How to Intervene If You Witness Street Harassment

Have you seen someone being harassed and simply looked away because you don’t know what to do? Learn how to safely intervene through Hollaback!’s free online training.

How to Intervene If You Witness Street Harassment
(Illustrated by Naomi Ushiyama; Indypendent / Creative Commons)

Imagine this scene: You are waiting for the subway on your way home. Suddenly, you see a man hold the hand of a young girl, tell her she is pretty and ask uncomfortable questions, like where she lives or what’s her number. The girl is in complete shock; it seems she can’t move. You feel the urge to speak up—but instead, you decide to stay silent. Perhaps you want to help but don’t know what to do. You may feel that if you intervene, you will compromise your own safety or escalate the harassment to violence and make everything worse. 

When witnessing an episode of street harassment, including sexual harassment, many people feel compelled to intervene, but have no idea how to do it. That is why a lot of people simply freeze up or end up looking away or ignoring it. 

Is there any way to take action and stand in solidarity with the target of the harassment without putting yourself in danger?

How to Intervene to Stop Street Harassment

Hollaback!—a global, people-powered movement to end harassment—offers free, one-hour, highly interactive trainings to teach people how to safely intervene when they see street harassment. Witnessing and not intervening could deep the trauma for the target and at the same time show the harassers that their behavior is okay. 

“There is a lot that we can do. And that is what this training is all about: giving people the tools that they need to end sexual and street harassment and tools that they can implement in their everyday lives,” said Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!.

During the trainings, participants will learn a clear, adaptable and expert-approved set of tools that include five strategies for intervention, known as the 5 D’s methodology: distract, delegate, document, delay and direct. The sessions will help to deepen understandings of street harassment and its impact. In addition, they’ll show you what to do if you’re worried the violence will turn on you, plus as how to react if you are the one experiencing an attack. 

These trainings are part of Hollaback!’s Stand Up Against Street Harassment program—created with the support of L’Oréal Paris, the NYC Commission on Gender Equity and the NYC Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. The goal of the program is to train 40,000 people in the U.S. to become “Upstanders” before the end of 2021 and 1,000,000 around the world. Ultimately, the idea is to build a culture where any form of attack in public spaces can be seen as unacceptable behavior.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Street Harassment Matters

Street harassment disproportionately targets women, girls, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups. Forms of harassment can include inappropriate gestures; staring; whistling; barking; following, receiving racist, sexual, homophobic and other derogatory comments; or comments about someone’s appearance or identity. More severe types of street harassment are experiences such as public exposure, groping, sexual touching, grabbing or public masturbation.

Throughout 2020, Hollaback! has trained over 5,000 people (and counting!) on how to safely intervene, with the goal of training 15,000 more before the end of the year. Every day of the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which runs from November 25 to December 10, Hollaback! will be hosting a daily training.

Exit polls conducted by the organization to people who have taken the trainings show that 98.8 percent of attendees feel there is at least one thing they can do the next time they witness harassment.

“I really appreciated the fact that as a woman of color, I was encouraged to intervene in safe ways that were completely appropriate to my current situation. We are in this together!”, a participant said. Another attendee added: “This training was so well-organized and empowering. It was so helpful to learn about the 5Ds, and I think they make a really great tool kit for everyone to reference when they see street harassment”

What about harassment in other spaces?

Currently, Hollaback! also offers other trainings that use bystander intervention strategies to prevent harassment in the workplace and to stop anti-black racist and anti-LGBTQ+ harassment. More recently, the list has included sessions on how to address anti-Asian/American and xenophobic harassment, how to be an ally when you witness online abuse and other trainings about conflict de-escalation during COVID-19, resilience and implicit bias.

Hollaback! has been working on ending street harassment since 2005, and the organization has collected over 15,000 stories of harassment all around the world to raise awareness about this issue. The Global Site Leader program, in which young organizers in over 15 countries push the conversation in their communities, is another of its key projects.

The final goal is to work together to take action against the traditional culture that makes harassment acceptable and create the safe and welcoming environment that we all deserve. 

Get caught up on the Ms. 16 Days of Activism collection.

You may also like:


Ana Velasquez is a journalist interested in utilizing media to increase public awareness about social issues. She is an anti-online harassment fellow at Hollaback and she also supports communications strategies in the organization. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Hollaback on Facebook: Hollaback!, Twitter: @ihollaback and Instagram: @ihollagram.