Don’t Just Be a Bystander. Be a POSITIVE bystander.
Positive bystanders are individuals who witness situations that could lead to violent or criminal events and choose to intervene to prevent the situation from continuing or escalating. The positive bystander model promotes the idea that everyone in the community has a role to play in preventing sexual violence. This model helps shift the responsibility for preventing sexual violence from the victim (or potential victim) to the person perpetrating the violence and the individuals who witness the behavior. We must realize the power we have to interrupt violence by interrupting the behaviors and attitudes which support violence. This includes hyper-masculine ideas, sexually objectifying women and others, misogynistic language, sexist jokes, rape jokes, and many other behaviors which get called “no big deal”. The reality is, they are a big deal, and to end violence, we must start here.
Here are steps you can take to practice positive bystander behavior.
1. Recognize an event as inappropriate or sexually violent.
These behaviors range from sexist or derogatory language to trying to take an intoxicated person up to a bedroom. Other inappropriate or potentially sexually violent behaviors include intentionally trying to get someone else intoxicated or trying to take advantage of someone who is intoxicated.
Things to think about:
- How does this behavior make me feel?
- Am I aware there is a problem or risky situation?
- Do I recognize someone needs help?
2. Assume personal responsibility.
Research shows that when more bystanders are present for an emergency or situation that could lead to a criminal event, bystanders are less likely to intervene. When more bystanders are present, individuals assume others will step in and intervene. You can make a real difference by assuming responsibility and stepping in to help the situation. Most people are intimidated by what others will think if they speak up and go against the “norm”. Take a chance! You might be pleasantly surprised at how many others think like you.
Things to think about:
- What are the costs/benefits of taking action?
- Who else can help?
- Do I say something or do something?
3. Determine how to help (and maintain personal safety).
Once you have made the decision to intervene, it is important to come up with an intervention strategy that is productive for the situation and ensures your safety, as well as for those involved. You can be creative in your approach; it does not always have to be confrontational. Try using a distraction or asking others to help you intervene.
Things to think about:
- How can I keep myself safe?
- What are my available options?
- Do I see others as part of the solution?
4. Speak UP and intervene!
Now that you have thought through your strategy, carry out your plan. After you have intervened, check in with the person needing help to make sure they are okay and they feel safe.
Things to think about:
- Is this behavior contributing to a harmful culture?
- Have I told anyone I need to about the problem?
- Is everyone safe?
- How can I make sure the situation stays safe?
- Decide what to do – How will you intervene? There are lots of ways you can get involved and end the harmful behavior. Choose what fits best for you and the situation at hand!
- Be a buddy – stand with the person. Most people being harmful are not used to their victims having friends stand on their side.
- Interrupt – A simple reason can interrupt the behavior and get the victim to a safe place or interrupt and hurtful joke. “Did you catch the game last night?!” or “I have a question to ask you.” It might be just to ask them “Are you okay?” That is enough!!
- Speak out – If you are courageous enough to stand up and speak out then do it!! Let the person know their behavior is not okay. This can be done in an assertive, simple and respectful way. “Hey man, that is not cool. Knock it off.”
- Tell someone – If there is a harmful situation happening and you don’t know what to do, get help. This can be a great way to do something! Don’t look the other direction and pretend it isn’t your business. This is your community. Get involved!!
Bystander intervention tips courtesy of Bucknell University:
- Approach everyone as a friend.
- Be honest and direct.
- Encourage respect; speak up if you find a behavior offensive (e.g., do not laugh at offensive jokes but rather indicate your disapproval)
- Don’t be aggressive or use violence.
- Keep yourself safe.
- Get help from other bystanders, if necessary.
- Call the police if a situation becomes too serious.
- Do not leave another person alone in a situation in which you feel uncomfortable; develop a buddy system.
- Use distraction techniques such as humor, reframing, redirection, or personalization to reduce tension between individuals and to stall for time in which to intervene or get help
- Recruit help; group interventions can make individuals aware of patterns of behaviors of concern
- Focus on your feelings about the behavior rather than criticizing the person
- Use body language that indicates disapproval of or concern about a behavior (e.g., silent stare, crossed arms, wrinkling of the nose, raised eyebrows and wide eyes, stepping between two people)
Other Resources and Tools
Bystander Intervention, MIT
PISC: Bystanders, Agents of Change This issue of PISC delves into the bystander approach and examines some practical aspects that make this a great strategy for prevention work with youth and adults. The bystander programs we discuss impact individuals, relationships, communities, and society.
Who Are You? (link is external) This media project from New Zealand focuses on how bystander intervention can help prevent sexual violence. There is a 8-minute video that follows a young woman out at bar with her friends and a potential alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. In the video we meet characters — the best friend, the flat mate, the employee, and the stranger — who could intervene at different points in the story and change the outcome. This media project emphasizes small actions that any bystander can take to help protect others and make sure they make it home safely.
Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention (link is external) This book presents an orientation to the importance of engaging bystanders in sexual violence prevention. The narrative provides background on the development of an approach that empowers each of us to be involved in prevention. It discusses various reasons why individuals who witness a range of inappropriate behaviors may or may not take action, and presents ways to encourage and develop greater bystander involvement. Finally, this book serves as an excellent training resource; it provides activities and trainer instructions throughout that make it a useful educational guide on bystander engagement in sexual violence prevention. Can be downloaded for free in both English and Spanish. Available in the WCSAP Library.
Virginia Tech’s Bystander Intervention Playbook (link is external) This may be a useful tool to provide strategies for being an active bystander. Although created by a college community, this is a tool that could be easily used with younger audiences and is youth friendly in its design. The Playbook comes as a PDF file but the link above is for the site, which contains the Playbook as well as other useful talking points.
Engaging Bystanders to Prevent Sexual Violence Information Packet (link is external) This information packet provides a series of documents on bystander intervention, including current research, resources, and examples of bystander programs. It includes resources for sexual assault advocates and preventionists, as well as community members.