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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 other men feel this way. Similarly, it’s also clear that majority of men would respect someone who intervenes, but believes that others would not.

The situation I describe above, whilst in many ways positive, is peppered with negatives. We have good men who are remaining silent. Whilst we have the basis for action, fears including retaliation, loss of face, embarrassment, even threats to career progression are contributing to this inaction.

Because men who commit these forms of abuse respect the views of other men more than women, it’s men that have the advantage in interrupting sexism and violence against women. In simple terms, we need to create the right situation for all these good men to stand up, show moral courage and act.

A policy, that communicates measures to tackle sexual harassment, whilst important, will on its own, not help men demonstrate the leadership that is needed. Many settings, including workplaces and educational institutions, would benefit greatly from starting conversations on these subjects. That way, men can start to see that they are not alone in their disgust. It is clear that if one person is uncomfortable, others will be to. Unless opportunities are created, people will remain silent.

Discussions on these subjects will start to break down the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ we know that exists in groups. Otherwise known as the bystander effect, discussions will help people understand why people remain silent. As I mention above, discussion will provide much needed reassurance that an individual is not alone in their feelings. A false consensus exists in the world, where a majority of people feel like they are in the minority and where, a minority of people feel they represent a majority. This needs to change.

It may be that a discussion will inspire that one person to show the responsibility to counter the bystander effect. As I discuss in my talk in 2017 at the Hero Roundtable in Michigan (, one person CAN do so much.

Furthermore, these discussions will help stimulate the potential for us all to be that person the world needs. For me how we develop our ability to both support and challenge others will bring the changes we so need in the world.

We all possess the ability to be that friend, that colleague, that member of society, indeed the hero the world needs. For me the first step is to ‘do the knowledge’. If we are tackling sexual harassment learn about it. What is it? What does it look like? That way we can recognise it. Secondly talk about the issue with friends and colleagues. The discussions I refer to above will support this and help reassure you that you are not alone in how you feel.

Nobody likes direct confrontation, in fact we often do our utmost to avoid it. However, it is essential, for our own emotional state, that we develop some ability to stand firm for what we believe in.

Most of those ‘some men’ who perpetrate sexual harassment of sexual assault begin these behaviours long before we ever meet them. As discussed above, it’s our silence which helps create the perfect climate for them to continue with their behaviour. There are many ways that we can respond. We simply need to create the space to have these conversations. While this may appear time-consuming or a distraction from the ‘day-job’, ask yourself what could be benefited through these conversations?

A safe and supportive work-place or learning environment is one that is productive, attractive to join, friendly, civil and successful. We all have a role to play to reverse the culture of harassment.

Alice Walker’s quote suggests that we give up power by thinking we don’t have any.

We all have the power to do something – don’t ever think to the contrary.

Graham Goulden was a Scottish Police officer for 30 years. For the last 8 years he was a key member of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Throughout his police career he interviewed many people who had witnessed violence. Many would often say to him, “I knew something was going to happen.” His time in the VRU provided him with the opportunity to develop a good working knowledge of how engaging bystanders could help prevent violence.

Since retiring from policing, Graham has set up his business Cultivating Minds UK. Graham provides a range of training which seeks to engage those around both victims and perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence and bullying. Graham has successfully delivered these trainings in workplaces, universities and in sports settings across the UK, the US and in Europe. Graham is an associate trainer with MVP Strategies and the Heroic Imagination Project based in the United States. Contact by email at:


Indicator 2.3.1 of the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault Instrument in the ProtectED Code of Practice requires member universities to take a whole university approach to educating and training staff and students, helping to prevent incidents of sexual violence on campus.

The views and opinions expressed by authors of Guest Blog posts and by those providing comments do not necessarily reflect those of ProtectED. Information on products or services is provided “as is” with no warranties, and confers no rights.

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