Intervention: what if you see someone being harassed?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

My ex once offered to buy a stranger’s shoes, to stop him from hassling me outside a restaurant. It was the weirdest method of stopping someone being harassed that I’d ever come across, and alongside being genuinely funny to me at the time, it also worked.

I can’t remember if I’ve told you this story before, so apologies if I have, but it starts outside an Italian restaurant. I’ve popped out for a cigarette after dinner, and as I’m scrolling through my phone a random guy comes up to me and starts chatting. He’s friendly, but I’m wary of strange, friendly men and I don’t want to talk to him, so I give him the ‘go away’ signals: awkward smiles, very short answers to his questions followed by immediately turning my attention back to my phone – you know the drill. But he will not leave me alone. And ‘friendly’ isn’t nice if you don’t back off when someone wants you to.

“Whatcha reading? Have you eaten? You here with anyone? Gizza smile.”

I turn back to my phone and keep reading it, occasionally saying ‘yep’, or ‘nope’ or ‘hmm’ and generally being as boring as I can in the hope that he’ll leave me alone.

My partner, sitting just inside the restaurant, clocks what’s happening. He leaves his jacket on a chair so the waiting staff don’t think we’ve done a runner on the bill, and pops out to join me and my unwanted friend.

“Nice shoes, mate!” he tells the guy, with ever-so-slightly-too-much enthusiasm. “I LOVE them! Oh my God I want some!”

The guy looks baffled, so my partner ups the ante.

“What’s that book you’re reading? Wow, I LOVE books! What’s it about? No, wait don’t tell me – let me guess! What’s your name? Are you from round here?”

The more baffled the stranger looks, the more enthusiastic my dude pretends to be. He assaults him with questions, blinds him with enthusiasm, and confuses him with kindness. All the while gradually manoeuvring his way between us. The stranger keeps trying to turn back to me, but my partner stands firm and holds his attention. He builds to offers of a hug, declarations of friendship and – eventually – an offer to buy this guy’s shoes. It’s at that point the dude realises he won’t be able to battle his way through this barrage of banter to get to me, and he flashes a grumpy look and fucks off.

I’d rather make a scene than see someone being harassed

This isn’t the only story I could tell you like this. There’s another one, where a very drunk man in a club tried to crack on to one of our friends, and she – visibly uncomfortable – desperately tried to back away from him as he pushed in to force a hug on her. My ex swept in with a beaming smile and a “Maaaaate! You giving out hugs? Let’s do it!” before enveloping the creepy stranger in his arms. The creepy stranger hugged him, smiled awkwardly, then left.

There are other stories like this – moments when he deployed baffling enthusiasm and hugs in order to defuse situations with strange men, and stop women from being harassed. Other stories, too, where he took a different tack. Once in a club we saw a couple leaning against a wall whose body language worried us a fair bit. It was hard to make out through smoke and lighting and all the booze we’d drunk, but both he and I were nervous: the woman was trapped against the wall and the guy had his hand against her throat. She wasn’t fighting him, or crying, or looking distressed, but from where we were standing we couldn’t work out if they were being publicly passionate and kinky, or if she might be in genuine danger. While I – worried about ‘making a scene’ or getting in trouble – was busy wringing my hands over whether to intervene, my dude just strode up to them, stood behind the guy, and waved his arms at the woman. Mouthing “are you OK?” over the thump of the music. And she was. Her boyfriend was really pissed off, but my ex didn’t mind.

“I’d rather have both of them think I’m a weird dickhead than have him think he can hurt her in public and no one will care.”

I’m not telling you this story to encourage you to do the same thing. Some situations will be dangerous, and require more caution. Other situations require backup: a trusted friend, a person in authority who is trained in how to help, etc etc. Nor am I telling you this guy was the King of Intervention and everyone else should bow before him. I don’t, in fact, know why I’m telling you these stories right now. I just know that this post has sat in my drafts for two years, as I desperately hunt for a way to end it that sounds wise and sincere and helpful.

But there isn’t one golden rule for intervening in harassment that will guarantee the situation gets resolved. There is only a desperate wish that no one should ever need to, and gratitude for those who can and do. Then also – oh God also – a hope that by cultivating that gratitude, and watching those who do it, one day I’ll be better at doing it myself.

The After Times are coming, and with them an explosion of social excitement – pubs and gigs and picnics and waiting for buses at midnight. And along with the fun, there’ll be fear. There’ll be more people being harassed and more moments when we get to make the decision as to whether we’ll stand by or whether we’ll intervene. Just as I hope to be braver in the fun things I do – dreaming about activities I’d have been too scared to say ‘yes’ to before Covid – so I hope I’ll be braver in tackling the scary shit too.



  • katerina says:

    I’m glad you finished this one. Thanks for sharing.

  • Aaron says:

    This one is definitely worth having a good think about, which I will, but in the meantime, thank you for writing it, and while it’s regrettable that it was so long before you felt able to publish, I can completely understand why, and I’m very glad you now have. Thank you.

  • Chee says:

    In the spirit of gratitude and positivity: thanks indeed for finishing this one and posting it.
    Not only is it always great to read you, the (albeit indirect) advice in this one is particularly welcome.

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