Responding Effectively to Sexual Harassment

By Alan Berkowitz, Ph.D.

Male bystander

With the cascade of revelations of sexual harassment and assault raising our awareness, many are asking “Why didn’t others do something?” and in particular “Why didn’t other men do something?”  Although men may also be sexually harassed (usually by other men) the majority are not and most men rarely fear sexual assault.  Yet men who witness other men harassing women or speaking offensively share similar fears, including retaliation, loss of social status, embarrassment, or thwarted career ambitions.  This results in men’s (and women’s) silence, thus enabling perpetrators to continue perpetrating, not to mention that our inaction weighs heavily on our consciousnesses.  Because men who offend may respect and care about what other men think more than they do women,  other men may have an advantage in interrupting sexism and violence against women.  In other words, preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault can be considered as men’s responsibility, although of course women have and will continue to take action.

One deterrent to responding is our surprise, shock, and discomfort with abusive remarks and behavior.  We now realize that these are more commonplace than once thought.  Thus, rather than seeing them as unusual, we must prepare ourselves to understand that they are commonly occurring.  Being emotionally prepared to perceive the injustices of the world – even if they do not impinge on us directly – helps us to be emotionally prepared to respond to them.  This is not only true for sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, but for other injustices such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.

There are many actions one can take in response.  First is to be believable allies who are safe for victims to report to.  By words and actions we can make it clear that we believe victims, are understanding, and will respond compassionately.  Exposing perpetrators supports victim healing and may also prevent future perpetration.  Second, when someone is uncomfortable with the words or actions of another person the chances are very good that others are uncomfortable as well.  Thus, it is important to talk to others to determine if your discomfort is shared and to explore possible responses.  Social science research confirms that a majority of men are uncomfortable with sexist language and behaviors but do not realize that other men are also, as well as that the majority of men would respect someone who intervenes but believe most others would not.  Knowing that you are not alone in your concerns and having the opportunity to share possible actions can empower us to respond effectively.

In particular, someone can intervene without suffering backlash. The science of ‘bystander intervention’ (now evolved as a state of the art prevention practice) offers skills and strategies for the majority of men (and women) who do not harass to intervene in the minority of men’s harassment and violence. Thus when confrontation is not an option, a bystander can respond to a sexist remark by: changing the subject; replacing a negative comment with a positive one; or using subtle sarcasm. In “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down” (NYT-July 7, 2017) author Sam Polk shares sexist remarks he has heard on Wall Street and describes his discomfort and inaction. For example, at a Brazilian steakhouse a superior’s comment about the waitress: “I’d like to bend her over the table and give her some meat” was responded to by awkward laughter.  In this case one could use distraction to change the subject, saying: “I’m more concerned about getting good service for dinner” or “What do you recommend from the menu?”   A distracting remark can successfully shift attention away from the problematic behavior. Alternatively, re-framing offers a positive comment in place of a negative.  For instance, having previously eaten at the restaurant one could say: “Actually she is a great waitress” or “I’ll show my appreciation by giving a nice tip.”  A truthful, appreciative remark can undermine the negative comment and refocus attention on the positive.  Finally, subtle sarcasm can also be effective, such as “I think I will be ordering from the vegetarian menu tonight” or “Brazilian visas don’t allow that.”

Another example cited in the article was when a superior asked a new male employee if he: “got laid last night?”  A safe response could be “I was up working” or “we watched a movie” or even “you are right, I was laid up on the couch last night.” Safe, honest responses can change the terms of the discussion without enabling the perpetrator, let others know that you don’t agree with the remark, and offers them a chance to affirm your response.

When I hear men making negative comments about female colleagues – especially about their physical appearance or competence – I find it very effective to reply by mentioning a positive characteristic or accomplishment of the person, such as “Actually she just received the teacher of the year award” or “She is one of the smartest persons in my seminar.”  One could also say “I think that remark could be misunderstood.  You are a great supervisor and I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for something you didn’t really mean.”

Confrontation, which may be difficult with a superior, involves strongly objecting to a remark or stating one’s feelings, such as: “I really respect you and I am disappointed to hear you say that” or, more strongly, “I would prefer if you don’t talk that way around me.”

Clearly, it is possible to respond to an inappropriate remark by undermining it and registering disagreement while avoiding confrontation or to create an uncomfortable situation.  Responding  provides the opportunity for other bystanders to register their discomfort, help to shift the conversation, affirm the positive remark, or share appreciation and respect for intervening. As we recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of harassment and sexist remarks, we can view the opportunity to intervene as a welcome one.

Imagine if the majority of men responded to objectionable remarks by either changing the subject or undermining the remark.  This would move us closer to creating a culture in which such actions were not tolerated and rewarded and it could help reduce the guilt that many men feel about doing nothing.  Taking action individually or as a group is essential, along with more systematic responses that are needed from our institutions and organizations.

Most perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault begin these behaviors long before we meet them.  Yet our silence and inaction helps to create a culture in which it is easy for them to continue.  There are many elements of a comprehensive response, including creating safe reporting options, taking complaints seriously, understanding that false accusations are extremely rare, training law enforcement in effective and victim supportive investigations, ensuring swift and effective punishment, and the modeling of healthy interactions and sexuality.  We all have a role to play and it is the responsibility of everyone – especially men – to reverse the culture of harassment and assault by creating safety for victims to report, sharing discomfort with others, serving as healthy responsible role models, holding our institutions accountable and intervening in safe ways against offensive behavior.


photo_alanb_headshotAlan Berkowitz, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized expert in sexual harassment and sexual assault prevention and the author of “RESPONSE ABILITY: The Complete Guide to Bystander Behavior” and “How to Respond to Sexist Remarks.”  More information about his work is available at: www.alanberkowitz.com

 

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How Do We Know If It Works? Measuring Outcomes in Bystander-Focused Abuse Prevention on Campuses

PIRCResearch Summary

BITB

The use of bystander education programs (including Prevention Innovations Research Center’s (PIRC) Bringing in the Bystander ® In-Person Prevention Program) to prevent sexual and relationship violence and stalking is increasingly common, and as more colleges and other institutions adopt these programs, better means of evaluating them are needed. Since the programs focus on preparedness, attitudes, and behavior changes, evaluations should test their effects in these areas. Research that helps develop reliable means for testing the impact of bystander education programs is important for demonstrating program efficacy—hence the article title, How do we know if it works? Banyard, Moynihan, Cares, and Warner—a team of two psychologists and two sociologists—have developed several potential instruments for measuring the attitudes and behaviors that bystander programs target. Measures like these make it possible to assess bystander education programs by allowing comparison between peoples’ attitudes and behaviors before and after participation in a program.

The bystander intervention framework addresses shortfalls in earlier prevention efforts by emphasizing the community behaviors and attitudes that create a culture of respect and collective responsibility for preventing violence. Informing people about sexual assault, empowering them to speak out against it, and giving them tools to help prevent violence has the potential to create safer campus cultures. New programs have developed faster than evaluation metrics, and the authors of this study created and tested several possible means of evaluating a program’s efficacy. (See Banyard, 2015; Banyard, 2008; and Banyard, Plante, and Moynihan, 2004 for more information on developing metrics). Three of the proposed bystander-focused measures gather responses on self-reported attitudes, and a fourth gathers responses on self-reported behavior.

Drawing on responses from 948 first-year students at two U.S. universities, the authors investigated the psychometric properties of four key measures of bystander action. Since asking someone, “are you now prepared to be a good bystander?” is unlikely to prove informative, several steps of evaluation are needed to determine whether a person has internalized the intended messages of bystander intervention training. The authors drew on related research that established the validity and reliability of several approaches to measuring participant attitudes and behaviors, and tested their reliability and validity with this population. Their aim was to see if the measurements were equally valid and reliable for testing the attitudes and behaviors that bystander education programs aim to encourage as they had been in other contexts.

The Readiness to Help scale is revised from a 36-item assessment of readiness for change (Banyard, Eckstein, and Moynihan, 2010), and re-named Readiness to Help. Designed to gauge participants’ awareness of a problem and their willingness to take responsibility for addressing it, the scale consists of 12 parallel items related to sexual abuse, relationship abuse, and stalking. It asks respondents to rate how likely they are to perform those actions on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (not at all likely) to 5 (extremely likely). This metric was broken down into subscales for Action, Responsibility, and Awareness.

Perceptions of Peer Helping drew on a series of 20 questions developed for this study that asked participants to indicate how likely their friends were to help in various ways in different situations, on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all likely) to 5 (extremely likely).

Intent to Help Friends and Intent to Help Strangers uses a set of 38 actions related to helping friends and 41 actions related to helping strangers to measures attitudes or willingness to help in situations where there is risk for sexual assault or relationship abuse. It is based on a shorter, 51-question scale by Banyard (2008) that showed good reliability and construct validity.

Bystander behaviors directed at friends and strangers was assessed using a set of 49 actions related to helping friends and 49 actions related to helping strangers that could be taken in situations where there is an apparent risk for sexual assault or relationship abuse. This scale builds on an earlier, shorter version developed by Banyard (2008).

The results from this study indicate that “readiness to help…, intent to be an active bystander, self-reported bystander responses, and perceptions of peer norms in support of action all showed adequate reliability and validity” (101).

The researchers also noted that this particular study relied on notions of what helping looks like in a university context, and was designed with a student lifestyle in mind, where attending parties features prominently. As assessment measures mature, researchers will need new evaluation strategies that reflect different cultural contexts. The metrics developed in this study, and related ones, are available in full on PIRC’s website http://cola.unh.edu/prevention-innovations-research-center/evidence-based-initiatives#BEM. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Banyard, V.L. (2015). Toward the Next Generation of Bystander Prevention of Sexual and Relationship Violence: Action Coils to Engage Communities. New York, NY: Springer Publications.

Banyard, V. L., Moynihan, M. M., Cares, A. C., & Warner, R. (2014). How Do We Know If It Works? Measuring Outcomes in Bystander-Focused Abuse Prevention on Campuses. Psychology of Violence 4: 101-115.

Banyard, V. L. (2008). Measurement and Correlates of Prosocial Bystander Behavior: The Case of Interpersonal Violence. Violence and Victims, 23, 83– 97.

Banyard, V. L., Eckstein, R. P., & Moynihan, M. M. (2010). Involving Community in Sexual Violence Prevention: The Role of Stages of Change. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25, 111–135.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander Education: Bringing a Broader Community Perspective to Sexual Violence Prevention, Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 61-79.

Embracing Digital Bystander Intervention

By Nora Draper, Ph.D

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This past week, a horrific story highlighted the complicated relationship between social media, sexual assault, and bystander intervention. An 18-year old Ohio woman has been indicted on multiple charges, including rape and distribution of sexual materials involving a minor, for broadcasting the rape of another young woman with the live-streaming app Periscope.

Mobile app Periscope allows people to stream real-time video to viewers around the world. This use of Periscope to broadcast an incident of sexual assault is a recent example of social media platforms being used to facilitate and publicize abuse. Stories about cyberbullying, revenge porn, and fraping (taking over someone’s social media profile without their knowledge or consent), show how digital and mobile tools have the potential to enable online harassment. Despite the qualifier “digital” or “cyber,” the consequences of digital harassment almost always cross the largely artificial boundaries between the online and offline worlds.

Certainly, digital platforms have the potential to facilitate anti-social and even illegal behaviors. The story above, however, calls attention to the important and often overlooked ways that social media tools can be—and often are—deployed to support positive practices. In an act of digital bystander intervention, a viewer who saw the Periscope feed reportedly contacted authorities to report the rape. As prevention campaigns turn their attention to the role bystanders can play by intervening to deter or stop sexual assault, there is an opportunity to rethink how digital and mobile technologies are already used as tools for intervention, and incorporate these strategies into intervention campaigns. Indeed, as Communication researcher Carrie Rentschler has recently written, online bystanders can themselves be culpable in the perpetration of digital violence.

Smartphones, which are in the pockets of 85% of young adults, are often seen as encouraging frivolous behavior. Such framing, however, ignores smartphones’ empowering potential as tools for media production and accessing information. Given the ubiquity of these devices, it is essential that bystander intervention campaigns begin to focus on how these tools can turn witnessing into digital and mobile action.

Digital bystander intervention need not be exclusively the kind of crisis intervention witnessed in the story above. Bystander intervention programs, such as the University of New Hampshire’s Bringing in the Bystander ® In-Person Prevention Program, focus on the need for intervention along the spectrum of abuse, from microaggressions to sexual violence. The digital environment is full of opportunities for intervention. From the comments sections under news articles to social media pages, there are myriad platforms for small forms of digital bystander intervention. The types of intervention often marginalized as slacktivism— actions such as voting down sexist content, flagging harassing posts for review, and posting supportive comments—all have the potential to support a growing culture of digital intervention.


Nora_Draper_HeadshotNora Draper, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of New Hampshire. Her research examines the complexities of authenticity, privacy, identity, and reputation in the digital era through frames of cultural theory, critical institutionalism, and public policy. Her work explores how identity, particularly gender, race, class, and sexuality, shape experiences of privacy, surveillance, and visibility in a digital environment. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Communication, Critical Studies in Media Communication, the Journal of Children and Media, and Surveillance & Society.