Bystander Intervention To Combat Sexual Harassment And Assault
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Note: This article on bystander intervention is written primarily for men, based on a suggestion from the SafeOutside initiative, which is partnering with Trail Runner to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault in the outdoors. It may contain words, phrases, and/or ideas that are triggering to some people, including sexual-harassment and assault victims.
I want to convey at the outset that if you have experienced these behaviors directly or indirectly, or have had fear about them, you are seen, respected and not alone. You can find the number for the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline here, you can report your experience in SafeOutside’s national incident database and/or you can contact me or anyone else at Trail Runner if there is any way that we can provide confidential support. Thank you for your time, patience and understanding.
When I was asked to write an article on bystander intervention from a male perspective, my brain reacted with questions. “Why me? Are you sure?” I was scared of stepping in a pile of crap I knew little about. I was scared of overstepping my bounds.
I was scared.
And in learning more about bystander intervention, I learned that my fear is probably connected to the same impulses that may prevent male bystanders from taking action in the first place. Getting uncomfortable and confronting those feelings is how bystanders can help reduce the prevalence and severity of sexual harassment and assault.
Research shows that many women’s experiences can lead them to live with a certain amount of fear, and being outdoors is no exception. Often, they grow accustomed to the foreboding, ever-present awareness of unknown dangers, and the precautions they’ve learned to take may become instinctual.
I see it in training logs all the time: changing routes to run around a lit parking lot with security cameras, constantly having to be on edge in new surroundings, sometimes even avoiding new places or stopping running altogether. Stories of harassment and assault are too common. I hear about the fear from my wife, Megan, who considers things that would never cross my mind as I run shirtless through the woods, listening to music, oblivious to my surroundings.
Bystander intervention is about stepping up and speaking out through that discomfort so that there can be a future where everyone is safe outside.
No one should ever have to fear for their safety, on the trails or online or anywhere else. The principle of bystander intervention is that we all have a role to play to make our shared spaces safe. All men need to step up, educating ourselves to know the actions that may make a difference when it counts.
Yeah, it’s a bit uncomfortable to talk about. Yeah, we might make some missteps along the way (staring with me in this article). But our fears of rocking the boat are part of the problem. Bystander intervention is about stepping up and speaking out through that discomfort so that there can be a future where everyone is safe outside.
According to a 2020 review article in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, bystanders are people that witness incidents or warning signs of sexual harassment and assault, but are not directly involved in the interaction. Bystander education encourages individuals to intervene based on four steps: “(1) notice the event, (2) identify the situation as warranting intervention, (3) take responsibility for acting, and (4) know strategies for helping.”
While the line of causation from bystander education to intervention behavior is not 100% clear, the awareness of the importance of the topic is unarguable. Simply put: bystanders can prevent some harassment and assault, backed up by numerous studies, mostly in the college setting. And stopping even one assault is worth any amount of work needed to get there.
Simply put: bystanders can prevent some harassment and assault, backed up by numerous studies, mostly in the college setting. And stopping even one assault is worth any amount of work needed to get there.
Sexual harassment and assault are major problems in outdoor settings. A 2018 survey from Safe Outside found that 47% of women have experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault while climbing (compared to 16% of men). A 2019 follow-on survey showed a similar range of data in the outdoor industry at large. That includes catcalling, verbal harassment, unwanted following, flashing, unwanted touching, forcible kissing, unwanted sex acts and rape. Those experiences can have long-lasting psychological and behavioral impacts, from withdrawing from activities to depression to traumatic stress.
There are no specific statistics in trail running, but the problem is likely ubiquitous in the outdoors just as it is in society as a whole. Nearly every female and transgender runner I have coached has stories about feeling unsafe due to sexual harassment and/or sexual assault during runs. Those stories are individually unique, but all are horrible and inexcusable. We go to the trails for freedom, for play, for stress relief. Until sexual harassment and assault are eradicated from trail running and the outdoors, those freedoms will not be fully available to all.
A related problem extends to online interactions, where almost every female runner has to deal with unacceptable comments. Sometimes those comments are blatantly predatory, others may seem vaguely complimentary, but all can cause discomfort, stress and sometimes trauma. Women often describe an unease and background fear that can permeate online interactions. I have heard it said that an unsolicited comment on a woman’s body is a close cousin of direct messaging an unsolicited explicit image, and men need to understand that it’s not OK to make these types of comments online or in person.
Bystander Intervention 101
Bystander intervention rests on the principle that preventing sexual harassment and assault is everyone’s responsibility. Behaviors warranting intervention may be obvious in some cases, such as violence. In others, the bad behaviors may be less clear—like innuendo and unwanted advances or touching and online comments. If you are unsure, check in with the target of the perceived harassment or assault—something simple and unobtrusive like: “Hey, I noticed x, are you comfortable with that?” Even though the sexual harassment and assault actions fall on a spectrum, all demand action when it is safe to do so.
The AFSC lists Four D’s as possible interventions. Not every intervention is appropriate for every circumstance, but it’s good to familiarize yourself with the options. First, as a bystander you can distract with conversation or actions unrelated to the harassment. For example, if you see Jane being harassed by John, and particularly if you know Jane, you can ask her to help you with something at a different location.
Second, you can delegate by bringing in a third party, such as reporting an incident at the gym to a manager. Third, you can directly respond with verbal or physical confrontation, when appropriate—“Hey, John, talking to/about Jane in that way is really inappropriate.” Fourth, you can delay your actions to check in with the victim later to see if you can do anything to provide support, and to let them know that they are not alone.
The main principle is that silence is complicity—lack of action can translate to implicit approval that perpetuates the problem, and may even make a situation worse.
Bystander intervention requires making yourself known, taking cues from the person being harassed and staying safe yourself. The main principle is that silence is complicity—lack of action can translate to implicit approval that perpetuates the problem, and may even make a situation worse. So even if it’s “none of your business” or you have similar concerns about being “polite,” it’s important to say or do something unless it increases the danger or escalates the situation.
There are entire education courses on bystander intervention, and I am not an expert, so this is just a brief overview of some options. Please visit Safe Outside’s website for additional resources and examples, along with links to tutorials and education modules.
Safety Outside For Everyone
The main goals underlying all of our interactions related to sexual harassment and assault in the outdoors are being aware that there is a problem and that we all have a responsibility to stop it. Never play off bad behaviors or rationalize them as locker-room talk or trail talk or jokes, including on social media. If female and transgender athletes are more confident that the men they see on trails are allies who will speak up and act even when it’s uncertain or uncomfortable, it may add to feelings of safety. And based on the research conducted in colleges, we know bystander education and practices may reduce sexual harassment and assault.
Our desire to introduce bystander intervention is to ensure the trail running community is one composed of true allies. Allies go beyond the bare minimum of never doing or saying anything …
Our desire to introduce bystander intervention is to ensure the trail running community is one composed of true allies. Allies go beyond the bare minimum of never doing or saying anything that makes a fellow trail runner feel harassed or unsafe. Allies must step up and say something. We must act. We must provide an understanding, unconditionally supportive environment where sexual harassment and assault are recognized as the inexcusable evils that they are.
We say all the time that “we are in this together.” On the trails, that means that if even one person feels unsafe, then our whole community has a responsibility to carry that weight with us into every interaction we have. Bystanders, it’s time to work through any discomfort we might have at being wrong, or misunderstanding, or offending, both in our community interactions and online. It’s time to step up and step into the discomfort. It’s time to do our part to make all trail runners feel safe outside.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.