Hollaback! and other bystander interventions and related training programs are hailed as a way that folks can stand up against racism, misogyny, and other forms of harassment. They provide a number of strategies to protect the target of bad behavior and to let the attackers know that they’re doing something wrong. Their strategies work in all sorts of settings, but I’m concerned here mainly about street harassment where there aren’t the sorts of rules we can expect somewhere like the workplace.
I love the idea. By providing friendly cover for a potential victim, a diversion away from a target, or a straight up challenge to a harasser, there’s a lot of potential to defuse a potentially nasty situation. Even just visibly witnessing a negative interaction, including by grabbing some cell phone video of it for law enforcement use or to share with the victim, can result in stopping the harassment or getting an attacker prosecuted later on, not to mention potential positive mental health benefits for the victim when they are able to see what has happened instead of believing they imagined it. A fair number of perpetrators are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to get in a little dig, instead of being committed attackers. Those types aren’t looking for trouble in the form of victims or bystanders fighting back against them, so any kind of friction you can cause them can keep the situation from going further. The attack is thwarted, the victim is supported, and someone – maybe you – gets to be a hero.
That’s not all of them. Whether an attacker’s starting goal is to cause actual injury or they become determined to do so because of resistance or intervention, some incidents that look like simple harassment can turn violent quickly. That’s especially true when the intervention is interpreted as some kind of challenge to the attacker’s ego, so they feel the need to defend their honor even if they weren’t originally invested in the harassment. In those cases, the victim may still get hurt or may even get more hurt than they might have otherwise. Even worse, the person intervening may get hurt. The attacker might stop at shoving the intervener away, but they might escalate all the way to using a gun, knife, or other weapon against them. Because that’s the thing about intervention: any time you get involved in someone else’s circus, there are consequences. They may be positive, and certainly that’s what we hope for when we step in to try to keep someone from getting hurt. But like stepping in on any other tense situation, those consequences may be negative and you should be aware of that before you act so that you won’t be surprised and unprepared.
If you come up on what looks like a person being harassed, you don’t actually know what’s going on. It may look like a simple case of one stranger bothering another and while it could indeed be that, it could also be anything from two friends ragging on each other to a person abusing an intimate partner to a victim having gained higher ground over their attacker. Getting involved may be unwelcome but result in nothing more than embarrassment for everyone involved. At the other end of the spectrum, your intervention may be unwelcome, and cause either or both the original attacker or victim to violently turn on you. Unfortunately, the latter isn’t as uncommon as we’d all like. Being careful to understand what is going on, and ensuring that you maintain both distance and a readiness to defend yourself, can be vital to ensuring that an intervention goes well. After all, the last thing you want to do is make a situation worse.
The folks involved aren’t the only ones who could turn into trouble. If the attacker has friends nearby or if you are the lone voice speaking up against an attack, those friends or the crowd around you might not take kindly to you stepping in. It’s true that sometimes, all it takes is one person deciding that enough is enough for everyone to create the peer pressure to shame a harasser into silence. It’s also true that sometimes, the folks around might have at least stayed neutral until they got offended by one person trying to ruin their entertainment or raise a stink about something they originally didn’t notice or didn’t care about. This is especially important when you aren’t on your home ground, familiar with the atmosphere of the setting you’re in. Before you decide to intervene, have you taken a good look at who’s around? Are you prepared to deal with an angry mob turned against you? What if you have loved ones with you?
After the fact, whether you successfully divert an incident or not, you may face non-physical consequences. Some of them may come up whether or not you get involved at all, like regretting your action or inaction. Only you can decide what kinds of incidents you can’t stomach and are willing to take the risk to step in, and which ones you are willing to walk away from. Others are more specific to making yourself part of it, like the fact that you may gain social media fame you weren’t looking for or even end up in the news. Are you okay with that? How about your family, or your employer? You might have to be part of a police investigation or a criminal prosecution, even more so if you end up having to physically defend yourself or the original victim against violence from the original attacker. There is a real and potentially significant cost there, at a minimum in terms of time and stress, even if you are nothing but a witness and even if you are morally right in all ways for what you did. In extreme cases, you may even face retaliation from the perpetrator, their friends, or those who are sympathetic to them.
You might feel selfish for seeing bad behavior and not doing or saying anything, for finding the fastest exit away and not even being a good witness. You might wonder how you would live with yourself if you let another person be harassed in your presence, and what it means to that person that someone who could have helped did not. Those are good things to wonder – you just need to wonder along with wondering whether you can face all of the potential downsides of intervening. The same risk matrices and the same pro/con lists that you use to decide whether anything at all is worth doing apply here too, and it’s important to remember all of the factors you need to balance, from who and what the victim and harasser look like, to the other people who are part of the scene with you, to your own training and preparation to deal with a situation spiraling from mocking words to deadly violence against you or another.
Trying to divert, stop, or witness harassment of any kind is a noble endeavor and it can have wonderful effects in ending cycles of bad behavior. It’s not for everyone, though, and that’s okay. It’s totally acceptable to worry about intervention gone wrong because that really does happen, and it’s totally acceptable to decide that risk is not for you, or not for you in a certain time and place because at the end of the day, it’s okay to prioritize you going home to your own life first.