Bystander Intervention: What can I do if I spot someone being harassed in public?

Bystander intervention is when you witness another person in a potentially harmful situation and you take action to stop the harassment before it escalates.

If you spot someone being harassed, it’s better to take an active role to intervene than to ignore it. It’s been proven that when bystanders intervene to stop harassment, the chances of a situation escalating are significantly lower. Even if you aren’t sure if they are being harassed, it’s better to try to break up a suspicious situation than to remain silent. Remaining silent is like helping the offender commit the offense.

How to Spot Harassment

Public (street) harassment can take on many forms. It can be someone:

  • Standing too close to someone else and/or insisting on talking to them when they clearly don't want to engage.
  • Leering (prolonged staring in a malicious or threatening way) making vulgar gestures, exposing themselves sexually (public masturbation)
  • Mocking clothing (hijab, yarmulke, turban, or any other articles of clothing) and threatening or trying to remove it 
  • Telling someone they don’t have the right to be in a public space
  • Making racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, sexually explicit, and other derogatory comments 
  • Making unwelcome comments about their appearance, accent, sexuality, etc.
  • Whistling, barking, or making kissing noises
  • Following or sitting next to someone and blocking their path
  • Sexually touching or grabbing another person

The 5 Ds of Prevention 

Five impactful and safe actions you can take to stop harassment and defuse a situation is to follow the 5 Ds of Prevention from Right To Be. They recommend for you to always listen to and trust your instincts. If a situation feels off, it could be the beginning of something dangerous about to happen.


Distraction is a subtle and creative way to intervene when you see a situation developing. By interrupting the situation, you derail the attention of the harasser.

For example, let's say you see a woman being harassed by a man standing too close to her in a crowded bus and he insists on talking to her when her body language is saying she is not interested and uncomfortable. You could walk up to the woman and pretend to know her and ask her how she’s been. You can also pretend to be lost and needing directions.

You could say something like, “Excuse me, I need to get here (point at your phone), do you know if I’m going the right way?”. You might want to type a message on your phone that says “Are you ok?” and show the victim that you are checking up to make sure they are ok. If you feel safe, you can use your body to separate and stand or sit between her and the harasser to break up the situation. You can also simply ask for the time because your phone died. The idea is to get creative in coming up with an excuse to disrupt the harasser and the situation.

Don’t make eye contact or direct the conversation towards the harasser. Always talk to the victim directly and create a distraction. The person being targeted will likely catch on to what you’re doing. Once the harasser has stopped, make sure to ask the targeted person if they are ok and need any further help.

Even if you misjudge a situation and nothing dangerous was transpiring, it’s safer to take a chance and act on what you see


Asking for assistance is a form of delegation. You can ask for help from someone else if you don’t feel safe using the distraction method. Tell others around you what you see happening or tell the authorities directly what you are witnessing. Contact the bus drivers, transit employees, store or business staff, or call the authorities directly (police or 911). You can also find more tips on What can I do if I'm being harassed on the street or public transit?


Capture on video or with pictures what you are witnessing, but don’t post anything online without asking the victim first. Remember that recording the incident is for the victim and to help them prove what they went through. If they want the incident shared online then you can do so. Let them know you have the footage and ask them how they want you to share it with them or the public. 

When documenting the incident, try to film as much of the location and surrounding landmarks at the time of the incident. This can significantly benefit the victim when they are submitting the information for reporting purposes. Having the witness perspective is a great advantage.


Checking in on the victim by asking them if they are OK, after they experienced harassment can be an effective way to acknowledge what they’ve been through. It sends a message that it is not their fault and provides validation after an experience that can leave a victim feeling disturbed and insecure.

You can always ask the person:

  • Do you want to use my phone?
  • Do you want me to wait with you until authorities get here?
  • Do you want my contact info if you need a witness in case of filing a report?

Direct intervention is sometimes a last resort because it can put you at risk depending on the situation. In the direct approach you confront the harasser directly by calling out their negative actions directly:

  • “This is NOT OK. What you are doing is not acceptable!” 
  • “Leave them alone!”
  • “Making racist, or homophobic remarks is NOT OK!” 

If it seems unlikely that the person being harassed is going to speak up and is looking for others to speak up, this might be a good tactic to use. Always assess the situation first to ensure both you and the victim are physically safe if you choose to proceed with this tactic. 

Right to be 
is a global, people-powered organization, that aims to end harassment in public spaces. 

For more tips on what to do if you are being harassed on the street read What can I do if I'm harassed on the street or public transit?

For More Information

  • Take Action - Ways to stop street and public harassment. From 
  • Standup Against Street Harassment - Videos and resources on how to stop street harassment from Stand Up International. 
  • HeartMob - Resources for when you experience online harassment by hollaback!
  • Sexual Assault Help Lines to call: Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre,416-323-6040, Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre 416-495-2555, Assaulted Women’s Helpline 866-863-0511 
Last updated: January 31, 2023 4006555