The Role of the Bystander in Sexual Harassment Cases


Trigger warning: Sexual harassment 

Sexual harassment, violence, abuse, and assault…there are so many forms of how to hurt someone, both mentally and physically. One of the worst things is that it can occur anywhere, in any community, space, and as part of any type of relationship. 

Once it takes place, sometimes there is a binary of victims/abusers drawn up, as if there are no other components. I came to think about this after I encountered sexual harassment during my undergraduate degree and how my fellow club activity members reacted. 

Imagine if you were a bystander of sexual harassment; what would you do? How would you react to it?

Sharing my story

First, I would like to start by sharing my own story. I was a member of an extracurricular club at university, a volunteer service for nurseries, schools, and welfare facilities. I found myself enjoying the club activities overall, except for the fact that the senior and younger members said sexual remarks about me and some of them were physically abusive.

This sort of atmosphere – the members called “tradition” or “culture” of the club – had been an issue since I was a freshman. During the four years of service in the club, I encountered hundreds of – or even more – sexual harassment cases on a daily basis.

I was fed up with being abused and didn’t want anyone to go through the same experience, so I decided to share my history of being harassed. The confession became a controversy. But I thought that this would bring a change in the nature of the club, and no one would be harmed afterwards.

Comments from the sidelines: “You are just playing the victim”

Unfortunately, things did not go as intended. The first thing that came from my story were voices from the members who were in the middle of job-hunting, blaming me as “it could ruin my job-hunting if companies acknowledged this”. The group chat became a place for active discussions and comments. They went on like:

  • “You are just playing the victim.”
  • “You should have educated us.”
  • “You screwed the fun and the members’ joy to belong to this club by showing them the dark side.” 
  • and on and on…

Most importantly, all those comments were not made by the active abusers; instead by the bystanders within the club.

This experience felt horrible partly because the confession (done with the hope of stopping sexual harassment) didn’t work out. But primarily because of the dismissive comments of my fellow members. However, it made me reflect on how victims are seen by bystanders and what is needed to solve sexual harassment issues within the community. So, in an attempt to get something out of my horrible experience, I decided to write a graduation thesis on this topic.

My research into the role of bystanders within the community

My graduation thesis focused on the analysis of a survey for undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university. The study used an anonymous online questionnaire via Google Forms, and a parallel anonymous self-administered questionnaire, distributed and completed during lectures at universities in the Kansai region, with the cooperation of each university teacher. 

The questionnaire’s content included the demographics of the respondents, questions to measure the assessment of the attribution of fault to the victim, and what should be done after an incident of sexual harassment (offering a response after reading a scenario).

What my research showed me

The takeaways from the graduation thesis and the survey include: 

  1. The relationship between the respondents’ attributes and the attribution of fault to the victim showed differences in the results for all gender groups, positions, and years of service. More female respondents than male respondents, those who held executive positions than other members, and 15-16% of those who belonged to club activities for three years or less showed the attribution of fault to the victim.
  2. More females and senior management (president, vice president and treasurer) wanted to solve the problems within the organisation. The fact that those with management experience, such as the president, tended to want to solve the problem internally makes it difficult for club members to seek advice from outside, even when they have been victimised. It means that the problem can only be solved through the self-cleansing process of the organisation itself.
  3. In response to sexual harassment, 10.7% of male respondents and 2.2% of female respondents said they would “quit the organisation”, “do nothing or don’t know”. 

A proposal for bystander intervention

For non-positional members: talk to the victims personally, not collectively

When the group chat or online platform becomes a place for discussions, you might want to talk to the victim directly instead of leaving a comment on the group chat. Your comment might set a tone in the discussion, and other comments would go further to create unsafe and uncomfortable environments for the victim and other possible victims in the community.

For executives (members in the management of the community): create a safe environment for bystanders

Research by Ryan & Wessel (2012) suggests that people tend to be more willing to resolve sexual assault issues when the benefits of intervention (e.g., social approval) outweigh the potential costs (e.g., potential harm to themselves). Also, a question about what respondents would do if such an incident occurred in their club or community, or if a confession was made suggested that women were more likely to say that they would leave an organisation because they felt that the situation made it unsafe for other women at the time the victimisation occurred. A safe environment in this case would mean where you wouldn’t be harmed or criticised by both executives and other members for stopping sexual harassment.

I have talked about how this result shows community members have a different solution, want and need for solving sexual harassment issues within the community and the ideal bystander intervention should be based on this research. Nevertheless, I would also like to share my takeaways from my entire story of confessing, causing “controversy” and what happened after them.

My personal takeaways from the experience

If you can’t trust anybody in your community, seek help outside

Your friends, family, third party organisations…someone from outside of the community would help you take a distance from it.

Structural change needs continuous effort

After the “controversy” I began, the club executives organised a club meeting aimed to think about solutions for sexual harassment in the club. They focused on solving the issues within the club and within the relations between a victim and a perpetrator. They also promised to set a principle for sexual harassment guidelines, and this controversy (looked like it had) ended. However, from that time on, I have never heard about any changes made in the club’s nature. When talking about sexual harassment and bringing experiences to the table, the solution should not be one-time relief.

Don’t sacrifice yourself for the greater good of the community

When I first encountered the physical abuse by the senior members, I was terrified about losing my own place in the community, also I didn’t want to risk the club’s reputation by talking about my experience. I finally got the courage to confront it when I became the 4th year student in university, but I still wish I had been courageous enough when I was a freshman.

 Sexual harassment takes place not only in private spheres but also in public spheres such as a community, club activity, and even within a university. In addition, going beyond the understanding of the victim/perpetrator binary, by adding another component, bystanders could help change the structure of the community. Also, asking for help from third parties outside of the community is needed for both victims and bystanders (inclusive of the community itself). 

And finally, creating a safe environment within the community could encourage more bystanders to challenge abuses and harassment, eventually leading to no victims.

Further reading:

  • Ryan, A., & Wessel, J. (2012), “Sexual orientation harassment in the workplace: When do observers intervene?”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, pp.488-509


Haruna Kono is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, doing a postgraduate degree in MA Gender Studies. Their interests include sexual violence issues, reproductive health rights, queer in Asia, and massive love for anime, manga and idols.

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