend.

First step: notice what’s happening all around you. Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. According to some statistics, 65% of women experience street harassment, and 20% of all women have experienced being followed. This isn’t a rare thing — this is a thing, that’s happening.

Our first step is to be aware. When you’re checking your phone or checking out on the subway, there are things happening all around you that aren’t wanted or welcome. People are harassed next to you every single day.

Once I started becoming more aware, I couldn’t close my eyes to it anymore. I started seeing it everywhere.

2. Ask the woman directly if she knows the person, wants the attention, or needs help.

Before standing up to the aggressor or escalating any situation, I approach the woman first. Ask them if they know the person. Ask them if they are okay. Ask them if they’d like help. It seems brave to reach in and defend someone, but first — check in with them.

Try it:

“Do you know this person?”

“Are you okay with this situation?”

“Is this making you uncomfortable?”

“Are you alright?”

“Would you like any help?”

In my opinion, the first person to speak to is the woman, not the aggressor. In my experience, make contact, connection, and stand as an ally (or accomplice) with the person who needs help. Let them know that you are here with them, and you’re here to help.

3. Say No, loudly, clearly, and firmly.

After establishing a connection with the person you are helping, — and this is up to you and your level of advocacy — say no. Say no, loudly, clearly, and firmly.

We don’t always set boundaries in our culture, and people think a “maybe” means “yes” and a “no” means “maybe.” Speak in your yoga voice or your dog-training voice. It’s not yelling, but it’s firm, it’s loud, it’s clear, and it’s direct. (Yoga teacher training and watching friends who are parents has taught me a lot about being firm and direct with your voice.)

“Sir/Mister/Ma’am — This is not okay. We’d like you to stop.”

“This is not okay. You need to stop.”

Repeat yourself if necessary. It’s okay for someone to hear the word NO. Sometimes it takes a few tries to have someone hear you.

When a man says something lewd towards a woman, feel free to speak up. “Not cool, man,” is good feedback if you see something inappropriate. “Hey, don’t do that, be nice!” is good feedback. Any type of feedback, awareness, speaking up, and helping is good.

4. Leave.

Do not stay around.

There is no need to escalate the situation, or make it worse. Aggression on aggression doesn’t solve the problem.

My aim is awareness, and to reach out and help those who need it. My prayer is that if ever I am in need of help, a passerby will step in and say, “do you need help?” This is the world that I want to live in.

Hearing “no” from someone can be disconcerting and uncomfortable. That can be enough of a disruption for someone who is typically an aggressor. Since you don’t know who they are or how they will respond, it’s not up to us to stick around and try to change their minds or force them to behave in a certain way (nor can we).

What we can do is help each other, and be very clear about what our boundaries are.

Final notes.

I can’t be silent anymore about these issues. It’s happening around us on a daily basis. Yesterday, I watched a grocery store clerk — my neighbor — get harassed by a drunk, lewd man.

I stood up for her using the pattern above — and the man, upon noticing me and hearing me, turned towards me and began attacking me verbally:

“You must be a LONELY ASS WOMAN,” he said, learing at me. “Why you gotta speak up like this, you must be SO SAD AND SO LONELY.”

“You probably have no one who loves you, do you.”

These calls for help, these shouts, this behavior is indicative of so much pain happening in the lives around us. There are deeper issues going on here, around sadness, depression, attention, fear, loneliness. He wanted to incite me, and I didn’t want to engage.

This is not the way to gather attention.

“Be Kind,” I said, loudly and firmly.

“I am asking you to be kind to your fellow human beings. I don’t like the language you are using and I think it’s inappropriate. Please be KIND to your FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS.”

I could have stayed and asked the grocery store clerk to attend to the man.

Instead, I set the boundary, stood up for someone, and then exited, quietly. I never know if I’m doing the right thing, but I can’t be silent anymore.

I left the grocery store in the dark, 8PM on a Saturday night, and called my husband immediately. “I just stood up to an aggressor in the grocery store and I’m coming home, and I need to let you know he might be following me.” The man left the store and walked down the street towards me. I was two blocks from home, but turned around to be sure I wasn’t followed. “Please come out and meet me,” I asked.

If Alex weren’t there, I had already identified several street-goers to ask for help, and picked out a local store to walk into if I didn’t feel safe going home — (it’s not always wise to have an aggressor follow you back home and know where you live).

Luckily, he didn’t follow me home, and Alex met me halfway.

“Alex — I can’t help it,” I said. “I can’t be silent about this anymore. These are big issues, but I can’t not speak up. I have to say something.

What do we do?

There are deeper issues at hand (and mind), and I don’t want to fight aggression with aggression. The first step is awareness, the next step, I think, is some sort of action (or discomfort). I want to engage at the level where I alert everyone involved that (1) what is being done is not okay, and people can give loud, clear feedback about that; and (2) that people are here and willing to stand up for each other.

But where does it come from? The man was quite literally out of his mind, and looked as though he were performing a behavior that had be rehearsed over and over again, and had no clue (or awareness) of what he was doing. Was I right to intervene? What will happen next? Am I putting myself in more and more danger? Does it matter?

There are deeper, more difficult problems of anger and violence — of cultural norms that expect women to be invisible and silent, of a language that allows for violence in even the words we choose to use towards each other.

I am here, I am willing, I am learning.

We need to speak up.

I want to speak up.

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