How should I respond when I see sexual assault in public?

Bystanders’ voices are essential to tackling sexual assault on public transport, in our nightclubs and on our streets.  Here is our advice on ways of intervening safely if you witness a sexual assault in public.

Last year a member of the TWSS team was the victim of a sexual assault. As one in five women in the UK experience sexual violence during their life, it was sadly only a matter of time.

‘I was on my way for a night out in London with my sister and we were on a busy carriage of a well-lit train. As we pulled into a station a male stranger got on, stroking my thigh as he sat down next to me. I didn’t notice at first as I was facing the other way and talking to my sister, but had seen it and told me what he had done. Confused, I ignored it at first, thinking it might have been a mistake. Maybe he had accidentally brushed against me. But then he carried on reaching over, stroking up my thigh towards my crotch in a suggestive way. He didn’t stop when I confronted him. Luckily the guard entered the carriage at that point and I managed to get his attention. He then called the police.’

‘I feel lucky. Lucky that I was not alone, that the guard had been there at that time and that there was CCTV evidence to support my claim. I was even luckier that someone who witnessed the assault was willing to give a statement to the police, as their support gave weight to my voice and led to a conviction. I know that most victims aren’t so lucky and if no one had been there to support me I would have felt completely powerless.’

In many cases assault is met with silence from nervous onlookers who either feel unsure how to intervene or see it as a normal, if unfortunate, part of life. This leaves many victims feeling isolated or afraid to report incidents as they fear not being believed or taken seriously.

Although each case of assault is different and appropriate responses will vary, we hope our suggestions can empower you to lend your voice and support to victims of an all too common and deeply distressing crime.

Take It Seriously

If you’re looking for studies showing the extent of sexual assault in the UK, your problem won’t be finding the statistics but rather knowing where to begin.

As previously mentioned, across the UK one in five women are victims of sexual offences. ‘If those were your odds on the lottery, you’d already have pre-emptively bought the car,’ Caitlin Moran remarked in a recent Times column.

Statistics relating to transgender and bisexual women show they are victims of disproportionately high levels of sexual assault, with around half experiencing sexual violence during their lifetimes.

And if you want to narrow your focus to just students, statistics show that one in three UK female students are sexually assaulted or abused on campus and 87 per cent of university students have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual touching.

These are just a handful of hundreds of surveys and studies out there which show that sexual violence remains a major issue. Another problem uncovered by recent reports is that many victims and bystanders have difficulty identifying sexual assault, meaning many cases are not reported to the police.

‘Frequently incidents like this go unreported, often because of people fearing they won’t be believed or indeed not realising that the incident legally constituted assault,’ explains Chloë Maughan, the University of Bristol Women’s Officer.

The Metropolitan Police’s legal definition of sexual assault is as follows: ‘A person commits sexual assault if they intentionally touch another person, the touching is sexual and the person does not consent’.

So by this definition, unwanted groping in clubs, inappropriate unwanted touching on a train and any other form of unconsented sexual touching anywhere legally constitutes sexual assault.

A clearer understanding of this definition is crucial to helping victims, and in turn bystanders, identify and challenge inappropriate behaviour.

Say Something… Sometimes

Turning a blind eye can exacerbate a victim’s sense of isolation and vulnerability and sends the message that sexual assault should just be tolerated. Speaking up against assault challenges this normalisation of sexual violence and shows victims that they are not alone.

A recent survey on the Clifton Triangle revealed that more than 75 per cent of respondents said they had experienced assault or harassment in that area alone, but this kind of behaviour is so normalised that few decide to report it through official channels.

Julia Gray from anti-harassment group Hollaback London explains that, ‘providing affirmation that it’s not okay and you’re on the victim’s side is a powerful way to support them and help them to recover’. One Bristol student told TWSS that, ‘when I was assaulted, I was so shocked that no one spoke up. It made me feel ashamed, humiliated and that I was somehow to blame.’

If, for example, you witness someone being groped in a club, Julia suggests approaching the victim: ‘Maybe pretend like you know them to deter the other person. Offer them help, ask them if there’s anything you can do and if they’re ok. Maybe tell them you saw the incident and you’re sorry it happened, it shouldn’t have happened. Offer to go to the bar manager, or wait with them until they get a cab, or until the person who groped them has left.’

It might not always be appropriate to step in when the attacker is present, as saying something in a risky situation could put yours and your victim’s safety at risk.  As Susuana Antubam, the NUS Women’s Officer, says in the Guardian: ‘these are difficult situations and students have to take into account their safety as well as the safety of the person that they’re trying to defend.’

And whilst it is important to note that not all attacks will be stopped by bystander intervention, stepping in is important in providing emotional support for victims when they are at their most vulnerable.

(Maybe) Report It

Just as speaking up will depend on the circumstances of assault, steps bystanders should take to report incidents will differ from case to case. However, we must stress that if you do witness a physically violent sexual assault you should report it immediately to the police.

Some victims may want to report the incident to the police and bystanders can support this decision by providing a witness statement. This statement will add weight to the victim’s claim and ensure there are repercussions for attackers.

However, it is important to remember that not all victims of assault will want to contact the police and some may not feel ready to go to the police for days or weeks after the incident, perhaps longer. No matter how much you may want to persuade a victim to report the incident to the police, it is important to recognise that each experience of assault is personal, and as such there isn’t really a true narrative of what a victim should do.

As Chloë Maughan explains, ‘for many people the first priority will be self care – making sure they feel safe and removed from that scenario, this might include discussing the incident with a close friend, or with a counsellor, but for some people they may need time to process the incident by their self before they feel ready to openly talk about it.’

If a victim doesn’t immediately want to contact the police, you can offer them your contact details as they will need your witness account if they later decide to go to the police. In this case, it is a good idea to write down the incident in a diary, noting the time, place, nature of the incident and any details about the victim and attacker such as their physical appearances.

Many victims decide not to report their experiences to the police, with a report earlier this year revealing that one in 10 Londoners had experienced sexual assault on public transport and over 90 per cent did not report it. This is sometimes due to a lack of confidence in the police, fears they won’t be believed, emotional trauma, or lack of evidence.

Recent years have seen the growth of online forums such as the Everyday Sexism Project and Spotted: Sexism in Bristol, which allow them to reclaim their stories.

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project says: ‘since launching the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012, I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact that sharing stories via social media can have. I’ve seen women tweet their experiences of street harassment and receive support, understanding and solidarity from others all over the world’.

Bates’ forum now contains over 50,000 stories of sexism, assault, rape and harassment. She explains in the Guardian that, ‘having a forum to share these grievances can help victims to take back a sense of power and control – a sense of protest over powerlessness. Don’t underestimate the catharsis and empowerment that can come simply from telling your story and having it accepted and believed, in a world where it is so often ignored or brushed off.’

Ultimately, any steps bystanders take should be respectful and supportive of the victim’s wishes, with the victim’s safety given the greatest consideration.

A Final Note…

While we hope that our advice gives you the confidence and awareness to intervene next time you see someone molested in a club or groped on a train, we ask you to remember that public incidents of assault are only the tip of the iceberg. With most attacks happening behind closed doors and with 90 per cent of victims knowing the perpetrator, we must not fall into the trap of viewing attackers purely as strangers in dark alleyways.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age, gender, race and background at any time and in any place. And the most important thing is that we support victims in dealing with their assault on their own terms.

Most importantly, TWSS would like to open our arms to anyone who has experienced sexual assault. We offer everyone a platform for their voice to be heard, but we can also be used as a point of confidential guidance for anyone struggling, pointing you in the direction of help in your time of need.

Article by Joy Molan & the TWSS team

Illustration by Miriam Cocker

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Issue 10 of That’s What She Said Magazine. Read the full magazine here:


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