It can be difficult to know what to do if someone is experiencing sexual harassment or violence. Should you intervene or step away from the situation?

Emily Ophus is the community programs manager at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, and her co-worker Stafford Perry recently gave a workshop at SkirtsAfire on this very topic. Both the Calgary centre and the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton are encouraging people to learn practical tools to apply to bystander intervention.

“A huge role that community members can take is as bystanders—noticing behaviour and doing something about it if they can,” Ophus said. She suggested first speaking with the person being targeted to ensure they’re comfortable with an intervention and that doing so won’t put them in more danger.

“It is important that people only intervene if it is safe for them to do so,” Ophus emphasized. “There’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe.”

Discomfort is one of the many barriers to intervention. Most people simply don’t know how to go about speaking up. And in spite of a cultural shift going on amongst the general public, many people are unaware of what Ophus calls “the four Ds of bystander intervention.”

These practical tools are summed up as “direct, distract, delegate, and delay.”

Direct means confronting a behaviour directly. This tactic can help empower the target of the behaviour to leave and the person creating the behaviour to stop.

“Direct intervention can also take the form of asking the targeted person, ‘Are you OK, do you need help?’, ‘Who did you come here with?’, or challenging inappropriate jokes and language by stating your discomfort or disapproval,” said Ophus.

Or, create a distraction or redirect the focus of the people involved. Ophus suggested using humour (if appropriate) or an excuse to divert the perpetrator’s attention.

“This creates an opportunity for the person who is being targeted to leave the situation. Distraction works well in situations of street harassment, such as asking the perpetrator for the time or for directions,” said Ophus.

Delegation means asking others (friends, a supervisor, a bouncer, security, or the police) to help. This is especially important if you are alone or concerned about your safety.

If the other tools don’t work for the situation, Ophus said not to panic.

“You can also use a delayed response, such as following up and asking if someone is okay after the fact. The important thing is to show others that you care and are there to support them.”

She added, “The key to contributing to accountable environments is learning how to intervene in a way that fits your own comfort level and the situation that you are in (and personal safety must always come first).”


The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Calgary Sexual Health Centre or

Featured Image: Bystanders have tools to use to safely intervene. | Pixabay