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Guest blog: Intervening in harassment

I don’t know how to deal with harassment on public transport. I’ve been harassed on buses and tubes, I’ve read lots of advice on what should and shouldn’t be done. And I want, desperately, to be the kind of person who can step up and intervene if I see it happening. But I get it wrong. I’ve sometimes successfully helped out, other times I will try to say something and – heart hammering and adrenaline pumping – I will say the wrong thing, say it too quietly, or phrase it badly, and make a terrible situation worse.

This week’s guest blog is about that – intervening in harassment. It’s not about being a hero or getting everything right, and I think that’s why it touched me so much. It’s about not knowing what to do, but knowing that you have to do something.

Intervening in harassment

Yesterday I watched possibly the worst day of someone’s life, and now I can’t sleep.

It’s 8 o’clock in the evening, and I’m on the tube on my way into town. I’m reading adverts and listening to music, checking my phone for a signal to send a text I was composing before we went underground. The carriage is slowly filling up with a post-work crowd, and opposite me a man in his early fifties and a woman in her mid twenties arrive together and sit down next to each other.

Given that my battery is low, I’m trying to avoid playing with my phone. I haven’t brought a book either. I’m caught between people watching and not wanting to stare: this is London after all. She’s looking a bit glum, shit day at work (she seems dressed for the office), boyfriend dumped her, something like that. The older guy must be a relation, or work colleague. I move on to the reflections of the pair next to me in the window opposite: younger, student age, two bottles of cheap wine wrapped in a carrier bags like they must have seen on American TV. I bet I’d hate them if I met them.

After a couple more stops, the woman opposite looks more distressed than before. She’s head down, and shrunken, and I notice the older dude being a bit closer than a co-worker. They must be a couple. Big age difference though? I shouldn’t judge. Maybe they’re having an argument.

Maybe he’s being a creep.

She looks really unhappy. I try and catch her eye to mouth “You OK?”, but she’s frozen up. I turn down my headphones, to try to listen in.

Can’t hear what he’s saying.

Something’s not right here, and I’m a chickenshit, and I’m worried about causing a fuss.

Another stop goes by. She gets smaller.

Now I’m sure this is not good. I spend another stop trying to think what to do, I should do something. I’ve heard the stories of loved ones in similar situations. How one man’s flirtation is a woman’s cornered fear, wondering if he’s going to follow her home. How – broken and frozen – saying “please leave me alone” is as likely as suddenly taking flight.

Now I’ve formed a plan, I’m going to try and draw his attention away from her, without bringing her into it. I dread him turning to her and saying “We’re just having a bit of fun aren’t we love?” Simultaneously a transmission of “We’re OK aren’t we?”, and a received instruction of “Just tell the man we’re OK.”

I pluck up my courage, my heart is racing, I pop out a headphone and ask him “What was that station, I missed it?”

He leans into the aisle towards me, “Manor house I think mate, or possibly …” I zone out. I hadn’t planned any further than that, fuck fuck fuck. Smalltalk, I suck at it at the best of times. I’m still worried I’m making a dick of myself by interrupting a perfectly innocent chat. Think think think.

“Where you headed?”, not quite segued in there.
“Oxford circus” he replies.
“Oh, same here” I instantly regret saying. I’ll still need to pad for another 3 stops.

“How do you know each other?” I blurt out, accidentally getting to the fucking point.

“Oh we’re just flirting. She say’s she’s got a boyfriend, but I’m still going to give it a flirt!” He replies, getting way more to the fucking point than I could possibly have imagined.

He leans back and strokes her hand, she looks terrified.

At this point, caught unaware by the clarity of his response, I get lost in the moment, the plan goes out of the window.

“Erm, can you not? She’s clearly not comfortable with this.” These are possibly the most confrontational words that have ever come out of my mouth. Their mediocrity fill me with remorse.

Surprisingly they seem to do the trick, he looks surprised but not aggressive, I follow up with qualifications, ever desperate to defuse and downgrade.

“You may not be able to see from there, but from here she looks really uncomfortable, just can you not.”
To my surprise, he says “oh, thanks”, and backs off a little.
“No worries” I reply. Confused.

As soon as it was said I felt icky that I was talking about her and not to her, but I’m rolling on panic and adrenalin.

I start pretending to play with my phone, the screen’s not even on. I have no idea why I do this.

He starts talking at her again, and I ignore it. I don’t know why. We’re on the final leg to the stop we both get off at.

I wait for him to get up first. He tries to shake her hand, I glare, he drops it and gets up. I follow, mumbling an apology “sorry if I made things worse”, she says thanks, or just did a look that said something similar. I can’t remember. She’s not really present.

I wish I had time to make sure she was going to get home OK, to make sure she had someone waiting for her, to tell her that it was totally shit, and it’s OK to feel however she felt. I’m more focused on making sure he gets off the train, and then not getting stabbed to death or stalked to where I’m meeting my other half.

In the end he seems to be dawdling inside the car, waiting for me to leave first. I put my arm behind him and nudge him forward, he turns, literally and figuratively “Don’t push me!” he shouts, more aggressive. I stay calm in my tone, mostly out of lack of time to change gears than anything else, “not pushing, just ushering.”

He’s placated: “oh, alright then.”

I’m surprised it worked.

We get off the train. He tells me I’m “an OK guy”, and “ballsy” as we ride up the escalator. I make small talk, ask him what he does. Do some patter and diffusion about how we all sometimes hit on people and don’t see that we’re scaring the shit out of them, and we all need an outside nudge to tell us we’re doing it wrong. We do small talk, jobs, first names, when we moved to London. We shake hands.

By the time we part ways, he thinks he did a minor wrong, and a stranger helped him out by pointing out he was coming on too hard.

Yesterday I watched possibly the worst day of someone’s life, and now I can’t sleep. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.

I bet he’s sleeping fine.

I wish I’d been ballsy enough to tell him that she won’t be.

I wish this was written about her, and not about me.

I hope she’s OK.

I’m incredibly grateful to this guest blogger for sharing this story, because I have been in very similar situations before. If you have been in this situation too – as many of us have – you might find these tips useful on bystander responses to harassment. There’s some good advice here too in a piece that tackles racist harassment. If you have any other useful tips and advice, please do share them in the comments. 

8 Comments

  • Rachael says:

    You did good, you did something. Its not easy to know the best way to handle something, but you not only intervened but also told him what he was doing wrong. Here’s hoping your voice is in his head next time he tries something similar

  • Jamiebear says:

    I saw advice online that suggested engaging with the person being harassed and thus excluding the shitbag harasser was the way to go… but that’s aimed at women protecting other women. I’m a bloke. I’m fairly convinced that no woman is going to be delighted that a unwanted bloke has appeared to knock the first unwanted bloke out of the frame, even with my “what would I do?” considered opening line of “Oh, you’ve got [X] there, just like my husband!”

    I think I’d end up being like the guest poster: having to appear to be on the side of the shitbag in order to remove him. That’s assuming I’d intervene and not be a coward: something I worry about (the joy of living and working in semi-rural suburbia in Northern England is that I’ve not had to deal with this in adulthood).

    I like to think, as a feminist and a proudly open gay man, that I’d know what to do. Hell, as a man, I’ve been brought up to believe that I always know what to do, and should offer my advice to women whether they want it or not, because men solve problems. What I pile of crap. I actually have no idea.

    I make sure I cross the road away from any lone woman walking at night: that seems better than slowly gaining on a woman walking in front of me or ploughing on toward a woman on a dark street. Once, when there was no pavement on the other side of a busy and frighteningly dark road, I staged a pretend conversation on my phone in the campest voice I could manage about how much I loved getting dragged up with the other boys. It wasn’t exactly Oscar™ material, but it made *me* feel better. I hope she felt better about the guy walking 500 yards behind her too… but I doubt it.

  • DG says:

    Seems to me that what this blogger did was smart, quick-thinking and brave. I wonder how many of us could manage the same.

    As for the woman and the man – you made her day less bad than it might have been, and that’s something, and even if he didn’t grasp how much bad he did, what he did grasp from talking to you may still save the days of other women, even lead him to greater understanding.

  • I posted this a while ago in response to reports of increased racist harassment post-Brexit: http://peterenglish.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/how-to-respond-to-racist-attacks-and.html

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you so much Peter – that’s incredibly helpful. Will add a link in the main piece as well, so more people can see it. Thanks again.

  • SweetTheSting says:

    Thank you for doing something

    GOTN, thanks for the link to the advice

  • New to this says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m sure you did help and I hope in time you can be a little kinder to yourself and see your contribution differently. I think posts like these really help to raise awareness that our reactions to situations are not always “perfect” or linear. I’m so sick of hearing people say stuff like “why didn’t you just do X”, or “if that was me I would have done Y”. It just doesn’t always work out like that when we are confronted with intimidating or new situations and we do the best we can with the toolset we have at that point in time. Best wishes to you and the girl in your post xx

  • Rebecca says:

    From a professional view point calm and rational which is exactly how you dealt with it. If it became confrontational then obviously a different outlook and the fight or flee scenario comes into play. Always start on the bottom rung as if people are shouting etc if you remain calm (although internally panicking) then it makes it harder for them to maintain the shouting.

    I wish there were more aware people such as yourself. What could of become a nightmare situation for the female was prevented x

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