One day last summer, a woman racially harassed Tracy Hyatt (The Yards Contributing Editor) in downtown Edmonton. The woman, who Hyatt says was a total stranger, approached her and some of her friends who were standing near the Grandin LRT station. And then she called Hyatt a slur. Hyatt was the only African-Canadian person in the group, so it was clear the slur was lobbed at her. But nobody called the stranger on her actions.
“I was quite surprised that, following the Make Something Awkward campaign, not one person said anything,” Hyatt says. “There were at least 10 people in the vicinity that saw and heard this go down.” Since no one came to her defense, Hyatt stood up for herself and said something to her harasser, who she says then backed down.
Experts say there are right and wrong ways to deal with harassment. Doing nothing, though the easiest play, is never the best option.
Harassment is a singular word for a range of behaviours, from the obvious (a verbal slur or physical touch) to the subtle (a vaguely threatening note, consistent belittling from a colleague). It can follow you anywhere, from the sidewalk to the bus, to your workplace, and even home. And it can be defined as aggression, pressure or intimidation. Victims often feel like they can’t speak up or defend themselves. But just as there are different types of harassment, there are also different techniques to handle it.
Here’s a quick guide to what experts say are the best responses are to different types of harassment.
If you witness someone being verbally harassed, direct intervention is just one of the actions you can take, says Mary Jane James, executive director of Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). Saying something along the lines of, ‘Hey, that’s not cool. That’s not okay, please stop,’ can work, she says. Other techniques include engaging with the person being harassed to de-escalate the situation, or asking someone else to help you intervene. It’s also important to report the behaviour to a bus driver, security guard or other authority figure where the harassment is taking place. And it’s vital you document what you witnessed, James says, and check in with the victim. “After the fact, it can be helpful to simply ask the person if they are okay, if there is anything that you can do.”
As the fallout of #MeToo illustrates, harassment often takes place among colleagues in a workplace environment. But people don’t always recognize negative behaviours like bullying, name-calling, belittling or intimidation, as harassment. It’s also something that can be challenging to speak up about, particularly if the behaviour is coming from someone in a senior position to the victim. In situations where someone is bullying a co-worker, having co-workers on your side can make a big difference. But both victims and bystanders often choose not to speak up for a number of reasons. “Self-preservation, not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, fear of losing their job, fear of being ostracized by other employees, fear of losing friends, fear of not being considered for a promotion … the list is endless,” James says.
If you are the one being harassed, naming the behaviour is a good first step, James says. “Say what he’s done and be specific. Hold the person accountable for his actions,” she says. “Don’t make excuses. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Ask that the behaviour stop. One should also seriously consider filing of an internal complaint within their organization. Documenting the harassment is important.”
ACTION: DISTANCE AND TRAINING
The harassment that’s easiest to recognize is physical harassment. If you or someone near you is in physical danger from a harasser who appears to be violent there are ways to handle the situation without escalating things. One simple step is to create distance between yourself and the harasser, says Randy King, owner of KPR Combat, a gym in Oliver that offers self-defense classes. “Don’t be there. If someone is harassing you and you can leave, then do that,” he says. There are also ways you can build self-confidence and physical skills to prepare for dealing with a potentially violent situation. KPR offers Self-Defense 101, a crash course for those with little to no martial-arts experience. The gym also has a more advanced course, which offers a look at the psychological aspects of self-defense, as well as more physical scenarios.
King says people who come to KPR for self-defense training sometimes share “very personal stories” about their experiences with violence. He believes self-defense training can give individuals the confidence they need to deal with harassment, even though they will hopefully never have to use the skills they have learned. “Self-defense training is a lot like a spare tire: You may never need it but if you need it and don’t have it, you are in trouble,” he says.
Strangers, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, partners – basically anyone can sexually harass someone else. This makes sexual harassment one of the more pervasive types that both men and women face. The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton is a not-for-profit organization that provides trauma-informed services and support to victims of all genders over the age of three. In 2017, they received more than 3,500 calls to their 24-hour hotline, and they had about 1,000 new clients who access counselling services. Approximately 80 per cent of their clients are female.
Like workplace harassment, documentation is an important step to take if you are being sexually harassed or witness someone else experiencing it, James says. Whether you report the harassment to SACE or the police, having a paper trail can prove valuable if the problem persists. Having someone to talk to is also an essential part of accepting what happened and moving on from it.
MEN AND HARASSMENT
Whether or not they have experienced harassment themselves, men play an important role in preventing it. That’s why SACE began offering an extensive program to several junior and senior high schools in areas that are more vulnerable and “at risk” about a year ago, James says. “Part of the program is teaching and mentoring these boys to be leaders, to be actively involved in the mentoring and education of their peers on issues of consent, healthy relationships.”
There are currently more than 100 boys involved in the program across the city, and James says she hopes SACE will receive the funding to continue the program in years to come.
Of course, men of all ages can contribute to a positive environment where no one feels harassed. Education often plays a role in diffusing situations where harassment can easily come into play, such as someone’s work environment – especially in male-dominated industries where women may feel more pressure not to speak up. In addition to other programming, SACE offers a comprehensive professional public education program on sexual harassment in the workplace, something many businesses in the city have participated in.
There isn’t a one-size fits all solution to dealing with harassment. That’s mainly because harassment can take place in many forms, in many different areas of someone’s life. The main thing to remember is to take action.
Preventing harassment means challenging the social and cultural attitudes that condone and facilitate it. Everyone has to take a stand, James says. “Calling people out on their behaviour is the first step to eliminating the pervasiveness of this issue.”