“Bystander intervention” is the name for recognizing a harmful situation, and responding in a way that can either de-escalate what’s happening or offer a positive effect on the solution. I’ve been a monitor at play parties across London for a few years now, have gone through bystander intervention training, and run my own series of parties. But when trying to share the tools that I’ve learnt, either in writing or in conversation, I’ve frozen—a feeling emerges of not being the “right” person to explain ways of how to intervene in spaces when we see someone being harassed or something that isn’t right.
I think this is a common feeling—there’s not only one clear way of handling a situation or explaining what to do. There can be internal conflict about our role in intervening while still familiarizing ourselves with these tools to feel better prepared to offer support. We can often wonder who we are to get involved, or hope that maybe someone else will handle it “better.” There’s often concern about inflaming the situation and making it worse for the person who is being harassed, or for the person intervening, too. The "five Ds” model laid out below is a method to approach bystander intervention. It provides different ways of intervening in a safer way—four out of five of these don’t involve actively confronting the perpetrator. These can be used on their own or in conjunction with each other. But in order to make play and kink spaces as safe as they can be, we should all work collectively to build skills to intervene when we see harm. This guide is a collection of tools that can help us feel better prepared to intervene and provide support.
The five Ds
This is an indirect approach aiming to deescalate the situation by changing the focus. It’s a subtle way of essentially stopping the incident by engaging directly with the person who is being harmed, or by creatively providing some form of block between the interaction.
This method doesn’t involve engaging with the person causing harm or referring to what is happening, but rather talking about something entirely unrelated and drawing attention away from the person being harmed. This could look like asking the person who is being targeted if they know what the time is, or what song is playing.
You can also physically put yourself in between the person harassing and the person being harassed, whether that’s by continuing to ask the person unrelated questions and moving your position, by blocking their channel, or dropping something on the floor near them.
Within this situation, people will likely not know you’re intervening, which makes it a good resource for when you’re concerned about inflaming the situation, aggravating the harasser, or you’re feeling unsure on how to confront what’s happening.
As its name suggests, out of the “five Ds,” this is the most direct form of intervention: confronting what’s happening and naming the problematic behavior as we see it. It’s important to assess the situation and consider the safety of you, the person being harmed, and other bystanders. This approach can lead to escalation or a redirection of problematic behaviour, so should be used with caution. Ask yourself: is everyone physically safe? Does the situation seem less likely to escalate if you use another method? Can you tell that the person being harassed wants someone to speak up or support them?
Direct intervention could look like asking the person directly impacted if they’re okay, if you can get help for them, or if they’d like to move into a different space. If you’re going to engage with the person causing harm, be as clear, firm, and succinct as you can be. This could look like telling the other person that what they’re doing or saying is not okay or inappropriate, or saying, “this person has asked you to leave them alone and I’m here to support them.” Try to focus your energy on supporting the person impacted by what is going on, rather than on debating or arguing with the perpetrator as this can lead to escalations.
By delegating, we’re getting support from others. At an event, you can look out for a monitor or host and tell them what’s going on. We can also delegate by asking for help from other bystanders, too. Be as clear as you can in this situation on what it is you’re asking from the other person, or if you feel more comfortable, come up with a plan together on how to help. This could look like asking a friend nearby if they will cause a distraction by getting in the way of the perpetrator while you use direct language to ask the person being harmed if they’re okay. Or you can ask a friend to take notes of what’s happening while you cause a distraction, or tell them to go and get help from a trained monitor. If you’re considering calling the police as a method of delegation, it’s important to get consent from the person being harmed first; not everyone feels safer with police involvement.
A lot of play and kink spaces have rules against filming and photography for the safety and privacy of people attending, so the best way to document an incident in these spaces is to take notes of what has happened. It can help the person being harmed if notes are taken; however, never share any of these documents without the consent of the person you are trying to help, and always ask them after what they would like you to do with the information.
Assess the situation first before documenting—is anyone else helping the person being harmed? If they’re not, use one of the other approaches from the “five Ds” (or a combination of them) to immediately help the person before documenting what’s happening.
Seeing something unfold can be destabilizing, and a freeze response is entirely normal—we can’t tell if what we’re witnessing is a problematic encounter, or we are concerned about putting ourselves or those already impacted in more danger by escalating the situation.
What I’ve noticed during my time within play and kink communities is that people can carry a lot of guilt for not responding or acting in the moment when they’ve seen something that doesn’t feel right. This is something I carry with myself, too. But we can still make a difference after witnessing something by hopefully reducing someone’s trauma and preventing it from happening again even with a delayed response.
If we recover from a freeze response at the same event, we can check in with the person after what’s happened and ask them if they’re okay. We can give validation by saying that what happened was not okay. Being harassed or violated is a disempowering experience that can harm someone’s agency and autonomy. We can try to give a level of agency back by asking simple questions, like “would you like a glass of water?” or “would you like me to sit with you for a bit?” or “do you have any friends you’d like me to get?” It can often help to start with a closed “yes or no” question to help give someone back their voice in a gentle way. If the person would like support or to talk to you, you can ask things like how best to help them, what they might need, and if they’re okay with you reporting what happened.
Sometimes, it’s not until we go home or days after we see something happen that we feel less frozen and able to do something about it. We can reach out to organizers to report behavior or incidents, and help each other look out for problematic behavior in the future.
With all situations, it’s important to consider safety and to assess what approach would be best, but be kind to yourself if you feel like you didn’t get it quite right—we’re all learning.