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Guest blog: Is a bystander approach the much-needed response to sexual harassment?

"The most common way that people give up power, is by thinking they don’t have any."

— Alice Walker

The above quote is a powerful one, and one I refer to time and time again, in many aspects of my work. My interpretation of the quote is simple, and centres on how easy it is for any one of us to accept a situation as it is, not seeing any way to change it.

The use of the word situation is important here. In many cases it is the situation that impacts on the person’s behaviour. The quote looks at a person’s inability to change the situation. In other cases, the situation can cause people to act in ways that are alien to their normal way of thinking. For example, in his research on ‘evil’, the psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, noticed that it was often the situation that seemed to have something to do with a person’s behaviour; even very good people, if experiencing poverty, might commit crimes out of pure necessity.

Alice Walker’s quote is still relevant, and its meaning can be seen in many other social situations which cause people to do things (as described by Zimbardo), or as we are seeing more and more in the world, do nothing.

The ongoing #Metoo story continues to communicate to the world the impact of sexual harassment on girls and women. Whilst the behaviour of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and other ‘powerful’ men continues to be the focus, it is clear that those who have shared the now well-known hash tag are not just celebrities. They are sisters, wives, friends, classmates and work-colleagues. As a man, they are people close to me, people I care about.

It is all too clear that the likes of Weinstein and others have been helped, not only by the power they abuse, but by the ‘inaction’ of others. The lack of action by those around the perpetrators of sexual violence in many ways has contributed to the situation. This clear lack of action has created the situation for abuse to be committed and continued. In no way am I apportioning blame on an individual’s silence. More, it helps us focus on ways to prevent abuse.

Society seems to find it easier to focus on the ‘doer’, and not the situation. In the words of Zimbardo again, the ‘bad apples’ will not exist if we focus on the ‘bad barrels’ (the situation). In many ways, a society's inaction is the system that has supported the likes of Weinstein. In many ways, we hold the key to long term prevention. As is often said, It’s on us. So, what can be done?

Let’s start with some good news.

It’s clear the majority of men are sickened, both what they have read and importantly most men are sickened with what is happening to the women they care about. The problem is that they often don’t realise that oth