Jesse Singal, regretting how he’d never challenged a “borderline-compulsive” street harasser he once knew, spoke with Hollaback’s Debjani Roy in an attempt to better prepare himself for such interventions in the future:
[A]m I overestimating the impact one disapproving conversation can have? Probably not, said Roy. [This serial harasser] Harry had probably, like many young men, been in a lot of social situations in which street harassment wasn’t looked down upon and may have been actively encouraged. “We all know about peer pressure,” said Roy. “And I think a lot of the original behavior comes out of that. Like, ‘Dude, why aren’t you hitting on her? Dude, why aren’t you trying to pick up more women? Why aren’t you yelling that at her?’” Having another guy come up and say exactly the opposite, then, can make an impact — even if it’s not guaranteed to.
Singal adds that even just commiserating with or checking on the harassed woman afterwards can be a beneficial way to get involved. He concludes:
What all this comes down to is that, in much the same way that harassing is a socially ingrained part of Harry’s life, not responding to “mild” incidents of harassment is a socially ingrained part of mine. For whatever reason, I and a lot of other otherwise “good guys” have succumbed to the notion that it’s best to just stay out of these situations rather than intervene.
A reader shares his own missed opportunity:
Many years ago when I was in my early 20s and living in Boston, I was on the T late at night and saw this middle-aged Hispanic man harassing a young black woman clearly unappreciative of his advances.
She was very overweight, and after the man sat down next to her, he started leaning in and talking to her and touching her arm while she just shrank into the wall of the car. Occasionally she would turn to glare at him, or say something so softly as to be inaudible. It was a pretty crowded train, but nobody else seemed to be paying attention to the situation and I, having never witnessed anything like it before, sort of froze. I just kept watching and told myself that if he really grabbed her or became belligerent, then I would intervene, but that never happened, and so still I did nothing. He kept harassing her, and I kept watching uncomfortably and wondering what I should do. Several minutes later when my stop came, I asked the group of people standing next to me to please keep an eye on the guy to make sure “nothing happened” and I got off the train.
I have no idea what happened to the woman, but of course something was already happening to her, and it may have gotten much worse. I could have stopped it, but I didn’t. Naturally, my regret over that night has only grown, especially after hearing my wife and female friends’ personal experiences with public harassment and assault. For all the consternation about these feminist campaigns and their tactics, the resulting discussion and increased awareness is surely a net gain. The women in my life certainly never told me about any of this stuff until I knew to ask, and I’m now quite grateful for, and influenced by, their perspectives.
As for us men? We’re long overdue to grow out of this crap, harassers and bystanders alike. I definitely wish I had sooner.
I’ve actually been in a couple of similar situations and have actually intervened. “Is this guy bothering you?” is my usual question. Both times, the answer was a demurral. But my just asking that question in public shifted the atmosphere a little bit. And I stood by, watching the dude until he moved away. I guess I could have been foolish and certainly didn’t want a physical confrontation with the dude. But it struck me how potent a simple question can be in making a woman feel a little less alone and a man a little more self-aware that others were keeping tabs.